Breaking Down the Battle of the Genders: Beyoncé’s “Run The World (Girls)”

Administrative Note:  I am honored to post the first “real content” on AWF.  As art criticism is one of my passions, I hope to use my Wednesday posts to refine my technique as critic, theorist, and fan.  Because I can talk forever about this stuff, I try to break it up into sections below.  I would love feedback, particularly if you think I’m missing a crucial section in my analysis.

 When we were reviewing all the endless papers for college admission four years ago, my father told me that he would know I’d earned my degree when I could successfully explain to him the difference between “sex” and “gender”.  (Our college cannot legally discriminate on the basis of either one; I cannot find a good link, because the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is for disabilities.)  Daddy, I knew the difference then, but I couldn’t figure out how to tell you. 

 Would you mind if I let Beyoncé take over?
LINK TO SOURCE:  YOUTUBE VIDEO

I am not even going to touch on the music video here, although I encourage you to watch it on your own. That fascinating piece of sociological art absolutely merits its own post, which will probably go on my personal feminism blog when I get it up and running.   

 

ARTIST BACKGROUND (THANK YOU, WIKIPEDIA)  

If you’ve listened to pop music in the past two decades and have a memory larger than a goldfish, you know who Beyoncé is.  In the ’90s she was famous for headlining the R&B act Destiny’s Child, and in the ’00s, she started her solo career.   Rather than recap all of that, I’ll just highlight some things I didn’t know about her until very recently:

  • ·”In June 2010, Knowles was ranked second on [the] Forbes list of the 100 Most Powerful and Influential celebrities in the world, and first on its list of the Most Powerful and Influential musicians in the world.”
  • ·She has won 16 Grammy Awards[9] – 13 as a solo artist and 3 as a member of Destiny’s Child.  The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), also listed Knowles as the top certified artist of the decade.[13]HYPERLINK  \l “cite_note-13″[14]
  • ·Her father Matthew managed her career from 1995 (including the Destiny’s Child days) until March of this year, when she decided to self-manage.  Her mother Tina was responsible for most of the costumes for her stage performances until recently.
  • ·Her first name is an alternate spelling of her mother’s maiden name, Beyincé.   Her father is Black and her mother is Creole.
  • ·She has been with the same romantic partner for nearly a decade.  In 2002, she began dating the rapper Jay-Z, and they secretly married in 2008.   (I have noticed that she very rarely talks about their relationship in interviews, and never in detail.)
  • ·In November 2009, Miley Cyrus was quoted as saying the following:  “[Beyoncé] is the ultimate woman. You look at her and you don’t think, I wonder what her personal life is like. You look at her and you go, that girl on the stage is a superstar. You don’t care about anything else; you only care about her music. So I would hope that would be me in the future.”  [[you bet your BUTT there will be a separate Miley Cyrus post coming]]
  • ·In April 2011, Beyoncé joined FLOTUS Michelle Obama’s campaign against child obesity.  “Knowles reworked “Get Me Bodied” (2007) and renamed it “Move Your Body” for the Let’s Move! Flash Workout initiative.[235]”   You can watch an adorable video of her surprising a school dance team here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EgHY53dOZ-U

CULTURAL CONTEXT/DEFINITIONS

The “battle of the sexes” is a trope in popular culture that seems to stretch back endlessly, and I haven’t done proper research on it yet.  If you’d like some definitions, here are some working ones for this post [[please note that I am not a gender studies major; this is how I understand the distinction]]:

Sex –the categorical noun, not the act of intercourse — refers to the biological/physiological nature of a human, which most [Western] scientists divide into two major categories: male and female. Sadly, there are cases where one’s genitalia do not match one’s hormones, creating the intersex paradigm and posing huge philosophical concerns for these individuals, their families, and society at large. This is different than being trans, and I won’t talk about that now.    

Gender refers to the social/psychological expression of sexual identity –again, not referring to intercourse/orientation.  The majority of Westerners have a one-to-one correspondence between their sexual identity and their gender identity (male:masculine and female:feminine), but not all of them.  Also, while one’s sex is largely determined physically at birth, one’s gender is determined over the course of a lifetime, through performative acts in dialogue with one’s society.   That is to say, a person may be born male and agreed (by his superiors) to be masculine at birth, but even if that accepts the gender identity his family gave him, what his masculinity looks like will be continually defined as he ages and begins to act in accordance with or in contradiction to established conventions and norms regarding his gender.  (Whew, long sentence!)  And yes, there is more than one non-Western society that recognizes a third gender.

