Beyoncé Writes Skin: The Hermeneutic of Susceptibility
and The Gendered, Raced Body in Her Flawless Formation
Mari Ramler is Assistant Professor in the English department at Tennessee Technological University. She explores the intersection of religion and science via female breast texts in new media and the public sphere. She has also written about Beyoncé for Constellations.
“I wasn't really naked,
I simply didn't have any clothes on.”
I have been thinking about the growing black pride movement in popular culture that recently culminated in the incredible success of Black Panther at the box office and the simultaneous rise of a newly emboldened white supremacist movement and anti-black racism, empowered by the election of Donald Trump. These contrasting ends of the spectrum, though, seem impossible to some, considering the social and racial equality apparently achieved with—and after—Barack Obama’s historic election to the White House. I am certainly not the only person to note this contrast. In their article “Barack Obama and Americans’ Racial Attitudes: Rallying and Polarization,” Monika L. McDermott and Cornell Belcher use “multiple original surveys of the electoral battleground states conducted from 2008 through 2012” to measure racial antagonism. They conclude that, in spite of President Obama’s election, “racial antagonism polarized dramatically by party from 2008 to 2012” (449). Their research suggests that racial polarization worsens after a supposed post-racial win. Public and political discourses are affected by this polarization, and this leads to a present that feels frustrating and hopeless. In order to move out of a polarized present, we must conceptualize a more cooperative future. To this end, this essay theorizes a brighter relational future in two movements: analysis of two controversial hit pop songs by Beyoncé and application of a hermeneutic of susceptibility to the artist herself.
First, I provide an analysis of the cultural, networked critique of the rhetorical choices in “Flawless” as a primer for how to read the racial controversy surrounding “Formation.” Beyoncé’s music-as-activism introduces two difficult generalizations. "Flawless" underscores the difficult generalization of definition, and "Formation" spotlights the difficult generalization of performance. Furthermore, the 2014 "Flawless" controversy over the word feminist involving Beyoncé and Emma Watson prefigures the controversy over “Formation.” The discussion that follows about the controversy surrounding feminist relates to the Black Lives Matter movement and activist efforts to promote racial justice by illustrating just how difficult it is to arrive at consensus of a definition due to our differing intersectional realities. Before we can ask "What happened at the New Orleans?", we must ask "What happened at the 2014 VMA Awards?" Beyoncé’s two most controversial songs are, I argue, cultural artifacts that guide the Black Lives Matter movement.
Second, I offer Anne Anlin Cheng’s hermeneutic of susceptibility as a way to read Beyoncé’s skin. In her essay “Skins, Tattoos, and Susceptibility,” Cheng suggests this more seductive method for approaching Josephine Baker's infamous skin because, as Cheng argues, we require “a reading practice that is willing to follow, rather than suppress, the wayward life of the subject and object in dynamic interface” (101-102). By exploring the subject-object dynamic, Cheng’s interpretative practice will be profitable for my skin reading methodology because, like Cheng, I aim to “step outside of the moral economies of the visual, the categorical, and the critical; to be led by and attend to what the ‘objects’ have to teach us” (102). And, as I will demonstrate in this essay, when we approach Beyoncé’s skin as a viewed and readable object, it has much to teach us.
By applying Cheng’s hermeneutic of susceptibility to Beyoncé, we recognize our mutual predicament of embodiment. Like Baker, Beyoncé drops her erotic music into a kairotic moment, thereby employing her sexuality and skin to critique racial inequality. Subsequently, we recognize that different bodies have different histories. This two-fold recognition can lead us toward a mutual middle, a space where racial polarization as we are currently experiencing it can be reconciled and differently embodied histories can be seen, acknowledged, and accommodated. In short, “skin reading” through the lens of Cheng’s hermeneutic of susceptibility allows us to un-frame the discourse, thereby opening it into a relational, cooperative future. Since framing is always an ontological and epistemological activity, our un-framing will identify and question the inherent and assumed authority in the act of framing itself: who is allowed to define identity? And whose performance of it is more readily accepted?
