How Did Beyoncé Become a Feminist Icon?

A Study of the Emergence of Fourth Wave Feminism Through the Lens of Beyoncé’s Career (2008-2016)

In 2008, a new wave of feminism emerged in American society; this wave focused on sex-workers rights, social justice, social media, reproductive justice and more. At the forefront of this movement was none other than Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter. Beyoncé had always been an undercover feminist through her lyrics with Destiny’s Child (“Bills Bills Bills,” “Independent Women,” “Happy Face,” “The Story Of Beauty,” “Bootylicious,” “Survivor”) and her early solo career (“Upgrade U,” “Irreplaceable,” “Freakum Dress”), but 2008 marked the shift of Beyoncé becoming a feminist icon and inspiration in the global industry and to women and men across the world. From the release of her six-time Grammy Award-winning third studio album, I Am… Sasha Fierce, in 2008 to the release of her Peabody Award-winning sixth studio album, Lemonade, in 2016, Beyoncé has become more specific in her brand of feminism. Her shift towards black feminism, pregnancy appreciation, and sexual liberation, has altered the course of the feminist movement as it was known.

When Beyoncé started to become more overt with feminism in her music, it was highly contested and trivialized. Her massive Number One single, “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It),” started the first viral internet dance craze and offered an interesting take on marriage in the late 2000s. In the song, Beyoncé sings to an ex-boyfriend about what could’ve been of their relationship. The Sexist’s Amanda Hess, criticized the song in a 2009 article asking if “Beyoncé [was] referring to herself as “it”? Equating herself to bling? Handing herself over to a man who will determine her self-worth through a demeaning, years-long game which… ends with Beyoncé emerging… as his symbolic property?” Hess argued that the simple lyrics of “Single Ladies” were vapid and counterproductive to the feminist cause. Conversely, choreographer, Michelle Hillier, remarked that “The song speaks to strong women… it’s like (Gloria Gaynor’s 1979 song) ‘I Will Survive.’ It has a powerful feminist message.” The release and contested reception of “Single Ladies” was a reflection of the changing tides in the waves of feminism.

Two years later, Beyoncé returned with “Run The World (Girls),” the lead single from her fourth studio album, 4. Prior to the release of the single, Beyoncé fired her father, Matthew Knowles, who acted as her manager for fourteen years. This left Beyoncé in a rare place in the music industry as a top-tier black female pop star acting as her own manager. The release of “Run The World (Girls)” was met with praise and criticism and the staggering question, is Beyoncé the face of contemporary feminism? The careful integration of sexually liberated and confident women of all races in the music video for “Run The World (Girls)” was “one more signal that women need a new movement. Can we finally declare first, second, and third wave feminism as history? Has the fourth wave of feminism finally arrived?” On the other end of the spectrum, critics argued that the song and it’s accompanying visual “merely provides a cliched, sexualized display of the Battle of the Sexes in which power derives only from sexual and embodied prowess.” Much like Beyoncé’s career as a mainstream feminist, the movement had a difficult time defining its purpose from 2008-2011. In 2008, Hillary Rodham Clinton broke what was then the glass ceiling by becoming the twenty-fifth woman to run for President of the United States and the first woman to be an American presidential candidate in every primary and caucus in every state. Once that was achieved, the feminist movement felt somewhat complete; the burgeoning presence of LGBTQIA+ women coupled with the rising dissatisfaction in the movement by women of color and poor women put feminism at a crossroads in its ideology.

In 2013, between her intense charity work, headlining of the Super Bowl Halftime Show, and releasing the most influential album of the 2010s, Beyoncé sharpened her role as a mainstream feminist as did the movement itself. In February 2013, Beyoncé became the second black woman and the fourth woman ever to headline the Super Bowl Halftime Show. Notably, she was the first female musician to headline the show in the prime of her career. The performance included all female band members and backup dancers and was hailed as one of Beyoncé’s most feminist moments and ever and an inspiration to young black girls across the world.  In her Super Bowl-themed GQ cover story Beyoncé combined explicit female sexuality with poignant remarks on the inequality and inequity between men and women,  “You know, equality is a myth… everyone accepts… that women don’t make as much money as men do….Why do we have to take a backseat?” She continued by saying, “I truly believe that women should be financially independent from… men… money gives men the power to run the show. It gives men the power to define value… what’s sexy… what’s feminine. It’s ridiculous.” 2013, was notably the last year Beyoncé gave frequent interviews and television appearances; she used this year to fully embrace the feminist label. In her interview with British Vogue, she stated that although “that word can be very extreme… I guess I am a modern-day feminist. I do believe in equality.” In tandem with the biggest pop star in the world embracing the feminist title, 2013 was the start of a series of landmark years for feminism. In that year alone, Kerry Washington made history at the Emmy Awards; trans-women gained mainstream visibility through Orange Is the New Black and GLAAD; Malala Yousafzai spoke at the United Nations; and, Gloria Steinem was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Most notably, the debate around abortion and pregnancy, in general, began to take shape in 2013; this debate would continue for nearly half a decade to come and Beyoncé would address them with her 2013 self-titled album and her three pregnancies.

