I watched the first 20 minutes or so of last week’s VMAs on the night of the telecast, using the miracle of DVR-time-shifting to watch a small bit of the ceremony after the True Blood finale concluded. And even though I wasn’t wearing my pre-cog goggles, I will say that the performances I watched had a bit of a feeling of prelude about them. Like I couldn’t have told you what the main event was going to be, but those opening acts most certainly were not it.
I’m going to skip right past Ariana Grande’s part of the opening medley. (If you don’t have anything nice to say…) The section of Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda in said medley sure enough played the hyper-sexualized woman-as-animal card, but it felt surprisingly tame to me. Let’s call it the “Palmolive” level of patriarchy, i.e., the “you’re soaking in it” level. Yes, there’s ways that the performance’s options are circumscribed by cultural expectations about women singers performing their desirability, but not to any greater degree than what always happens. And some days I just can’t summon up the energy to be outraged over your everyday Palmolive-level of misogyny. Hey, I thought, at least women of different ethnicities were squeezed into the green lizard unitards. That’s a half-step better than only presenting African-American woman as if they were animals, right? Right?
Lucky enough, Jessie J just rocked it in Bang Bang (Minaj’s was-it-accidental-or-on-purpose? wardrobe glitch notwithstanding). I think I’ll be downloading that particular track someday soon and then willing myself to ignorance about whatever problematics it contains. Meanwhile, Taylor Swift’s performance of Shake It Off — the last thing I watched on the night of the telecast — was very much in the “playing it safe” territory, with its Busby Berkeley/Baz Luhrman Great Gatsby mash-up and the wan attempt at topical serpentine humor.
So that was the uninspired tally when I turned off the TV to think about Monday’s workday and a responsible night’s sleep. By the time I checked back in with my usual pop culture sources next morning, I knew that I might as well just fast forward past the entire rest of the telecast.
Because not so long after I stopped watching the DVR recording and toddled off to bed, this happened:
And, as far as I understand it, then the Internet lost its damn mind.
According to Time,
Beyoncé would become the subject of two-thirds of all tweets about feminism in the 24 hours after her appearance, according to a data analysis by Twitter, making Sunday the sixth-highest day for volume of conversation about feminism since Twitter began tracking this year (the top three were days during #YesAllWomen).
HuffPo includes a sampling of some of these tweets, including one by a (temporarily) renamed Roxane Gay:
In her discussion of the performance, HuffPo’s Amanda Duberman observes:
Beyoncé has spoken at length about her feminist awakening. Through Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s words, she laid out a definition for the term in her late-2013 album. As one of the world’s most successful people, she declared gender equality a “myth” in 2014. And she reenacted Rosie the Riveter’s “We Can Do It” pose on Instagram in July.
Critics have demanded Beyoncé prove her feminist credentials over and over again. . . . Last night, Beyoncé didn’t just prove (re: remind us) that she’s a feminist. She used a massive, multi-national platform to make sure we knew it matters. The moment represents a culmination of feminism’s trickling from the edges into the pop culture mainstream — a process Beyoncé, whether one agrees with her approach or not — shot into overdrive.
I’ll count myself in with the masses who found that moment, that image, to be instantly iconic. My dual awareness — of being, yes, I’m sure, manipulated by MTV imagery and also finding the moment to be sincerely moving — is pretty well captured by Rebecca Traister (who I suspect to be in or near my own “oldish” age cohort) in NewStatesman:
It was a thing of slick, exhilarating beauty. A thing that was, yes, so trivial and packaged that it really should, I realise, be truly meaningless in this summer of real-world, non-staged, non-shimmery police brutality and restricted rights and horrifying incivility. And yet, despite its superfluity, there it was, the most powerful, and certainly the most highly polished pop-culture message of my lifetime: that attention to gender inequity is alive, revived, and that it is powered today by a broader, more diverse, more youthful and far glossier energy than it has been in the past four decades.
And no, that doesn’t mean that Beyoncé Knowles is the single face of feminism, or that she stands in any more sufficiently than any of feminism’s other flawed messengers, past or present. But she’s sending a signal, and the fact that that signal is coming from inside the house, the entertainment industry – hell, the fact that Beyoncé herself is arguably the most powerful person in that house – means something that we should all be paying attention to.
Now, I’ll admit that the performance, in its entire 17-minute glory, left me wrestling with my own judgmentalism and discomfort about the constant sexualization of female entertainers. Because before that iconic moment up above happened, this slightly-less-iconic one did:
(I am only sorry my camera could not adequately capture how very glittery these full-body leotards were…)
And there was the pole dancing. And the Ike-and-Tina shoutout.
Let me be crystal-clear: none of these flash-points of discomfort for me are enough for me to want to discredit the “authenticity” of Beyonce’s feminism. After all, if we were required to achieve a perfected level of radically un-compromised feminism, I would have had to give up my membership card WAY before last Wednesday.
I absolutely believe that part of the “feminist project,” as it were, is to create space for women’s unfettered ownership of their own sexuality and sexual expression. But I can’t deny that the sexual elements of Beyonce’s performance — especially the relative ease in which I could imagine that imagery being co-opted back into a patriarchal “performing for the male gaze” — leave me uncomfortable.
The cliche goes that a frequent goal of artistic expression — feminist or otherwise — is to get people thinking about things they hadn’t considered before, or seeing through lenses they hadn’t used before. As I am prompted to consider my own my own limitations and prejudices around sexual expression in a feminist context, I only have this to say:
Image credits: my own camera shots of the TV screen. (Creative Commons license.)