Beyonce’s latest video and album Lemonade has been the subject of much controversy. While many feminists have embraced the imagery of strong black women throughout history and the message of overcoming adversity, others including bell hooks have criticized the messages as regressive and even anti-woman. By exploring the various imagery, lyrics, and storytelling in Lemonade, I hope to draw some conclusions to the often contradictory themes of feminine pride and victimhood. Throughout the video, viewers see Christian allusions and symbolism. Feminism (or Beyonce’s claims thereof) seems a stark contradiction to Christianity that is rooted in patriarchy and promotes female subservience, subordination, and the myth of sexual purity. Beyonce even ascribes to oppressive Christian values when she admits that she “tried to be soft, pretty, less awake” and she “fasted for 60 days, wore white, silence, confessed, celibate.” These attempts to be the model Christian woman call for self-deprivation and emulating the most damaging of Christian values to the modern feminist, sexual purity. She prayed for answers saying “I need to know…are you cheating on me?” Here Beyonce avoids directly confronting her husband and instead punishes herself, fixating on her shortcomings, and one can surmise, blames herself. A sexist and misogynistic belief system persists that blames women for failing to fulfill their husband’s needs instead of placing the onus on the man who commits adultery. This is not a scene of feminist empowerment that shows a suspicious woman making the mature decision to confront a cheating spouse and hold him accountable for his actions. Instead she is tormented by her feelings of guilt and shame and remains a victim.
Empowerment, or Beyonce’s version of it, comes from the next scenes where viewers enjoy watching the singer fulfill the increasingly popular fantasy of female rage. This violence is meant to be empowering while Beyonce smiles smugly as she smashes windows and drives a truck over parked cars. The sense of power through violence is only a fantasy, an illusion that provides no practical solutions to coping with the devastating feelings of male betrayal. Beyonce is heard in a voice-over saying she wishes she could “wear her skin/body parts like a costume to create perfect threesome” in a morbid fantasy. This reiterates the victim-blaming mentality that Beyonce must lack something that her husband’s mistress provides. Instead of blaming her husband for his betrayal, she sees the “other woman” as her enemy and uses her to justify her own insecurities. She declares that “Heaven is love without betrayal” which may mean it is unattainable for humans. If so, this is a gross overstatement and myth that men are incapable of loving a woman without cheating on her.
As naked women walk through corn fields, Beyonce whispers seductively “grief sedated by orgasm, orgasm sedated by grief” which is a cryptic statement that could mean she is dealing with her husband’s infidelity by sleeping with other men or perhaps having “make-up sex” with her husband. Beyonce appears angry and defiant, more imagery that is meant to be empowering, as she throws her wedding ring at the camera, declaring “This is your final warning!” But the viewers have to wonder how many warnings came before this? Younger viewers may ask, how many times should they forgive or look past cheating boyfriends or husbands before they are “allowed” to get mad? Instead of directing her anger at her husband, the many mistresses pay the ultimate price in the next scene where Beyonce burns down the house with many partially-dressed women inside it. Beyonce also references her complicated relationship with her father who struggled with alcoholism and gambling. Beyonce proudly declares herself a survivor of abuse saying “Daddy made a soldier out of me.” She says “Daddy warned me ‘He’s playing you.’” She appears to imply that her father’s mistreatment of her mother and his family conditioned her to expect and accept the same poor treatment and betrayal from her husband. Again, there is no real confrontation or accountability for her father.
In a bizarre and unexpected conclusion, Beyonce explains away her husband’s pattern of selfish, deceitful behavior by claiming that he is “afraid or doesn’t feel he is deserving of love.” This misguided compassion goes on to credit Jay-Z with healing her broken heart as she whispers “My torturer became my remedy…He cut me in half and made me whole again.” We see no penance from Jay-z. No stormy confrontation or Beyonce casting him out of their house. Instead, it appears that his cheating was Beyonce’s failing as a wife and her ability to overcome her own feelings of insecurity, self-doubt, and anger to reunite the family. Viewers can conclude that Jay-z, like Beyonce’s father, is simply a man who cannot control himself around other women. Therefore infidelity is to be expected and forgiven while the long-suffering black woman must learn to cope with her feelings of anger in order to keep her family whole rather than succumb to single motherhood. This is meant to be the stronger decision, the one Beyonce, who claims to be a feminist, would choose. Is promoting the cycle of cheating men and broken families really feminist? Should fans celebrate this elaborate justification for remaining loyal to a pathological adulterer? Should women accept the total denial of personal responsibility from men who cheat? While viewers never see Jay-Z made to pay for his betrayals, they also never see any promise to change his behavior. Beyonce is seen proudly wearing a crown of thorns and thanking God for reuniting her family in a vision of deluded pride and glorified martyrdom.