The latter half of Beyoncé’s 2013 was bookended by Chime for Change and the release of  BEYONCÉ on December 13. In 2013, Beyoncé partnered with Chime for Change, “a global campaign to convene, unite and strengthen the voices speaking out for girls and women around the world, with a focus on using innovative approaches to raise funds and awareness for Education, Health and Justice projects.” 2013 was the year the George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” policy would have come into fruition, and the focus on literacy and education for women and girls across the world help broaden fourth wave feminism from the U.S. to a larger, more global scope.

By this point, Beyoncé had solidified her status as a mainstream fourth-wave feminist figurehead in every area except for her music; on December 13, 2013, in the dead of the night, Beyoncé surprise-released her fifth solo studio album, BEYONCÉ. The album revolutionized album releases and the concept of the music video won three Grammy Awards and broke the record for the fastest selling album on iTunes in history. Most importantly, the album’s overtly feminist message displayed Beyoncé’s growth as a feminist since becoming a mother. The album covered themes such as the challenging of societal beauty standards (“Pretty Hurts”), sexual liberation after postpartum depression (“Blow,” “Rocket,” “Partition,”), the joy of marital sex (“Drunk In Love”) female empowerment (“”***Flawless”), the Black Lives Matter movement (“Superpower”), and miscarriages (“Heaven”). Upon the release of the album, TIME Magazine heralded that “Beyoncé has become the embodiment of modern feminism for a generation that has been reluctant to claim the word.” One of the album’s tracks, “***Flawless,” features acclaimed author and feminist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie by way of an excerpt from her 2012 TED Talk, “We Should All Be Feminists.” One particular line in the speech became the manifesto for Beyoncé’s 2013-2015 feminist persona, “We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are.” This song tied together Beyoncé’s sexually liberated personality with concrete feminist ideology resulting in her first true feminist anthem and the first anthem for the fourth wave feminism. With the release of the album, Beyoncé embodied the rebellious nature of fourth wave feminism; she showed that she could still handle recording a secret album, going on a world tour, while being a sexy and graceful mother. The Beyoncé album was the first of two musical opuses that would embody the rebellious and purposeful intersectionality of fourth-wave feminism.

In 2016 with the release of “Formation” and Lemonade Beyoncé not only reached the zenith of pop culture but she sharpened her brand feminism to specifically cater to black women, further reinforcing the intersectional nature of fourth wave feminism. In “Formation,” which she debuted in Black Panther-inspired costume at the Super Bowl 50 Halftime Show, Beyoncé embraces her black features. “baby hair and Afros…negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils,” and relishes in her Southern heritage, “my daddy Alabama / momma Louisiana / you mix that Negro with that Creole / make a Texas Bama.” Essence Magazine remarked that “Beyoncé is intentional about Black women’s power; how we get it, how we keep it, and understanding that we deserve it.” These sentiments are important to hear because black women are berated daily for both their race and their gender. Once Lemonade was released, Formation proved to be a gusty batch of winds before the hurricane. Lemonade was a tour de force of black womanism, Yoruban mythology, the reclamation of rock and country music, and the everlasting effects slavery had on the black family in the United States of America. The album inspired courses at universities such as the University of Texas in San Antonio. Likewise, the album and it’s lead single, “Formation.” were discussed everywhere from the 2016 presidential campaign to the White House dinner table.

Beyoncé’s career from 2008 until the present day has been filled with growth and enrichment. Beyoncé naturally grew into the role of a feminist icon through personal experiences, marriage, miscarriages, motherhood, and research, scouring YouTube for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie videos. From of her female-first athleisure line, IVY PARK, to the announcement of her scholarship program for black women, to her postponement of tour dates in retaliation to North Carolina’s transgender bathroom laws Beyoncé has intentionally crafted a brand feminism that dictates the course of fourth wave feminism, especially within pop culture and music. Her combination of sexual freedom and a strong political message and black womanhood presents a difficult image to dissect, but it is ultimately worth it. Fourth wave feminism is still growing and expanding, as is Beyoncé’s position as a feminist icon and musician, and it will only be succeeded by a new wave once another figure like Beyoncé appears and pushes the cultural conversation to its greatest lengths like she has.


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