For Black female artists have been historically punished for daring to see themselves and their art outside of the capitalistic patriarchal white male gaze.
As I watched Beyoncé perform this past Sunday on the VMAS, I wondered how she got there. No, I don’t mean her angelic arrival with her daughter and a slew of beautiful Black girls and women. I mean getting on stage, affirming her feminism and support for Black Lives Matter and then shaking her ass in the same night.
For Black women, we have four (acceptable) ways to express ourselves: the desexualized Mammy, the oversexualized Jezebel, the bitchy Sapphire or a mix of two or more to the comfort of everyone else.
They receive criticism for challenging norms that is always steeped in misogynoir. When Nicki Minaj released her ‘Anaconda’ single cover and video, she received backlash. Suddenly, she wasn’t being feminist enough, acceptable enough and smart enough to understand how the male gaze works (despite subverting it in the video by destroying a banana she was previously teasing with).
The unspoken idea is that Black women can be sexual as long as they don’t own it. Oftentimes, misogynoir-practicing consumers say “Give it to patriarchal male fantasies,”more or less. Projections laced with voyeurism make up the appeal of Black female artists: Janet Jackson is relatable only as a sex symbol. Nicki Minaj is asked about how many men she’s slept with in the industry.
Male artists are not held responsible for their image or music like Black female artists are. Beyoncé is blamed for false statistics regarding teen pregnancy rates. But no male artists have their work – often full of fuckboy anthems and awful relationship bops – held to that standard of responsibility. For them, the “young impressionable girls” audience doesn’t exist to discredit their artistic growth, but rather to amplify it.
Even non Black female artists are held to this standard. M.I.A. dropped out of AfroPunk in London (h/t Cecile Emeke,) but she isn’t a ‘bad role model’ for taking up space she shouldn’t have. She just made a mistake. Miley Cyrus received praise for her high level cultural appropriation and feminist sound bites. She’s just growing up. In each case, their right to grow and try new things was recognized as worth defending. Black female artists are not afforded that luxury.
While there exists a spectrum of representation of white women who are multi-faceted, sexual beings, very little exists for Black women. The Mammy stereotype, particularly the element of unconditional care, takes up that space. Recognizing the impact of the lack of space is how I think Beyoncé came to be at the VMAs.
When she changed the game with that digital drop in 2013, Beyoncé risked a 15+ year old cut-to-perfection image. With the success of both her self-titled album and this year’s Lemonade, it’s safe to say she won the battle between herself and her audience. Beyonce has since been twirling on her haters, affirming her blackness and flipping a boycott of her stadium tour dates into a business.
Like many young Black female artists, Beyoncé has reclaimed her narrative through a complete disregard for proving her worth. Instead of doing interviews, she posts images and videos of her life, leaving it to her audience to decide how they want to engage with her. Whatever they decide about her is not her problem. But Beyoncé does care about her generation-spanning audience by presenting herself as, in the words of artist Yumi Thomas, “layers and not fractions.”
There is a power in Black women being examples for each other.
When we take up space, we are saying to each other that making noise is necessary for realizing the confines around us.
Beyoncé is still ridiculed on a regular basis for existing as a multifaceted Black woman. Yet she continues to push through with an inspiring unfuckwittable attitude. While Black female artists should not be absolved of responsibility, they should be able to define it by taking ownership over their creative expression without the oppressive backlash.