“Flawless” Feminist: Intersectionality and Gender
Beyoncé is writing skin, again, this time by giving birth. In February 2017, she announced her twins by way of an Instagram post that immediately became the most-liked (8.6 million likes and climbing) in the social media platform’s history. Art historians and fans alike recognized tropes of both femininity and fertility in her announcement: “the singer kneels, wearing only a bra and panties, and stares out at the camera through a pale green veil draped over her head. […] [T]he veil, like her belly, simultaneously exposes and conceals” (Midgette). To write skin is, like birth, to create futures.
I can’t help but recall Josephine Baker, another celebrated black female mother and performer who used sexual mystique and suggestive nudity as part of her 1920’s theatrical success and lifelong activism. In “Skins, Tattoos, and Susceptibility,” Anne Anlin Cheng investigates Baker’s surprising success. She explains, “Baker-nudity is a peculiar business. When one looks at its surface, what one finds is not what one expects” (107). What Cheng suggests here is that Baker’s skin is a complicated and complicating surface, the kind of social text which elicited a Parisian audience’s simultaneous “adulation and repulsion” (107). Perhaps part her audience’s inability to read her, or, better put, perhaps part of Josephine Baker’s inability to be easily read is her use of veils as a type of second skin. Cheng describes this exposed-but-covered effect: “[K]ey moments of exposure in her films and photography are often impeded by literal and symbolic veils; that is, the moments when she gets exposed are also often moments in which she gets covered in everything from coal to flour to feathers” (108).
Not only does Baker cover-up with veils at the precise moment of anticipated exposure, but her skin itself, her flesh, also appears to blend with the other surfaces. Cheng identifies this as Bill Brown’s theory of “indeterminate ontology,” the inability to separate the animate from the inanimate (109). Indeed, Cheng observes, “[the] very process of objectification—even as it takes subjectivity from her—also invests the objects around her with subjectivity, which in turn provides a kind of cloak for her nakedness. In short, objectification can be a kind of clothing, too” (110). Cheng wants to suggest, however, that Josephine Baker is doing something with her naked flesh even more radical than hiding—she’s blending in with plasticity. She reads Baker’s exposed body and uncovered skin as an alternative response to the colonial, objectifying male gaze: “I am trying to suggest, perhaps counterintuitively, that it may be the plasticity of Baker imagery that renders it most resistant to consumption” (110). In doing so, Cheng invites us to reconsider Baker in several key ways. First, she observes Baker’s inability to be easily read by her own contemporary audience and observers of her work today. Second, she identifies Baker’s intentional play with (subversion of?) expectations: what is uncovered is ultimately veiled. Third, she notes Baker’s ability to meld into surfaces, her blurring of the subject-object distinction. Finally, she asks if Baker might be offering a different response to the objectifying process—a response of resistance by escape. Baker escapes by an invitation to gaze so that the gaze and its expectations themselves become a veiling (Bushnell).
If the connections here to Beyoncé are not obvious, they are, at least, implicit. Both women are not easily read by their audiences; they both subvert expectations through intentional commodification of their bodies, and both blur the object-subject line in their use of sexuality and partial nudity. Beyoncé offers feminism an alternative performance. And she resists the patriarchal performance of feminism by escape. If previous performances of feminism adhere to a more masculine understanding of the term—theoretical, deep, rational—Beyoncé’s performance of feminism, like Baker’s, offers an alternative interpretation of the word feminist—fleshy, superficial, and exotic.
Beyoncé has, in fact, proclaimed herself “a modern-day feminist” (Vena). But she went beyond merely claiming the feminist label when she included the F-word in her live musical performance at the 2014 VMA Awards. Critics and commentators reacted immediately and enthusiastically; Jessica Bennett, for example, exclaimed in a piece for Time, “[T]his was the holy grail: A word with a complicated history reclaimed by the most powerful celebrity in the world.” However, much of the response was markedly less positive. Women (and men) criticized everything about Beyoncé from her costume choices to her dance moves to her self-invoked authority to be speaking for feminism at all. This criticism was, in turn, met with resistance. In an article for xojane, Olivia Cole echoed Cate Young’s insistence on feminist intersectionality: “When you criticize Beyoncé’s feminism based on the clothes she wears, her level of education, the dances she does, […] you are erasing her nuance and you are erasing the part of her feminism that is interlocked with her humanity.” Regarding the inevitable comparison between Beyoncé and Emma Watson, UN Women’s Goodwill Ambassador, who also identified as a feminist in her launch of the #HeForShe campaign at the UN in September 2014, Cole argues that “the white experience of womanhood is different from the black experience of womanhood.” By juxtaposing Watson’s performance of feminism with Beyoncé’s, we witness the marked contrast between a more rational connotation of the term and a more fleshly one.
