Can we talk about Beyonce’s new album? I think we need to talk about Beyonce’s new album. Especially track #11, “***Flawless”, which features Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
My first impression of this song was via several all-caps posts on Tumblr, declaring “Flawless” to be the new feminist anthem that we’ve all been waiting for. The most-quoted passage comes from around the 1:30 mark, spoken by Adichie:
We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls: “You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the man.”
Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is most important. Now marriage can be a system of joy, and love, and mutual support, but why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage when we don’t teach boys the same?
We raise girls to see each other as competitors, not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think could be a good thing, but for the attention of men.
We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are.
Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.
This is from Adichie’s 2013 TEDx talk, “We should all be feminists”:
It’s a beautiful talk, so do watch it if you have the time. Actually, watch it even if you don’t really have the time. Because one thing that’s been bugging me about “Flawless” is the fact that it cuts a quote about sexuality and marriage with Adichie defining the scope of feminism. It’s a rousing message, sure. But it also weirdly limits feminism within the same old patriarchal framework of what’s pertinent to a woman’s life, i.e. sex and marriage.
Because here’s the difference between a 4-minute song and a 30-minute talk: in one version, you just don’t have the time or ability to go deep into theory. “Flawless” is a slice of a broader feminism that Adichie is trying to articulate via her TEDx talk, which focuses heavily on how we raise boys as well as girls.
Here’s a longer quote from the talk (transcribed by Sugandha Banga):
We must raise our daughters differently. We must also raise our sons differently. We are doing grave disservice to boys in how we raise them. We stifle the humanity of boys. We define masculinity in a very narrow way. Masculinity becomes this hard, small cage and we put boys inside the cage.
We teach boys to be afraid of fear. We teach boys to be afraid of weakness, of vulnerability. We teach them to mask their true selves, because they have to be, in Nigeria’s speak, a hard man.
But by far the worst thing we do to males, by making them feel that they have to be hard, is that we leave them with very fragile egos. The more “hard man” a man feels compelled to be, the weaker his ego is.
And then we do a much greater disservice to girls, because we raise them to cater to the fragile egos of men. We teach them to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, “You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful, otherwise, you will threaten the man. If you are the breadwinner in a relationship with a man, you have to pretend that you are not. Especially in public, otherwise you will emasculate him.”
But what if we question the premise itself? Why should a woman’s success be a threat to a man? What if we decide to simply dispose of that word — and I don’t think there is an English word I dislike more than emasculation.
So, what to make of “Flawless” overall? I’m liking the song more with every re-listen, but I’m not finding it any more feminist. It can be read as a critique of marriage, more specifically the necessity of divorcing women’s self-confidence and sexuality from a model of heteronormative matrimony. The theme is obvious, from two early lines — “I took some time to live my life / But don’t think I’m just his little wife” — to the titular lyrics — “Ladies, tell them, ‘I woke up like this.’ (We flawless) / Ladies, tell them. Say, ‘I look so good tonight.’ (Goddamn)“.
But the focus of the song itself runs up against that terrible catch-22: how do you critique over-emphasis/singular models, when the critique itself pulls up the same old reified modalities of being?
As far as I can decipher from “Flawless,” Beyonce’s answer to women’s sexual confidence (as divorced from marriage) is about looking good. That’s fine, or would be, were it not for a popular culture that’s already pathologically obsessed with objectifying women under the pornographic male gaze.
It’s a strangely conformist brand of feminism that “Flawless” presents us. But perhaps rather than condemning it for its shortcomings, I would like to valorize it as a point of departure — for thinking about marriage and sexuality and self-confidence, and the genderized way in which we raise our children. “Flawless” is also drawing more attention to Adichie’s work, and in her feminism we can find a broader hope of change.
Theoretically and musically, I find in this song a hope of beginnings. “Flawless” may not be flawless in and of itself, but there’s something darkly joyful in the beat and lyrics, something like an earthy spring.