Culture: Beyonce beyond pretty

Culture: Beyonce beyond pretty

My husband, mother-in-law and I were mesmerised by the sight of Beyonce on Sunday Night in the debut of the film clip for her new single, "Love on Top". While I lamented out loud, in my best passive-aggressive feminist voice, that her black leotard and tights ensemble detracted somewhat from her face, it was refreshing to see her thighs – those powerful, muscly legs – dancing up a storm.

Inasmuch as it feels somewhat counter-intuitive to post the video, it also seems counter-cultural to even comment on Beyonce's appearance – a precarious zone for parents of girls, in particular, for whom we are well aware that words of admiration and approval for non-physical attributes can help keep them from formulating a self-image entirely dependent on their form.

And now Beyonce is pregnant, a life stage when the extraordinary capabilities of the body hits home for many women, the celebration of her changing form will likely continue to be part of the global entertainment media and gossip media discourse.

Miss B's familiar image is undoubtedly one of her strongest assets; it delivers her voice to the masses through the power of MTV and radio and the web. But her physicality – a highly marketable aspect of her star – belies her awesome achievements in much the same way that her lyrics cast aspersions on her stance on feminism. The lyrics to "Countdown" add to the conundrum:

My girls can't tell me nothing, I'm gone in the brain
I'm all up under him like it's cold, winter time
All up in the kitchen in my heels, dinner time
Do whatever that it takes, he got a winner's mind
Give it all to him, meet him at the finish line

While her stance on servitude in the home is in some respects admirable – to love one's partner through acts of service is an element of marriage that's been twisted and contorted to the point where a stalemate is reached at dinner time – the "package deal" Beyonce's image-makers present (to women and men) represents a Freudian Madonna-Whore dichotomy.

She is nurturing mother-to-be and wife in "real life", and pretty sexual play thing (without pants) on the telly. But Beyonce makes this duopoly seem seamless. You can have your big career, a baby, your career and an ultra-hot body, too – all it takes is a bit of Sasha Fierce self-belief. 

It's a feminist frustration that can't be fairly projected onto Beyonce, who is simply doing what Beyonce does, shaped and moulded and marketed into the ideal MTV version of modern womanhood. The gatekeepers in the worlds of music, entertainment and media are just as liable for whatever version of Miss B we see as she is herself.

The strong, shapely thighs we see in "Love On Top" have undergone Photoshop-assisted liposuction on the new subscriber cover of US Harper's BAZAAR (a fashion magazine using Photoshop? Never!). Looking very twig-like (look at all the white space between them!), with their shiny-jazz-tight smoothness, they betray the true Beyonce; the one whose thighs wobble ever so slightly when she moves.
She may have referenced Audrey Hepburn's Funny Face in the clip for "Countdown", but Twiggy, Beyonce is not. The accompanying cover line reads, "Beyonce Sexy & Pregnant". The newsstand cover features Beyonce in a spangled golden frock along with coverlines, "Eat Your Way Thin" and "Look Younger Instantly". So far, so typical.

But this begs the question: is Beyonce really in control of her image? And, if not, what can be done to counteract the perfection one of the most influential pop icons of her generation projects out onto the world in the eyes of younger girls?

Sunday Night's Beyonce interview revealed a woman in her element. Having taken a year off work (touring/recording/promoting) to find herself, she's now managing her own career, in control and on top of the world. "God has blessed me with the biggest gift any human being can have, and I think because I've accomplished a lot of things for myself, and I really know who I am, you know, I didn't rush anything...if anytime, right now is the time, and I'm so happy," she said.

But this genuine Beyonce – Beyonce beyond Sasha Fierce – is contorted by those who profit from her image and the effect can't be underestimated. She is Goddess, icon, ideal, the B and End All to many.

The digital manipulation of women's bodies, and its ramifications for a younger generation feeding on the endless visual stimulus emanating from the entertainment world and the media, is an issue being taken up by many voices as we have more concrete evidence as to the effect of warped body image.