Moreover, by highlighting racial difference, Cole encourages us to acknowledge the contradiction(s) inherent in our contemporary discussion of what it means to be a feminist. Implicit in a person’s lived experience is her uniqueness. Beyoncé’s performance and brand of feminism contrasts, in part, with Emma Watson’s because of her race. By identifying as a feminist, Beyoncé encourages other women of color to wear the label because they can identify with the pop star. Furthermore, Beyoncé offers the label feminist to women of color, mixed-race women, married women, mothers, successful business women, entrepreneurs, minorities, musicians, pop stars, and also to anyone who identifies with or admires her music. Similarly, Emma Watson can also wear the feminist label because her lived experience is equally valuable. One might identify with Emma Watson because of race, gender, class, age, or any other category, including Harry Potter fandom. Regardless of whether or not one agrees with Watson’s rhetorical strategy to offer the men at the UN a formal invitation into feminism—an invitation that can, alternately, be read as a recognition of and enticement to accept that inherent power, we should acknowledge that Emma Watson has every right to claim the term feminist and to speak on feminism’s behalf. Furthermore, Watson, herself, need not introspect regarding her own feminist authority or credentials. The sweeping term human allows a person both to differentiate herself as a unique individual among billions and also to assimilate into the world family. Why shouldn’t the term feminist allow the same? If human can survive its own innate tensions, why can’t feminist?
While Beyoncé, like Watson, currently identifies openly as a feminist, she was initially reluctant to do so (Hare). In a 2014 article for CNN online, Breeanna Hare quotes Beyoncé as saying, “I’ve always considered myself a feminist, although I was always afraid of that word because people put so much on it. […] I consider myself a humanist.” This seems to be a bit of backpedaling in light of her previous declaration—in glowing neon letters—of herself as a feminist, complete with a sampling of writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk, “We Should All Be Feminists.” Certainly, Beyoncé is not the first pop star to balk at the feminist label: she joins Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift and a host of other female celebrities who distance themselves from the term. If feminism’s definition is simple—“the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes,” according to Adichie, why is its interpretation anything but? (Bennett).
Patricia Hill Collins’ intersectionality in From Black Power to Hip Hop can help us imagine a new model for accepting and interrogating others’ performances of feminism and identity. Collins writes, “Intersectional paradigms view race, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and age, among others, as mutually constructing systems of power. Whereas all of these systems are always present, grappling with their theoretical contours is far more difficult than merely mentioning them” (13). Indeed, as pop and race culture blogger extraordinaire, Cate Young / BattyMamzelle explains in her commentary on Emma Watson’s 2014 UN speech, “Intersectionality is key. It doesn't mean that Emma Watson wants to drown girl children in developing countries, it just means that solutions that help those of us who are best off, are unlikely to help those of us who are worst off.” Young criticizes Watson’s appropriation and performance of feminism because it seems to exclude the feminism which Young, a black female, has experienced herself and also because it excludes others. She raises a familiar question: Is feminism still feminism if it excludes those who may need it most—often minority women and children? Using intersectionality, Young helps us see how Emma Watson’s UN address, inviting upper class men to join feminism, might not help others, such as minorities, children, the elderly, the poor, the LGBT community, etc.
