How a speech at the Lower East Side Girls Club forces the author to question the version of freedom that is often misrepresented by pop culture.
By **Courtney E. Martin**
On one of the first iced-coffee-Friday afternoons of the summer, I went to speak at the Lower East Side Girls Club. I was supposed to tell the girls about my life as a feminist author and blogger, give them insight into making a living out of words. A motley crew of about ten teenagers gave me that “who the hell are you?” look as I slid into the chair at the front of the room.
During the week leading up to this talk, there had been no small amount of buzz about Beyonce—both online and via the last barbaric yawp of The Oprah Show. In that final episode, after an introduction by actor Dakota Fanning, a few girls testified as to why Oprah’s show empowered them (to read books, to overcome abuse, to lose weight), and then Beyonce herself strutted on stage and belted out the new, much-disputed anthem, “Girls (Who Rule the World).” Oprah mouthed the words while fighting back tears, of course.
Blogger 19percent, in contrast, convincingly argued in video commentary form, that it was not, in fact, time to declare that girls rule the world—particularly when sexual assault, pay inequity, and the slut/virgin dichotomy are still so rampant. She argues: “I don’t think it’s right that [Beyonce’s] out there promulgating historical inaccuracies to impressionable young women, imparting the false belief that they ’run the world,’ thereby lulling them into a false sense of achievement and distracting them from doing the work it takes to actually run the world.”
I thought I’d show the clip and then discuss it with the girls of the Lower East Side. But they already knew both the music video and vlog well and were prepared to defend their beloved Beyonce at any cost. Within minutes, four more teenage girls trickled in, curious about the impromptu town hall on Beyonce and her virtues and/or vices.
A young woman with a grimace immediately launched into an impassioned rejection of 19percent’s argument, calling it “ignorant” and explaining that Beyonce “does rule the world, basically.” She just wants all the girls to know that they can too.
The philosophy of Beyonce’s alter ego Sasha Fierce, as traced through her song lyrics and performances, is focused on the empowering experience of women earning money for their own individual uplift.
“She got hers,” another chimed in.“ She’s married to Jay-Z. She’s got fame and money. She can do anything she wants.”
“But what about all the girls and women out there who don’t have financial security and fame?” I asked. “Is it fair for her to paint this picture of the world when it’s not really representing what most girls face on a daily basis?”
“It’s not about most girls,” grimace bites back. “It’s about Beyonce. I don’t understand why people have to hate on her just because she’s famous.”
“She has a big platform, right? She has a lot of power because she’s famous, so people want her to use it wisely,” I try to explain, watching the gap grow wider and wider between us with every word I speak.
“People are just hating,” the first young woman went on. “Beyonce’s saying that we have to believe in ourselves, too, and then we can make it happen like she did.” Most of the girls around the room nodded in agreement. It dawned on me that they were really making an argument for Beyonce’s right to create a utopian narrative. Girls need inspiration. She’s not painting the world as it is; she’s painting the world as it should be.
The girls and I discussed the meaning of the word utopia. Like heaven? Kind of. Like it’s all good? Sort of. Like your wildest dream? Exactly. I seemed to have miraculously built a bridge, even if it was made of a tenuous translation.
After coming of age with the Spice Girls vacuous go-girl anthems myself, I am all too aware of how easy it is to pretend that sexism no longer exists. In many ways, the zealous embrace of Beyonce’s new hit is a textbook illustration of what cultural critic Susan Douglas argues in her 2010 book, Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work Is Done—essentially that we’ve gone from pop representations that largely denied the progress girls and women have made to pretending as if all the work is done. Both are false perceptions and inhibit genuine progress—either making would-be activists feel defeated or lulling them into triumphant passivity.
But for many girls, Beyonce’s song has become a prayer, a vision, perhaps even an anthem of reclamation. Samhita Mukhopadhyay, the Executive Editor at Feministing.com, asks, “[I]s this a subversive act wherein Beyonce is reinstating the silenced ’other’ woman of color as a historical actor and making a stance that women have always ruled the world?” Perhaps, Beyonce is pointing us towards ancient matriarchic cultures, like those written about in Leonard Shlain’s The Alphabet Versus the Goddess and Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade. Perhaps she’s a reverse Octavia Butler, singing marginalized women into positions of esteem via a kind of science fictional fangirl universe. Perhaps.