Jezebel reports on Off Our Chests, a user-generated women's magazine and apparel brand founded by former CAA exec Seth Matlins and wife Eva Matlins, which is trying to secure legislation that will force advertisements and editorials to attach disclaimers to any images of "the human form" that have been airbrushed or photoshopped in a significant way in the USA in light of campaign gains made in Great Britain.

CAA is billed as "one of Hollywood's top talent agencies", and Matlins' profile on The Huffington Post lists his other roles as Global Chief Marketing Officer for Live Nation, the world's largest concert promoter, a role through which he "worked to change the industry's historical marketing methods" to "create a more efficient, effective and consumer-centric marketing model".

Mullins wrote 'Why beauty ads should be legislated' for HuffPo in August in which he set out his reasons for championing campaign to create The Self-Esteem Act:

"It's perverse that something that really just wants to make us feel good for at least a moment can make us feel bad for a lifetime. But it can, because intentionally or not, many of us internalize what's going up on billboards, online, and on screens big and small, making these images a part of our identity, aspirations, references, and expectations. We wind up confusing the ideal and the real, and these days the so-called ideal is masquerading as the real, like one great big Bernie Madoff Ponzie Scheme...

As parents and the founders of Off Our Chests, we think we all need to hold each other more accountable. Accountable to what's put out there, how literally we take it; and accountable for the mainstreaming of images and expectations; standards of perfection and norms that are too often inaccessible if not impossible -- because they're not real.

So today we are beginning our campaign to create The Self-Esteem Act, a bill requiring "truth in advertising" labels be attached to advertising and editorials with models photoshopped or airbrushed to a meaningful degree.

The Self-Esteem Act isn't about judging, it's about clarifying. If as marketers you choose to keep doing what you've done, that's between you, the talent in your ads, and your consumers. Now you just need be upfront about it and declare it. If you're not comfortable declaring it, don't do it. It's that simple. Our point is that conscious and commerce can and should co-exist. We think that consumers will appreciate the truth over an unachievable ideal that the advertising, fashion and film industries sometimes set.

He's a dad now, so you can understand why he might be motivated to start such a campaign: it's insurance, protection, and a way to right the wrongs of a career spent at the "intersection between Hollywood and Madison Avenue". He wouldn't be the first to have seen the light; to have come to the realisation that, hey, maybe this whole rampant marketing of hyper-cool-hot-sexy-amazing girls thing isn't doing the world any good (and I'm yet to hear an argument for the positive effects of Barbie).

There's a reason why there are more than 50 references to idols, idolatry and idolaters in the Bible. If God had intended us all to look like Miss B, and to have the same life, He would have made cut us all from the same genetic cloth and issued us copies of Cosmo. Quite obviously, He did not. But our gross and unhealthy preoccupation with lifting others – even wonderfully talented people like Beyonce – up on high, and copying, projecting, storing and hoarding their images for mass consumption, can only have a negative effect when seared into our brains as terms of reference.

We need stories of amazing human feat; they elevate the soul and give us hope. The you-go-girl! high that Beyonce elicits is undeniable. But traditionally, we shared stories within the family home or in the marketplace, or read about such things through scripture, through poetry, through books. When man adds images to the equation, we become easily distracted, covetous, jealous, self-doubting.

Save for suggesting that we might do well to read a newspaper or a book or do a puzzle instead of turning on the telly, watching a Hollywood film or checking out Beyonce clips, we can't entirely escape the imagery or the projections of Ideal Womanhood (and womanhood, it should be said, is something to celebrate – in aesthetic, intellectual, physical and spiritual ways – the more varied the better; broadening the scope is one way to convey the idea that we all have something to offer – to our partners, to our families, to our work, to the world).

What we can do is steel ourselves for navigating our way through the very narrow stereotypes by striving to look beyond the pretty and into the heart of things, and choosing to define our own idea of womanhood beyond the size of our thighs, under a guiding light bigger than the Hollywood sign.

See also:
Truthful fashion & beauty culture @ Qideas
Beyonce, bouncing for obesity

Girl With a Satchel


Michelle's Style File said...

I just watched this clip myself- she is really an amazing woman.