To most of the modern world, Beyonce represents strength, independence and pride. With songs like Independent Woman, Single Ladies and Girls Run the World, she reassures females that they don’t need a man to be happy or successful. Not only is she a fearless performer and business woman, but she is also a dedicated wife and mother.
With the release of Formation and her performance at the Super Bowl halftime show, ‘Queen Bey’ has stepped straight into the midst of praise and controversy. Everything about Formation has been called a rallying cry; the timing of the release of the song to coincide with black history month and the day that would have been Treyvon Martin’s 21st birthday, the video clip makes reference to police brutality with the words “stop shooting us” and also highlights the delayed response to Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana by showing Beyonce atop a sinking New Orleans police cruiser. Most controversial was Beyonce’s half-time show where she and her dancers wore black berets and afros, reminiscent of the way the Black Panther Movement dressed in the 1960s. The performance received criticism from former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and prompted an anti-Beyonce Protest rally.
Beyonce’s new song has also sparked a lot of positive media attention, but does this mean she has officially crossed over from pop diva to ‘political activist’? Can she be really called a ‘powerful woman’ when you compare her to some of the greats in history?
Many of the most powerful women in history have pushed past barriers and taken on roles that were traditionally only given to men. Beyonce’s personal story of having taking control of her career from her father and now her husband is very similar to that of the famous Cleopatra.
In Ancient Egypt, it was tradition for female rulers to be subordinate to male co-rulers. However, at the age of 18 when Cleopatra was made co-ruler with her brother (and husband – yep, that was normal in those days), she made it clear that she was not going to share power with him. After only 5 months of ruling, Cleopatra had dropped her brother’s name from official documents and only her face appeared on the coin.
In Formation Beyonce expands on her mantra of being an independent woman by showing that she has taken control of her own career and that instead of Jay-Z, she is the one to go to ‘get your song played on the radio station’.
Influence beyond race or gender, standing for a cause
The most influential people in the world didn’t necessarily have the looks of Beyonce and didn’t necessarily call as much attention to themselves with shows and costumes but many of them stood for equality.
Rosa Parks, generally considered as quiet and as having a dignified demeanor, seems like the polar opposite to Beyonce, but they have several things in common. The obvious similarity is the message of racial equality that Rosa Parks is known for and that Formation has now tied Beyonce to.
So how do these women, with such different personalities, get to a position to have such influence? In their separate worlds, both women showed excellence and were able to use their reputation as a platform. Despite the fact that many people had been arrested for resisting bus segregation, the NAACP decided that Rosa Parks was the person whose cause they should champion. Why? Martin Luther King stated that Rosa Parks was regarded as “one of the finest citizens of Montgomery—not one of the finest N***o citizens, but one of the finest citizens of Montgomery.” Similarly, Beyonce is regarded as one of the greatest pop icons of all time – not just one of the greatest African-American artists of all time. Saturday Night Live even recently released a sketch called “The Day Beyonce Turned Black” making fun of the media reaction that Formation is getting.
Authentic Beauty: Staying True to Your Roots
Beyonce has always been a supporter of natural beauty; in the early days with Destiny’s Child, this was was expressed through the song Bootylicious. This song reached such cultural prominence that the term Bootylicious was included in the Oxford English Dictionary!
With the song Formation Beyonce reclaims the natural look of afro hair and ‘Jackson 5 nostrils’. The film clip shows different moments in the history of Black society and tells us this is all part of the person that Beyonce is. Formation also makes reference to the hard times that the black community has gone through by showing images of Martin Luther King and by making reference to the Black Lives Matter movement.
One of the greatest artists of all time, Frida Kahlo, is also known for staying true to her heritage and for depicting herself and the struggles of the female experience without any compromise. Even though Kahlo’s works combine elements of classical religious Mexican tradition with surrealists elements, she always rejected the “surreal” label saying that her work reflected more of her reality than her dreams.
The lyrics of Formation talk primarily about Beyonce and her experience of working hard, rocking Givenchy dresses and earning all her money, but like the work of Frida Kahlo, the visual elements of Formation give us a deeper understanding of the history that has shaped the person she is.
Beyonce, like many of the great women in our history, is trying to create a movement to create a change. Amelia Earhart didn’t just fly solo across the Atlantic, but she was an early supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment and was also a member of the National Woman’s Party. In a more active and personal level Amelia Earhart was instrumental in the ‘formation’ (see what I did there?) of the Ninety-nines, an organization created to help female pilots with their careers.
The message of Beyonce’s songs have increasingly become about a sisterhood, and Formation is a reiteration of this message. However, Beyonce also puts her money where her mouth is! Beyonce has supported most of the causes mentioned in the Formation video clip both financially and through personal action.
After Hurricane Katrina, Beyonce along with Kelly Rowland and her mother Solange Knowles set up the Survivor Foundation to help families after Hurricane Katrina. Beyonce and her husband Jay-Z have been supporting the Black Lives Matter Movement financially helping get protesters out on bail. In the tradition of Beyonce’s Girl’s Run the World, Beyonce and Selma Hayak set up Chime for Change, an organization that raises funds and awareness for projects promoting Education, Health and Justice for girls and women.
Despite all the media that currently surrounds Beyonce and the release of Formation and the similarities between Beyonce and the great women described in this article, it is still hard to say if Beyonce will one day go down in the history books as one of the greats – what do you think?
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LEARNING OBJECTIVE: Students will analyze Beyonce through the eyes of a powerful and influential woman in history. They will pick a woman to study and use her ideology to critique and/or praise Beyonce and her role in female empowerment.