Moreover, if we consider Emma Watson’s rhetorical ethos in her UN launch of #HeForShe, we notice immediately Watson’s self-consciousness regarding her own qualifications, or lack thereof, to speak on feminism’s behalf: “You might be thinking who is this Harry Potter girl? And what is she doing up on stage at the UN? It’s a good question and trust me I have been asking myself the same thing. I don’t know if I am qualified to be here” (Robinson). By questioning her own ethos and its possible perception by others, Watson seems to be more uneasy about acting as a spokeswoman for feminism than about her message itself, an inverse of Beyoncé’s confidence in her own authority, but not necessarily of her message as seen in her withdrawal when confronted with the feminist label. Watson recognizes herself as young and inexperienced. We might hypothesize that since she is also white, upper class, and famous, her lived experience of feminism and thus her understanding of it might be vastly different from those of a woman struggling to survive in an underdeveloped nation.
This is a realization that we see repeatedly expressed in critiques of white feminism. For example, in a article titled “Why I’m Not Really Here For Emma Watson’s Feminism Speech at the UN,” Mia McKenzie specifically criticizes Watson’s appeal to men to engage as feminists: “Telling men that they should care about gender inequality because of how much it hurts them centralizes men and their well-being in a movement built by women for our survival in a world that degrades and dehumanizes us daily.” McKenzie’s critique of Watson’s positionality as a feminist in this UN speech is two-fold. First, the critique of white feminism frequently hinges on criticizing the naiveté of white women who are unaware, because of their privileged positionality, of the multi-level struggles of women of color or trans women. This lack of awareness is frequently “innocent,” unintentional, or “benign,” but no less problematic for it. And second, this quote represents a critique of a certain kind of “soft feminism” that appeals to the oppressor—sort of like holding his hand and guiding him along to the right path—instead of acting aggressively to upend an unjust system. These differing approaches, accommodating and slow versus aggressive and revolutionary, also frequently create divisions within social movements.
At the end of her piece, McKenzie introduces Beyoncé into the meta-conversation:
So, can we please stop trying to make Emma Watson the new feminist icon of the universe? She’s not there yet. She’s still learning, I think, just like Beyoncé, who, by the way, rarely even gets the benefit of the doubt from white feminists, let alone hailed as feminist queen of all things, when her feminist expressions are less than perfect. (Imagine if Beyoncé got up at the UN and gave a speech that centered men in the fight for gender equality. The white mainstream feminist skies would rain down hellfire upon us all. Well, some of us, anyway.)
Without mentioning Collins’ intersectionality, McKenzie appeals to it by citing Beyoncé and noting explicitly the difference that race makes in how culture responds to expressions of feminism in public spaces. The differences between Emma Watson and Beyoncé—race, age, marital status, motherhood, etc.—are many, but both women are upper class celebrities. Yet, even a shared economic status does not spare Beyoncé from the feminists’ raised eyebrows and snarky interweb comments. McKenzie suggests that Beyoncé’s race is what precludes her from delivering the same UN invitation, which Emma Watson was lauded for performing. Beyoncé’s slow-burning embrace of the label feminist reminds us that we do not arrive in the world fully formed human beings, and we certainly do not arrive as fully formed feminists. Thus, a person’s connotation, appropriation, and performance of feminism can, and often does, change over the course of her own life. “Flawless” is a model for reading “Formation” in that it teaches us via Beyoncé and Emma Watson that there is more than one type of authentic speaker. We can speak from a place of experiential pain, but we can also speak from a place of empathic ethical reach. By post-structurally reading the social text of Beyoncé’s body, we understand feminism as a performance in which the dance of intersectionality is key.
“Formation” Activist: Flexible Solidarity and Race
Reminiscent of the way in which Beyoncé dropped Beyoncé, which included “Flawless” on iTunes in December 2013, without much fanfare or warning, she again surprised the music world by debuting “Formation” a day before her Super Bowl L appearance. Beyoncé’s controversial first performance of “Formation” during that 2016 game between the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers was the third most-watched television broadcast in U.S. history with peak viewership at an average of 115.5 million during the thirty-minute halftime show according to numbers released by Nielsen (Wang). In Black Panther Party costume and with her marching band performance of “Formation,” Beyoncé won the Super Bowl, sparking a networked conversation among fans, social justice activists, pop cultural critics, and feminist and race scholars.