But let’s be real; more likely, Beyonce isn’t referencing these cultures at all. They were largely defined by disassociating power and money. The philosophy of Beyonce’s alter ego Sasha Fierce, as traced through her song lyrics and performances, is focused on the empowering experience of women earning money for their own individual uplift. Her heroines don’t reject consumerism, they dominate it; they don’t abandon traditional romantic love, they demand it. Again Susan Douglas’s analysis seems apt: “The images we see on television, in the movies, and in advertising insist that purchasing power and sexual power are much more gratifying than political or economic power.”
A couple of weeks later, I found myself in the polar opposite environment, recalling the lessons of the girls from the Lower East Side. The Aspen Ideas Festival is, along with meetings like TED and Davos, the place to be for wealthy, powerful people. In the sea of white dudes you’ve already heard—Thomas Friedman, Chris Matthews, Lance Armstrong—the Aspen Institute had managed to organize a panel of unusual suspects: Nas, arguably the best MC on earth, as well as hip hop intellectuals Michael Eric Dyson and James Braxton Peterson. They planned to discuss, among other things, Nas’s famous “come up” anthem: “The World Is Yours.”
The three launched in talking about the “intertexuality” of the song. Nas took hip hop’s most beloved film Scarface, added a little nonviolent godfather Mahatma Gandhi, threw in lots of scenes from the streets of Queens where he grew up, and topped it off with some transcendence. He had himself a masterpiece.
If stripping a white dude in uniform of his authority via the visceral power that comes from dancing with your girls isn’t a utopian narrative, I don’t know what is.
Of the song, James Peterson Braxton wrote: “If the world is yours, then the block cannot be the limit of your physical realm. Through the words of the song, you are invited to see the world beyond your marginal existence.”
Maybe it’s because I’d been steeped in alienation for these three days, but listening to these guys wax poetic about Nas’s utopian vision got me agitated. Maybe it’s because all this talk of 1994 is making me feel like a righteous teenager again. Maybe it’s because there was about one woman for every ten male speakers at that thing, but I started to think about Beyonce’s “Girls (Who Rule the World)” and Nas’s “The World Is Yours” side-by-side—not musically, but narratively.
And suddenly I feel as outraged as the girls of the Lower East Side. Why do men always get to author utopia narratives while women have to write movement building strategies—anonymously? Why do men own bravado while women must always testify? Why does Nas get to invoke Tony Montana, while Beyonce isn’t allowed to entertain Oprah? This is some bullshit.
I rack my brain for other utopian anthems by contemporary women artists. If anyone would have taken up that kind of space, it would have been Lauryn Hill, and yet she actually needed Nas to escort her into utopia with “If I Ruled the World.” Even then, it’s not a bonafide female-led utopian anthem. Neither is M.IA.’s “Born Free,” which is ballsy as hell, but more of a testimony about oppression than a treatise on transcendence.
Even as Beyonce’s lyrics are disappointing, particularly in comparison to Nas’s, there’s something to be said for the video. Her crew of women (yes, requisitely sexy and scantily clad) dance their asses off in front of an army of immobilized, militarized men. The last shot of the video is of Beyonce bringing her dance to an abrupt end and then ripping the badge off of the soldier in front of her. If stripping a white dude in uniform of his authority via the visceral power that comes from dancing with your girls isn’t a utopian narrative, I don’t know what is.
Both Nas and Beyonce use call-and-response to imbed their bold declarations in a collective context. Nas asks, “Whose world is this? The world is yours.” And Beyonce: “Who are we? What we run? We run the world.”
And yet, their version of freedom, at least lyrically, is more focused on individual success than collective uplift. Liberation, in both songs, equals economics. Nas is “out for dead presidents to represent me,” and Beyonce: “You can’t hold me / I broke my 9 to 5 and copped my check.”
As far as utopias go, these are less than utopian. The worlds that Nas and Beyonce create are too often focused on the power of consumption and appearance, rather than the power of collective organizing and analysis.
Between 19percent’s rant and the Lower East Side Girls Clubbers’ retort, between Oprah’s teary lip synching and Douglas’ sober critique, between Nas and Beyonce, 1994 and 2011, between my own inner hater and my idealist heart, lies a complex truth about social change. It requires all of us and all parts of us. It demands dreaming and dissecting, emotion and intellect, individual uplift and collective power. As Rebecca Solnit writes in her book Hope in the Dark, “All revolutions fail because they set their sights heaven-high, but none of them fail to do something, and many increase the amount of liberty, justice, and hope for their heirs.”
Let’s hope. For the girls on the Lower East Side and in the Queensbridge projects and even the little divas in Houston, Texas. They deserve more anthems. And they deserve genuine justice.
Courtney E. Martin is a writer, teacher, and speaker living in Brooklyn. She is also the author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women and Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists. You can read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.