Of course Beyoncé is a feminist: On gender equality and women in entertainment

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A specific corner of the Internet was abuzz this week with the news that Beyoncé, fresh off inciting think-piece warfare about whether or not her new visual album amounted to a feminist manifesto of sorts ("The record both drips with sexuality and samples the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TED talk about women's rights -- are you allowed to do that?!") had penned an essay for Maria Shriver's nonprofit media initiative, the Shriver Report, titled "Gender Equality Is a Myth!" See here:

We need to stop buying into the myth about gender equality. It isn’t a reality yet. Today, women make up half of the U.S. workforce, but the average working woman earns only 77 percent of what the average working man makes. But unless women and men both say this is unacceptable, things will not change. Men have to demand that their wives, daughters, mothers, and sisters earn more—commensurate with their qualifications and not their gender. Equality will be achieved when men and women are granted equal pay and equal respect.

Among the generally positive reactions to the essay, there was an unmistakable ripple of surprise -- a silent agreement that this was somehow starkly out of character -- that caught my attention. What are we surprised about, exactly? That a mainstream star who plays so squarely into our notions of traditional femininity would align herself with the hairy-legged caricatures of politicized feminists we see in pop culture? That a woman who named her most recent international tour after her husband would speak out against gender inequality? Or that one of the richest artists in the world would give two shits about the Equal Pay Act?

For what it's worth, I've been a Beyoncé fan since the halcyon days of the late '90s, when she was posing on furniture with three (then two) other ladies who made a point of color-coordinating their outfits with their interior design while singing about how dudes who borrowed their cars needed to man up and pay some automobills. It has at times been a guilty and/or critical fandom -- has anyone written their Master's thesis yet on themes of independence vs. marriage as property ownership in "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)"? I would like to read, please -- but it's been consistent nonetheless. I will venture that said loyalty is beside the point, however. No, I wasn't surprised about Beyonce's awareness of gender inequality -- but not because I've been following her career closely. I wasn't surprised because she's a woman working in an industry that's historically steeped in gender inequality.

I'm behind the times on this one, but I just started reading Out of the Vinyl Deeps, a collection of excellent rock music criticism by the late, great Ellen Willis. In particular, I keep coming back to Willis' essay on Janis Joplin in the '60s, with passages like:

[Janis] once crowed, "They're paying me $50,000 a year to be like me." But the truth was that they were paying her to be a personality, and the relation of public personality to private self -- something every popular artist has to work out -- is especially problematic for a woman. Men are used to playing roles and projecting images in order to compete and succeed. Male celebrities tend to identify with their mask making, to see it as creative and -- more or less -- to control it. In contrast, women need images simply to survive. A woman is usually aware, on some level, that men do not allow her to be her "real self," and worse, that the acceptable masks represent men's fantasies, not her own. She can choose the most interesting image available, present it dramatically, individualize it with small elaborations, undercut it with irony. But ultimately she must serve some male fantasy to be loved -- and then it will be only the fantasy that is loved anyway.

Willis wrote that in 1980, about the 1960s. But it could have been written last week, about, um, any female pop star who did anything last week. Pick your packaging! Miley, Rihanna, Katy, Ke$ha, Taylor. Did you want good girl gone bad? Edgy and "exotic" gone S&M-lite? This has nothing to do with talented or not talented. A staggering majority of high-ranking music executives are men. Do we think any of these pop stars doesn't know she's a product, doesn't understand exactly what game she's a part of? None of them would be where they are right now if they hadn't been playing it correctly, painstakingly, in some cases, from the day they were born. Whether or not they're writing essays for Maria Shriver about it, I have a feeling most women in entertainment understand something about living in a patriarchal society.

As for Bey: Her new album, which I unabashedly love, is nothing if not a study in "acceptable masks." In one video she's the hot, pissed-off wife; another, the hot older girl at the roller rink; by the record's end she's found redemption as a (hot) mother, deriving her most genuine-sounding joy from an ode to her cooing baby daughter. Of course, she also pulls the classic, socially responsible, conventionally-beautiful-sex-symbol-decrying-sexist-beauty-standards thing. She does it all. She is every single thing a woman is supposed to be and more, and she looks fucking fabulous while doing it. She's on top of the world right now for a reason, and -- delightful feminist speech samples aside -- I don't think it's as a reward for being her "real self."

So yeah, go ahead and celebrate the pop star who suddenly cares about equal pay in the workplace. But give her a little credit. And maybe try to tamp down your surprise that a lady who's been competing in pageants of some kind since she was old enough to walk might know a thing or two about sexism, inequality, where women have power, and where it stops.