On Saturday, April 19, Wesleyan Diversity Education Facilitators (WesDEF) May Treuhaft-Ali ’17 and Vanessa Bernard ’16 organized a forum titled “Who Run the World?” The workshop encouraged attendees to address topics of feminism, femininity, and sexuality as presented in singer Beyoncé’s lyrics.
Treuhaft-Ali and Bernard began the meeting by stressing the need for a thoughtful dissection of Beyoncé’s lyrics, which often address what it means to be a woman in today’s culture. The organizers asked students to get in small groups to discuss assigned Beyoncé songs, including “Blow,” “Ego,” and “Diva.”
“The goal of the discussion was to think of Beyoncé more critically and look more at what she’s trying to say, what her image is, and what she’s trying to convey [in her music] and how being a feminist plays into that,” Bernard said.
Fellow WesDEF Alexandra Ricks ’16 commented on Bernard and Treuhaft-Ali’s organization of the event.
“They did a great job moderating and they had a good mix of activities,” Ricks said. “I liked looking at the lyrics; I hadn’t looked at them very closely before. And the video clips and pictures of how she looked before and how she looks now were all very interesting.”
Bernard described the overlap between the discussion and WesDEF’s objectives.
“WesDEF is about discussing different social justice and diversity issues, and I think this was a good way to talk about Beyoncé and feminism in popular culture,” Bernard said.
During the discussion, students argued that Beyoncé’s move toward feminism follows a recent trend in the media and might be a business decision more than an indication of her beliefs. Bernard described the controversy surrounding Beyoncé’s brand of feminism.
“I found it very interesting that she recently came out as a feminist and that her latest album isn’t necessarily conflicting, but doesn’t [conform] to some of her past messages,” Bernard said.
Attendees brought up the multiple controversies surrounding the singer’s most recent, self-titled album Beyoncé. One song, titled “XO,” opens with a sound clip from the space shuttle Challenger catastrophe that occurred in 1986, an addition that prompted an official response from NASA and outrage from the families of the victims of the accident.
Later in the meeting, discussion turned to another song off the album, “Drunk in Love.” Students argued that, as a direct reference to Ike and Tina Turner’s abusive marriage, Jay-Z’s line “Eat the cake, Anna Mae” fails to represent Beyoncé’s supposedly feminist ideals. Bernard commented on this lyric.
“I’ve seen the biopic of Tina Turner’s life and that’s an actual scene; her jealous husband is shoving cake in her face and it was really tough because that was a notoriously abusive relationship and…I feel like that just wasn’t the right way to deal with the topic [of spousal abuse],” Bernard said. “Also, even after all the backlash about it, they still said [the line] at their performance at the Grammys. It’s almost like they’re standing by a business decision that they made.”
Attendees reacted positively to the discussion.
“I thought we had a really interesting conversation and I got a lot out of it,” Ricks said. “I hadn’t thought so critically about Beyoncé before, just ‘I like her music.’ I feel like they did a great job, and now I think I don’t like Beyoncé. I still like her music, but her image is a bit constructed and I wish she were more of a feminist.”
Other students retained a more upbeat perception of the singer.
“I love Beyoncé’s new album and both my sister and I are very into the idea of Beyoncé being a feminist,” said Jennifer Siranosian ’17. “I think [the conversation shed] more negative light on her. I was expecting us to embrace Beyoncé’s message…more, but it was more about critiquing her message and image. It was very eye-opening: it left me thinking differently about Beyoncé than before, but I still will continue to love her music. It just opened my eyes to new things about her.”
Bernard echoed Siranosian’s sentiments.
“One person mentioned that she is a businesswoman, and how that plays into her [change in image]: her skin lightening, her hair being straightened,” Bernard said. “In a way, you can’t be mad at her for that because that’s part of her success and it’s strategic. I have a lot of respect for her in a business sense.”