At the center of this conversation were questions of racial justice and questions of police violence. Particularly, Bay Area chapter Black Lives Matter activists Ronnisha Johnson and Rheema Emy Calloway ran onto the field directly after the Broncos won. Carrying a sign that read “Justice 4 Mario Woods,” Johnson and Calloway even took pictures with Beyonce’s back-up dancers. Woods, a 26-year-old black man, was killed by police in December 2015. Five San Francisco officers shot fifteen rounds at the young man as he approached them, holding a knife. Calloway was struck by the dancers’ support: “They didn’t second-guess taking a stand in solidarity with us for Mario Woods” (Wang). When she saw the photo had gone viral, Gwen, Woods’ mother, was also moved.
Beyoncé’s Super Bowl halftime performance [art] can be read as the next iterative scene in her “Formation” video, a performance postcolonial scholar Cameron Bushnell has called “an undoing of American tradition” by way of appropriating the Super Bowl halftime tradition of the marching band. Given that the African American military band began as an alternative to arming black males, Bushnell identifies the contemporary marching band as the colonial military band’s distant descendant. She reminds us that, instead of arming black males with weapons, they were assigned musical instruments. The costumes that Beyoncé and her dancers wore during this performance combined both of these elements. With a bandolier across her chest, Beyoncé leads her dance team onto the field. The women wear black berets, which call to mind images of the Black Panther political movement. Bruno Mars and Beyoncé then compete in a battle of the bands. Beyoncé leads her back-up dancers as they form two distinct shapes throughout the performance: a moving X and an arrow. These shapes move across the field in unison to reclaim territory (Bushnell). Beyoncé’s “Formation” is an invitation to create a new history of America through subversion. Furthermore, Beyoncé’s Super Bowl halftime performance marks an important moment in the #BlackLivesMatter movement and in the ongoing nationwide conversation regarding race. Finally, Beyoncé’s “Formation” performance raises the question of authority in activism, specifically, who gets to speak?
An echo of “Flawless,” “Formation” both as a single and as a halftime performance began an Internet dialogue in which feminists and women of color expressed conflicting thoughts and emotions over just what they thought they were seeing. Maris Jones confronts Beyoncé directly in her article “Dear Beyoncé, Katrina Is Not Your Story.” Written in the first person, Jones’ letter addresses Beyoncé by nicknames such as “Bey” and “Queen B.” An open letter expressing Jones’ personal pain regarding identity and place, Jones cites her own post-Katrina trauma as a measure of critique for the pop star’s insensitivity to Katrina’s enduring damage and victims, stating that Beyoncé, in addition to the parental advisory for explicit language, should have included a trigger warning because she used New Orleans as a backdrop in her music video. While Jones recognizes Beyoncé as a natural advocate for minority communities, she locates her as an outsider, who “wasn’t there” to experience the pain. While criticizing Beyoncé’s self-identification as Creole, Jones writes, “Our trauma is not an accessory to put on when you decide to openly claim your Louisiana heritage.” Here Jones suggests that Beyoncé atop a sinking squad car in submerged New Orleans looks a lot like commodification. While Jones also includes concessions regarding Beyoncé’s identity—“I see you using your superstar platform to visually promote a specifically Southern, pro-Black aesthetic. I hear you loving your baby’s natural hair and your husband’s wide nose. I, too, love the perfect pairing that is collard greens and cornbread”—her criticism ultimately levels in on what she sees as a pop star commodifying her community’s pain for commercial success.
Regina N. Bradley, on the other hand, interprets Beyoncé’s “Formation” not as commodification but as a conjuring. On her blog she writes, “Beyoncé took a familiar cultural marker of black southernness—trauma—and flipped that bih into a working ideology to engage what it means to be southern and black now.” According to Bradley, Beyoncé incorporates multiple narratives and symbols of what it means to be black…now, especially using New Orleans, pre- and post-Katrina. Wearing a black dress, Beyoncé stands center on the front porch, “a communal space and a space of reclamation” (Bradley). Bradley, for her part, sees Beyoncé’s New Orleans not as appropriation but as catalyst. She asserts, “Trauma is the springboard of southern blackness. But its foundation is resilience and creativity.” She additionally writes of it as a baptism, a rebirth.
