Last year when Beyoncé released that snippet (that was called “Bow Down” at the time) of what is now a part of one of her self-titled album's signature songs “***Flawless,” it created a stir because she uses the word “bitch.” Even I myself thought about it then in more simplistic terms where it is “sexist” no matter what though I still rode so hard to that track, loved her airy background vocals that made me think of Amy Lee of Evanescence, loved that exquisite bass and vibe of authentic trap music that made me think of hanging out in parking lots after step shows, band shows and Black talent shows and just loved the raw aggression that Beyoncé conveyed. And this isn't new for her. People used to her songs only via the radio or focused on her moments of glamour which are plentiful might miss the fact that she has several songs with Jay Z in the last decade and some of her own where she gets incredibly gritty, revealing a mixture of her perceived softness with simply being an unashamed Black girl from Houston, who is now a grown woman.
Since that snippet came out and long before the album did, I thought about the word “bitch” with context. Both “bitch” and “nigga” are used among some Black people and we know what we mean when we use them and what kind of meaning is inferred; when it’s aggression and when it’s not. When it minimizes and when it does not. When we’re simply angry and not speaking how we normally speak. I don’t have the White supremacist thought process where Black people who subversively, affectionately or aggressively use “nigga” are equal to White racists and non-Black people of colour who are anti-Black who use “nigger” or the “ironic” White racists and cultural appropriators who use “nigga” and have structural power on their side and a different history of power with that word. I don’t have the thought process where I conflate “nigga” with “cracker” as the latter is not a racist slur. I don’t have the thought process where I treat “nigga” as something “only” poor Black people say and I need to not say it to prove how “respectable" I can be, as if racism ends once we’re “respectable enough.” Though “nigga” is not in her song, I think about the word “bitch” along similar lines, thought their histories differ.
I don’t have the thought process where I think a woman using the word “bitch” affectionately towards another woman or out of anger and in response to abuse is then oppressing women in the same way that men are, with patriarchal structural power and male privilege in their favor when they use the word “bitch.” I can simultaneously feel threatened by men saying “bitch” (and so much worse) at me during 22 years of experiencing street harassment and sing "bow down bitches" because I understand context, structural power, oppression and privilege. Even so, this does not mean that any of these words are without history and possibility for misinterpretation; they still are connected to negative perceptions. Jazmine Walker of Still Furious and Still Brave noted such in her 2012 essay Bitch Bad, Lady Good…For Who?
So despite “bitch” being used as a term to stigmatize and dehumanize us because of our daily sexual, reproductive, and personal choices, many Black women have created a space to strip it of those meanings. Just as Black people have adopted “nigga,” and have clearly set boundaries as to who can and cannot use it, “bitch” has been adopted by many Black women, but because women are seen as property, belonging to everyone but ourselves, it is harder for us to carve out those same boundaries. White people still try to police the use of the word “nigga,” but there is an understanding that they are not supposed to say it. “Bitch” is not regulated in that same way.
Beyoncé herself had this to say about why she put out “Bow Down” that became a part of “***Flawless” and you need to hear this in her own voice if possible:
The reason I put out “Bow Down” is because I woke up, I went into the studio, I had a chant in my head, it was aggressive, it was angry. It wasn’t the Beyoncé that wakes up every morning; it was the Beyoncé that was angry. It was the Beyoncé that felt the need to defend herself. And if the song never comes out, okay, I said it. And…I listened to it after I finished, and I said “this is hot!” Ima put it out. I’m not gon’ sell it, ima just put it out. People like it? Great. They don’t? They don’t.