Throughout the video, there are images of Black Lives Matter, the Civil Rights movement, and Malcolm X. While the video has received much praise for including these scenes, it is difficult to make the connection between the injustice of a man who goes unpunished for cheating and the suffering he inflicts on his wife and family. The imagery of slaves in a field call upon the deep feelings of black pride, but what is the relevance to Beyonce’s story? Is she a slave to loving an unfathful man? Where is the redemption? Who is empowered in this story? It seems only that Beyonce has learned to look the other way and to accept her husband as she states “cheating is in his blood.” Notably, a few years ago, Beyonce and Jay-Z went on a massively lucrative tour together which ended with mounting rumors of Jay-Z’s infidelity. The couple retreated out of the spotlight except to take luxurious family vacations once every few months. Their public images were threatened with the rumors of Jay-z’s infidelity. It would not be shocking if Lemonade was a highly commercialized attempt to address and offset tabloid rumors. In fact, it would be a brilliant coup, if Beyonce and Jay-z decided that raking in the profits of the scandal themselves would essentially kill two birds with one stone by silencing the bad press and any mistresses wishing to publish a tell-all. Rather than assuming the cost of covering up the infidelities and paying off mistresses, Beyonce may have savvy enough to take up the mantle of black female victimhood. While the message is decidedly not empowering and certainly not feminist, it is distinctly relatable. In fact, betrayal and male oppression is a universal female experience. These are profitable themes for an international artist who is hoping to reach as many fans as possible across many countries and cultures. Like bell hooks, I suspect this was a marketing play, even damage control for their public images, on the part of Beyonce and Jay-z’s team of managers and producers. Personally, I’ll stick with Beyonce’s older hit songs that champion female independence and pride.
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I agree that there are some complicated messages in Lemonade. For one, that scene where she says "this is your last warning". A few years ago I would have seen that and thought, "wow, Beyoncé, you're only going to give him a mediocre foot massage too?". But after going through a serious relationship where I got cheated on, I feel as if that line may just be a representation of her thought process/bargaining with herself because she is not ready to come to terms with her shattered reality. I would have preferred if she had just left him but I respect that this relationship she speaks of is portrayed as complicated and not so black and white. Maybe her intention was simple and, in my eyes, a disappointing forgiveness of cheating. I like to think that it was part of her messed up headspace.
In the intro to Hold Up, where she said "I tried to be soft, pretty, less awake..." I think it needed to be presented. I don't know too many women who haven't been shamed for their bodies ("Maybe if I were thinner, took up less space"), feelings (being called "emotional" or "crazy"), and existences at one point or another. Some of them broke out of it, but it was a part of their pasts nonetheless. I think its placement as the song intro was a look into that trauma and grappling with the futility of blaming oneself for the actions of another. Even the theme of the song that followed struck me as a little bit off the hinges, and rightly so if you've been made to feel small your whole life (or at least relationship). I think that those lines provided necessary background information.
As for Christianity, I thought of it two ways. Yes, on one hand I believe that all religious institutions hinder women, free thought, curiosity, and societal and scientific advancement. But on the other hand, churches have historically (in the USA) been a safe place where black Americans were free to speak their minds, celebrate their culture, and feel pride and belonging. I think that Beyoncé presents two sides to that institution; the oppressive and dogmatic side when she says "I plugged my menses with pages from the holy bible", and the personal, spiritual side when she's coming out through her pain in that baptism scene.
For violence, I don't think that Beyoncé is saying that's how women have to be strong. I think she's expressing her human frustration in after reaching her breaking point. Further more, she did it through artistic expression. She didn't actually go around racking up property damage. Men have long been excused for their violence (boys will be boys, testosterone, primal instincts, the protector, alpha male, masculinity) and it's become so "normal" that boys learn that it goes hand0in-hand with what it means to be a man. When women express any negative emotion they are called crazy, overreacting, or hysterical. I think it devalues a woman's experience to deem that she is not being "feminist" by lashing out after being pushed to her breaking point. I do think that it's lazy when entertainment models their "strong female characters" after their traditional strong male characters (and just slap a wig on and gie her a sexy outfit). However, I don't think that's what this is doing. I think it's an exploration of her repressed emotions, which women can feel too. I'm not saying that Beyonce would, but I could see myself going Brittney 2007 on a car if my husband drove me crazy for years, financially drained me, then cheated on me.
Lastly, I don't think that there's anything wrong with calling a victim a victim as long as you let the person speak for themselves. It doesn't mean that a person isn't capable, worthy, or intelligent. I think it is helpful to the healing process to identify that someone did you wrong. I've been a victim of some stuff, and the thing that irked me most was when people would tell me to "forgive" or call me a "survivor". I don't know if it's an American "happy ending" thing or what. It's helpful for some, but I felt like that squashed my experience and spoke over it. I didn't hear people calling victims of scams or robbery "survivors". I knew I was a unique, complex, strong person just like everyone else before and after that stuff happened, but someone did me wrong and victimized me. I don't see how it helps to minimize what they did.
I do think that Lemonade also served as a commentary on black America's relationship with the USA, so for what it is worth, what it doesn't uphold in the feminist sphere, it discusses in the cultural sphere.
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