Regarding the singer herself, Bradley sees Beyoncé as the southern black woman pleasure principle, “a vulgar female spirit that loves hot pepper and embodies both sex and death.” If Bradley’s vision of “Formation” seems plausible, “Conjuring blackness is physical, conceptual, and spiritual. All three are necessary to make protest and resurrection possible,” then Beyoncé’s “Formation” is not only a call to action; it is also a reminder that a multitude of New Orleans narratives are true and that they can exist together.
As if to demonstrate the co-extant plurality of narrative experience, Jesmyn Ward reads Beyoncé’s lyrics as a song for the South. In an article for NPR, Ward explains, “She sings to those of us who grew up black in the American South, who swam through Hurricane Katrina, who watched the world sink, who starved for two weeks after the eye passed, who left our dead floating in our houses.” For Ward, Beyoncé takes back the black woman’s South through her music video scenes, from plantation dresses and black hats to Blue Ivy dancing in a white sundress—fashion statements, as Ward sees them, that contextualize Beyoncé’s Super Bowl L Black-Panther-and-Afro-ed “Formation” performance.
In contrast, Shantrelle Lewis writes about the juxtaposition of Beyoncé-in-fur with a devastated Southern city, arguing that “Beyoncé’s blockbuster video isn’t advocacy. It’s appropriation.” Specifically, Lewis is concerned about what it means “to speak for a marginalized community who has not asked for your pronouncements?” She asks, “Can black people appropriate one another?” And then she answers, “I’ve never thought I’d come to this conclusion, but yes, we can—especially when you’re one of the most influential and powerful black women in the world. […] Especially when you capitalize off of their deaths. This is not giving people voice. It is stealing.” Lewis, in critiquing Beyoncé’s motivations and artistic choices, points to two central, entangled tensions audiences feel in “Formation”: first, the question of Beyoncé’s authenticity and consequent authority to speak; and second, the blurry line between sampling and appropriation. Beyoncé’s critics, Lewis among them, approach “Formation” from a personal, experiential perspective. Identity politics seem prone to fragmentation. Thus, there are separate voices that criticize what others say their differing experiences have been. They seem to say, “You aren’t representing my truth or the truth of the place as I, and/or others, experienced it.” This identity standoff produces a chorus of voices to articulate from the margins their experiences.
These tensions are not new to the Beyoncé machine. But I want to offer an alternate way to read both these tensions and Beyoncé herself, a bird’s-eye view hermeneutic, where if we can’t be the God who determines vocal and experiential authenticity and authority, we can, and perhaps should, see Beyoncé, “Flawless,” and “Formation” not as a threat to the experience(s) of others, but as a moment of mutual entrapment that Cheng names the “predicament of embodiment” (115). Again Cheng’s reading of Josephine Baker’s skin can help us hold multiplicity in sight and difference in harmony.
Our Mutual Predicament of Embodiment and The Hermeneutic of Susceptibility
If we apply this predicament of embodiment to Beyoncé’s reimagining of New Orleans, we find ourselves open to this moment of mutual bodily entrapment. When we see Beyoncé twerking in the book-lined hallway with her girls or singing in the weave shop or commanding the plantation front porch, we bear witness to the diverse bodies affected by race and gender. Indeed, instead of rebuking Beyoncé for reducing New Orleans to her version of it, her body-as-located-text opens up the possibilities of place for many bodies and thus many interpretations. We recognize Beyoncé as one body-as-text of many body-texts, as one voice in a chorus, as one history among many histories.
The hermeneutics of suspicion—what Cheng recognizes as a hostile deconstruction that modernism motivated to flourish—fuels identity politics, which can easily turn into anecdotes that Other the Other (99-100). Beyoncé’s critics often cite their own identity and experiential pain as a refutation to Beyoncé’s artistry and activism. But they remain marginalized and further fragment the minority into minorities. The Us versus Them mindset is reified and subsequent splintering of specific voices disintegrates into white noise. We saw this in “Flawless” when Beyoncé’s critics appealed to their own racial and class identities as a way to disqualify her from using the term feminist to describe herself. And we saw it again in the cacophony of voices who reacted to “Formation.” In her article “On 'Jackson Five Nostrils,' Creole vs. 'Negro' and Beefing Over Beyoncé's 'Formation,'” Yaba Blay shares her complicated experience of being “dark-skinned” in New Orleans and how that impacts her relationship with the song. She writes, “Having grown up black-Black (read: dark-skinned) in colorstruck New Awlins, hearing someone, particularly a woman, make a distinction between Creole and ‘Negro’ is deeply triggering.” But she also acknowledges “it is very possible to enjoy the ‘Formation’ song and video and take issue with it at the same damn time. Because we're human.”