And I won’t do it everyday because that’s not who I am. But I feel strong. And anyone that says “oh, that is disrespectful!” just imagine the person that hates you. Imagine the person that doesn’t believe in you. And look in the mirror and say “bow down, BITCH” and I guarantee you feel gangsta. So listen to that song from that point of view, again, if you didn’t like it before. (*laughs*)
The notion that Black women are always “angry” by default yet when we actually feel anger, the entire world cowers as if we’re bullying and oppressing them and not the reverse shapes the reaction to Beyoncé. While the "bow down bitches" part of the song will continue to anger literalists, those who didn’t like her anyway, as well as those that don’t think she or any Black women are “real” feminists, I rethought the application of the word and it definitely made me complicate my previously rigid perspective on “bitch.” This does not mean that saying “bitch” is a “feminist” act. The notion that each movement, thought and action Black women make has to measure up to an arbitrary feminist standard or we as a whole are no longer feminist (and when Black, usually that means no longer “human” as well, as if we’re considered human in the first place) is oppressive. There needs to be space for nuanced interpretation and contradictions, especially with cultural subtext. Otherwise recognition of Black women’s humanity and journeyed feminist progress is stifled and suffocated.
There are other parts of the song definitely worth discussing. I don’t just mean Chimamanda Adichie’s beautiful voice explaining what feminism is, actually using the word “feminist,” a word (and sometimes the related concepts and ideologies) absent from many mainstream women’s music while Beyoncé remains on trial for feminist inclusion or not. Chimamanda’s words on “***Flawless” are from her TED Talk “We Should All Be Feminists”:
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 the most important. Now marriage can be a source of joy and love 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 that boys are. Feminist: the person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.
These words provided sort of an introduction to feminism that matters. Not only did it help Chimamanda’s career (i.e. her book climbed Amazon right after the album released) but it exposed many young Black women and other people to a feminist thinker they might’ve not known about before. It doesn’t mean that Chimananda’s feminism is perfect either, but that a doorway was created through a song. Music as a pathway to feminist thinking outside of the academe is critical.
Beyoncé herself sang something critical in “***Flawless” and not even the great parts (lyrics here; video/song here) like "I woke up like dis" that has many Black women who like her music quoting it all of the time or mentioning her "diamond" (Blue Ivy?) and her "rock" (Jay Z? As in her Roc?). The whole song is about a healthy confidence despite detractors and despite even losing. The three stars near “***Flawless” represent those 3 stars that they (group at the time was Girls Tyme) got on Star Search, one of the largest disappointments of her childhood. The critical portion of the song that I am speaking of, what made me as a womanist think about womanism is this:
My momma taught me good home training
My daddy taught me how to love my haters
My sister taught me I should speak my mind
My man made me feel so goddamn fine! (I’m flawless!)
Her mother’s role matters. Her father’s role matters. It’s very interesting that in the lyrics she presents her mother as the disciplinarian and her father as the one teaching her to be affectionate and defiant in the face of detractors. This alone reveals a shift in perceived gender roles. Her sister—a younger sister at that—inspired her courage to speak her truth. In many Black families, the older sibling takes on a quasi-motherly role that can be a gift (learn responsibility) and a curse (miss aspects of their own childhood). I know this as a big sister with four younger sisters and I also have an older one. But here Beyoncé presents her younger sister Solange as a voice of reason and courage, speaking of a relationship shaped by womanist empowerment—sisterhood even beyond DNA. Her romantic relationship makes her feel good and is relevant to her though she doesn’t have to be "his little wife" to express that love. It’s not diametrically opposed to her feminism to be in love and to be both confident and vulnerable in love. Her album clearly reveals this as well as simply seeing her with her husband. Despite having beauty and light skinned privilege, her mentioning that her man makes her "feel so goddamn fine" (which I am sure is also double entendre for feeling “well or good” too; she seems to embody genuine joy) is actually quite significant being on the same album with “Pretty Hurts.” Even for her, beauty is not a internalized foregone conclusion or painless process because despite those privileges, she’s still not a White woman and still was raised in a culture with tiered beauty politics that exist based on Eurocentric beauty standards that encompass more than complexion/hair texture/eye colour, but what body shapes are acceptable and “respectable.” And even then White women deal with the pressure of beauty norms—even as they’re used as the standard—when it’s impacted by the Male Gaze and used to oppress.
