Flawless: 5 Lessons in Modern Feminism From Beyoncé

9 minute read

With her new album, Beyoncé has become the embodiment of modern feminism for a generation that has been reluctant to claim the word. Forget the angry cries of sexism. Millennials have grown up admiring a woman who says she’s “Crazy in Love” with one of the most powerful men in music and expresses her desire to please him while still projecting a fierce, independent persona.

Why should my generation adopt the traditional “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” version of feminism? Even as modern day pundits like Hanna Rosin, Maureen Dowd and Sheryl Sandberg have picked up the baton, speculating about the “end of men” and the perils of letting your career be derailed by family, Beyoncé has managed to become the biggest female pop star in the world while cultivating her marriage, her role as a mother, and her sexuality. And in doing so, she’s ushering in a new wave of feminism.

In fact, Beyoncé is one of the few superstars who’s actually claimed the scary title of “feminist.” Nonetheless, she hasn’t always had the feminists on her side. Their biggest critique of the pop icon’s work before this album was that she sang about men…almost exclusively — from “Love on Top” to “Halo.” Let’s be honest, even the girl anthem songs about breakups made our eyes roll: it was hard to dance along to “Irreplaceable” or “Single Ladies” without remembering that Jay Z had “put a ring on it.” And it didn’t help that the name of her latest tour was “Mrs. Carter.”

But she does something new on Beyoncé — a collection of music and videos which has already broken an iTunes record by selling 823,773 copies in its first three days. Men and love are a focus, but she makes sure to let us know that those songs are also about empowerment: there’s even a spoken word passage in “Flawless” from a Nigerian feminist that calls for young girls to “lean in” and be more than someone’s wife. She sings about love and sex more boldly than ever, peppering those songs with messages about independence and motherhood. And we’re eating it up.

Maybe the reason my millennial generation feels so entitled is partially because Beyoncé told us we could be. We can have it all. But don’t take my word for it. Look at the lyrics of Beyoncé. There are feminist lessons for every woman entwined among the usual addictive musical riffs.

1.“Pretty Hurts” — Obsessing about your looks is destructive.

Pretty hurts
Shine the light on whatever’s worse
Perfection is the disease of a nation
…It’s the soul that needs surgery

Okay, yes, you have to get past the fact that this is being sung by one of the most beautiful women on the planet. But after Britney Spears’ “Work B****” from earlier this year — which told women they had to look hot to get what they wanted — it’s comforting to know that the problem is with society, not with us. Even perfect Beyoncé, who tried to clear the Internet of unflattering photos of herself after her Super Bowl performance and who has openly spoken about struggling with body image issues, feels the pressure of unfair expectations.

2. “Blow” — Sexual pleasure should be a two way street.

Keep me coming…Keep me humming, keep me moaning…
Don’t stop loving ‘til the morning…
Can you lick my skittles?
That’s the sweetest in the middle
Pink that’s the flavor
Solve the riddle…
I can’t wait til I get home so you can turn that cherry out

We hear a lot about oral sex in rap songs (“She lick me like a lollipop,” anyone?). But when’s the last time you heard a song about a woman being on the receiving side? Women of the world, Beyoncé is telling you to get yours too.

3. Partition” — It’s important to please your man (yep, that’s feminist).

Driver roll up the partition please
I don’t need you seeing ’yoncé on her knees
Took 45 minutes to get all dressed up
We ain’t even gonna make it to this club…
Oh he so horny, yeah he want to f***
He popped all my buttons, and he ripped my blouse
He Monica Lewinsky-ed all on my gown…
Take all of me
I just wanna be the girl you like, girl you like

“I just wanna be the girl you like” isn’t the most feminist message — especially compared to the rest of the album. It’s not a give and take like “Blow.” It’s simple submission. How do you reconcile being a proud, independent woman and wanting to be desirable and please to your man?

But wait! Beyoncé has an explanation. You might have missed it because it’s in French, but it’s there.

Est-ce que tu aimes le sexe? Le sexe, je veux dire l’activité physique, le coit, tu aimes ça? Tu ne t’intéresses pas a sexe? Les hommes pensent que les féministes détestent le sexe mais c’est une activité très stimulante et naturelle que les femmes adorent

The translation, thanks to one of my French-speaking co-workers:

Do you like sex? Sex, I mean the physical activity, coitus, do you like it? You’re not interested in sex? Men think that feminists hate sex, but it’s a very stimulating and natural activity that women love.

The Dude fans might recognize this as Julianne Moore’s monologue in The Big Lebowski. The message: feminists like sex too. So brush up on your French, haters.

4. Mine” — Motherhood and relationships aren’t easy — even for Beyoncé.

I’ve been watching for the signs
Took a trip to clear my mind…
Been having conversations about breakups and separations
I’m not feeling like myself since the baby
Are we even gonna make it?
Cause if we are, we’re taking this a little too far…
All that I can think of is, we should get married
We should get married
Let’s stop holding back on this and let’s get carried away

Beyoncé doesn’t reveal too much about her relationship with Jay Z. She has sung before about breakups and possible infidelity (“Irreplaceable” in 2006, “Jealous” in this album), but who knows about whether that’s about Jay Z or a past boyfriend or nobody at all? What we can take away is that it’s okay to want to get married as a feminist. And, perhaps more importantly, it’s okay to have problems with and doubts about your love life. Plus, unlike so many feminist icons, she admits that you can’t just pick up your life as usual after having a child.

5.“Flawless” — Be more than someone’s wife.

I took some time to live my life
But don’t think I’m just his little wife
Don’t get it twisted, get it twisted
This my shit, bow down b*****s

The message is pretty clear. But then there’s the interlude by Nigerian-born writer and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The song excerpts the author’s TED Talk on feminism:

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 will 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 source of joy and low and mutual support
But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and 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 can be a good thing
But for the attention of men
We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way boys are
Feminist: a person who believes in the social,
Political, and economic equality of the sexes

Those feminist words can seem at odds with Beyoncé’s videos. Are we supposed to have a problem with the fact that Beyoncé is advocating that our society stop thinking of women as wives and sex objects as she grinds up on her husband in a leotard? I think we are. I think she wants us to think about how much of what she does is empowerment and how much is driven by the norms of popular culture. And, again, she wants us to think that you can be both sexy and a feminist. (Feminists like sex too, remember?)

Maybe I’m giving her too much credit, and it’s just hypocritical when she sarcastically sings, “I just woke up like this” with her perfectly manicured outfit and makeup. But Beyoncé’s resume is so full, that being married to Jay Z probably wouldn’t even make the cut. And after a year of Miley Cyrus’ tongue-wagging and naked “Blurred Lines” backup dancers, it’s sure nice to have a pop star return who wants to be a role model.

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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com