It is precisely this both…and position that Cheng’s hermeneutic of skin and susceptibility allows us to take. (Incidentally, if we apply this fleshy hermeneutic to Emma Watson’s exposed-breasts-on-Vanity-Fair’s-cover-troubles, we see that she can be both feminist and sexy, too.) And while it is impossible for Beyoncé or any single voice to speak on behalf of New Orleans, it is possible for her to be one voice among many to speak out for a place. Indeed, if we read the scenes and places in “Formation” and the title itself, it seems as if Beyoncé is inviting and even expecting other voices to join her. Beyoncé’s “Formation” then can be read as an inciting call, a provocative invitation, to join her in the conversation surrounding gender and race. Her reimagining of New Orleans can be read as one history of many, an artistic subversion of American tradition in which black women reclaim body-as-place as well as their societal and geographic places. Her infusion of subjectivity into New Orleans and objectivity into her own body can be read as a blurring of the socially constructed subject-object distinction. In this blurring, she not only conjures the past, she also escapes it.
Josephine Baker also used her body as blurry escape. Using her sexuality as a confluence of gender and race, Baker’s skin eluded the subject-object duality. And she used this blurring to singlehandedly integrate Parisian nightlife while seducing French audiences, black and white alike (“Josephine Baker: Biography”). Reading Beyoncé’s skin is as difficult as reading Baker’s. Like Baker, Beyoncé is expert at using her identity, power, heritage, and sexuality to spark a conversation which defies side-taking and instead invites her readers to re-imagine their own pasts and possibilities beyond a subject-object, Us versus Them, narrative.
Patricia Hill Collins emphasizes these future possibilities for the Black Lives Matter movement as a new form of community organization. In a 2016 guest lecture at Clemson University, Collins underscored that while the media focus seems to be on black men protesting in Ferguson and Baltimore, black women carry the Black Lives Matter movement. Indeed, it was created by three black queer women who did not want to become the face of the movement. Its success relies on local chapters, organized through grassroots methods and powered by women. Collins argues that this movement is a current example of “flexible solidarity,” which she denotes as “solidarity across political differences.” Collins maintains, “Black activism was not a fleeting period of protest politics, but rather multiple racial projects of Black social movements.” Furthermore, she argues, “A vibrant movement has a broad range of different voices with different projects. African American women always participated in strands of Black activism and Black social movements.” Stressing the importance of making social justice movements inclusive of multiple voices and perspectives while leaving space for differing and dissenting perspectives, Collins believes that we are free to criticize one another and each other’s projects, even within the #BlackLivesMatter conversation. Furthermore, this critique can create a more robust conversation, thereby strengthening the movement’s resolve and clarifying humanity’s most significant values.
Beyoncé’s two hit songs guide and are guided by the Black Lives Matter movement. “Flawless” illuminates the incorrect assumption that experience alone provides the authority for defining terms. The challenges surrounding Beyoncé and Emma Watson’s embrace of the term feminist remind us how proscriptive efforts undermine descriptive progress. If we can remove artificial constructs that have more to do with defining the conversation rather than forwarding it, we see that the term feminist is a wide spectrum of performative possibility.
Moreover, by forcing the conversation surrounding New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina, Beyoncé in "Formation" disproves the assumption that only direct experience authenticates a narrative. Using a susceptible hermeneutic, we can begin to approach the difficult generalization of “What happened at the New Orleans?” Instead of interpreting “Formation” as commodification, we see reclamation. Beyoncé is not a spokesperson for New Orleans’ collective trauma. Through Cheng’s susceptible lens, the black female figure on the squad car is not sinking. As in baptism, she is being reborn.
Beyond defining identity, Beyoncé [per]forms it.
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