This bridge in the song “***Flawless” makes me think of the self, family, community, society, world ideological concentric circles that makes womanism what it is. It’s not about completely escaping men (in a political sense not a sexual sense since not all Black women are heterosexual) since our fates are not solely about gender oppression—as mainstream feminism posits—but are intersectional. (i.e. We share racist oppression with Black men. We share gender and class oppression with many women of colour.) Womanism—a term, concept, ideology and praxis first coined by Alice Walker—is a collection of anti-oppression social theories—which includes feminism, but is not exclusive to feminism or challenging sexist oppression alone, and centers Black women’s lived experiences and philosophies as epistemological sources. Beyoncé reveals that her fate is not solely tied to individualism or gender. Her family of origin and her family of her own making are relevant to who she is and mentioned in the same song where she is defining feminism for herself. This reveals a sense of wholeness.
Alice Walker’s original definition of womanism mentions that a womanist is "committed to survival and wholeness of entire people." This commitment includes breaking out of the oppressive shell that seeks to keep Black women as one stereotype or another and not full human beings. Beyoncé herself said it best:
Yoncé is Beyoncé. Mrs. Carter is Beyoncé. Sasha Fierce is Beyoncé. I’m finally at a place where, as I said earlier, I don’t have to kinda separate the two anymore. We’re all one. It’s all pieces of me and just different elements of a personality, of a woman, because we are complicated.
Beyoncé’s wholeness as evidenced by “***Flawless” is not predicated upon individualism or independence to the point it excludes that which makes her the Black woman that she is. That’s the type of individualism that’s a key facet of White supremacy (which makes introspection, empathy, and an institutional/systems view of oppression difficult and promotes easily disproven conceptions of meritocracy, bootstrap theory and exceptionalism) and thereby impacts a narrow vision of feminism that she clearly rejects in an album that is not solely about womanhood, but clearly Black womanhood, specifically. This doesn’t mean that the album is not relatable. It is to those who don’t need Whitewashed generalizations in order to connect to any Black women’s music. But there is no apology for Blackness being central to her womanhood and womanhood being central to her Blackness in her music.
This is what I love about the song “**Flawless” and the album BEYONCÉ itself. It most certainly is about wholeness. Beyoncé the artist, the singer, the woman, the Black person, the Black woman specifically, the Southern Black American woman with Texas and Louisiana cultural influence, the Black person a part of the Diaspora, the creative, the wife, the unashamed adult sexual being by choice and with agency, the mother (which she regularly explains positively altered her some of perspectives), the friend, the human being. (Not all of these facets are needed for a Black woman to be whole, but simply recognizing all that we are and resistance to controlling images.) She speaks to erotic power, political power, the power of motherhood and family, friendship and love, the power in recognizing both confidence and uncertainty shaping human perspective.
While Beyoncé isn’t accepted as a feminist by many (and some simultaneously seem to be using “feminist” and “human” interchangeably, where not being “feminist enough” means it becomes acceptable to dehumanize a Black woman), she clearly reveals that she does not need that acceptance to shape her music, her art, her politics, or her life. She just is who she is and on her own journey. While there are humanly contradictions amidst that journey, it positively impacts many people. It speaks to me as a womanist and just as a Black woman who likes her music because I don’t need womanism, Black feminism or any theory to solely be in print or in the academe or have a Ph.D. attached. While I do value the latter and have degrees myself, I find that I seek womanist inspiration and insight in variety of places. Black women’s music has been a great place to express womanist politics for nearly a century in America and Beyoncé manages to do so with great vocals, tracks, visuals, and ensembles. Her ***Flawless Feminism is a fresh approach but one with historical ties in Black womanhood and Black musical oral history/tradition. It’s not the only way but a way of navigating the beautiful complexity that is Black womanhood.
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