“Flawless”: Beyonce, Marriage, and Feminism

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.

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8 thoughts on ““Flawless”: Beyonce, Marriage, and Feminism

  1. I think the song has to be taken in context with the other songs on the album (which I spent some time listening to last night–I’ve only watched three of the videos so far though) and I really think that the whole album has to be listened to in its entirety, probably with all of the videos in order to fully appreciate what Beyonce has done. (Full disclosure: I’m definitely a Beyonce fan)

    The song that stands out to me more than Flawless (but that can also shine some light on Flawless) is Pretty Hurts, which is also the first track on the album. Beyonce was a pageant kid growing up. She’s been in the spotlight for most of her life. She’s one of the only black women who has ever been on the cover of Vogue. So, of course looks are going to be the thing that matters and the burden that she feels she has to get away from. Here’s the first verse:
    Mama said, you’re a pretty girl
    What’s in your head it doesn’t matter
    Brush your hair, fix your teeth
    What you wear is all that matters

    And the second:
    Blonder hair, flat chest
    TV says bigger is better
    South beach, sugar free
    Vogue says
    Thinner is better

    And the outro:
    When you’re alone all by yourself
    And you’re lying in your bed
    Reflection stares right into you
    Are you happy with yourself?
    It’s just a way to masquerade
    The illusion has been shed
    Are you happy with yourself?
    Are you happy with yourself?
    Yes

    I think it’s significant that the first song is Pretty Hurts and the last is Blue, as if through having Blue Ivy and through motherhood, Beyonce has been able to realize/learn a lot of things about herself. And I also think that it’s really significant for a black woman in the public eye to insinuate that she has thrown up in order to lose weight because among black people, eating disorders are often considered to be something that black people don’t have. Anyway, I guess all of this to say that I don’t think Beyonce necessarily has to fit into any brand of feminism because a lot of what she’s doing is revolutionary in the context of which she’s doing it.

    • I completely agree with AJB that Pretty Hurts works alongside Flawless, and although it is also a critique of over-emphasis/singular models that reenacts the same old reified modalities of being, it is successful in capturing issues of women and beauty standards.

  2. The second quote about how we raise our sons got me thinking about how interesting it is that we use the term “emasculate”. Is there a female equivalent? If there is, does anyone actually use it? I suppose because if there was, it wouldn’t be a negative thing. How interesting that we teach our boys to fear vulnerability, sensitivity, fear, and femininity: all things that would actually help us make progress toward equality.

  3. Great post! I haven’t heard Beyonce’s album yet (I’m probably the last one) but I have seen the hype on tumblr. I do think the extended quote is more powerful than the one Beyonce used on the song Flawless but I do agree with your closing statement that Flawless could be the beginning of something. And from AJB comment it seems as though Beyonce is consciously trying to bring awareness to the people and dispel stereotypes about black women through her music. I just hope her efforts don’t go unnoticed and that her fans actually listen to the messages imbedding in her songs.

  4. Like Cora P, I agree that Beyonce is trying to speak to a particular demographic which is black women. I, a humble beyonce fan have consumed the whole album (countless times) and I would like to say that I am impressed with her hard work. Again, she presents this whole picture that women do not need to opt out for anything (i.e you can be on tour, have interviews, love your husband, be with your child, and make an album with 14 songs and 17 videos). However, I’m not sure I understand exactly what she wants to say with that album. I’m trying to truly decipher if Beyonce’s feminism or superpower is more in the volume of work she puts out than the value or substantial truth I get from her music. As a founding member of the Beyonce fan club, I’m obviously not trying to rid her songs of their relevance, I’m just beginning to think that I might be standing on a different level of conversation or a different section of dialogue with feminism than Beyonce is.

  5. Just want to say I appreciate you recognizing the faults but even more acknowledging the potential of her work to start a global discourse about many of the issues that have changed and shaped her life. I absolutely love Beyoncé but one of the things I often struggle with is her perfect image. Although she tries to show us she is just a regular person, I often am unable to relate to her in anyway. But in this song I was able to see the curse of beauty. I think her album will allow her fans to see her struggles and I applaud her for opening up in this way.

  6. Pingback: Yoncé, Flawlessness, and Feminism | russian ramblings

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