If you have more information/literature about this, particularly the history of the “battle of the sexes”, please comment below or send me an email: yaelgodiva at gmail dot com.

 
ARTISTIC CRITICISM:  GUT REACTION  

If this song doesn’t get stuck in your head for at least 10 minutes after your first listen, then Beyoncé hasn’t done her job.   Go and tell her so; I’ll wait here.  😉

Leaving aside the content for now, I’d say that Beyoncé has produced an excellent dance-hall single in “Run The World”.   It’s full of literal hooks in the music and is a total earworm.   She uses enough profanity to be provocative (and therefore noticeable), and she employs the bleeps in unexpected places, making the listener sit up in surprise.  The bass is out of control.

In short, if you don’t start dancing/feel your blood pulsing when this plays through your speakers, you either have a horrible sound system or are pretty damn white.

 

CONTENT CRITICISM: LYRICAL EXEGESIS

 [[note: these lyrics were retrieved from this website and I redid the line breaks, the capitalization, and a few of the words to reflect how the song sounds to me.]]
“boy/

this beat is crazy/
this is how they made [this]/
Houston, Texas baby /
this goes out to all my girls /
that’s in the club rocking the latest/
who would buy it for themselves and get more money later”

Beyoncé was born and raised in Houston, says Wikipedia. It took me roughly six tries to realize that “this Houston, Texas baby” is one phrase, because the rhythm cuts against it (that’s kind of brilliant; +5 Art Points)

+10 Feminist Points for championing women’s emancipation with regard to their own wallets.  -5 Feminist Points for emphasizing the materialism of the feminine gender, a hoary cliché.

my persuasion can build a nation/
endless power/
our love/
we can devour — /
you’ll do anything for me”

+5 Feminist Points for acknowledging the incredible power and influence women can/do have with regard to policy and government.  -10 Feminist Points for implying that this is due to sex and love rather than the innate human ability to reason.  -5 Feminist Points for the line “you’ll do anything for me”, which implies manipulation is part of femininity.

“I’m repping for the girls that’s/
taking over the world/
help me raise a glass for the college grads.
forty-one roll and let you know what time it is/
check/
you can’t hold me/
I work my nine to five, better cut my check/
this goes out to all the women /
getting it in/
you on your grind/

to other men that respect what I do/
please accept my shine”

+5 Feminist Points for asserting that women are taking over the world.  -5 Feminist Points for sounding vaguely threatening (to the menfolk and other non-girls) about this.  +5 Feminist Points for the shout-out to her fellow ladies, particularly the “college grads” (she isn’t one).   +5 Feminist Points for using the phrase “nine to five” for women’s work, acknowledging the complex reality of modern-day society.  -5 Feminist Points for making women sound selfish/greedy for wanting to get their due.   +5 Art Points for the slant rhyme “grind/shine”.    -5 Comprehension Points for the phrase “forty-one roll” (is this a drink?)    +10 Feminist Points for thanking the men who do respect her.  

Lyrics I Simply Don’t Understand

 I think I need a barber (barber)/
none of these b****** can fade me (fade me)/
I’m so good with this/
I remind you I’m so hood with this”

What?   No, really — what on earth does this mean?  -10 Comprehension Points for confusing the heck out of me while sounding really, really cool.

WHAT THE FANS ARE SAYING/WHAT IT ALL MEANS  

Normally I really enjoy the YouTube comments section (particularly the Top Comments), but this time I found them largely unbearable.  Nobody can ever really win the battle of the genders in social discourse, but the history of the world — which is the history of the patriarchy — has made all too clear that women may win the occasional battle, but men have always won the war.   And it’s unclear to me that this is a battle worth fighting at all.   Sure, you get some great music out of it (see the entire score of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate), but I wonder whether the harm is more effective than the good. 

Now, I’m no egalitarian (although many of my closest friends are) — but I’d rather see men and women merge the strengths and perspectives of their two genders together to fight true injustice, rather than each other.   Also, building a nation is so much more fun/productive if both parties get to help openly. 

The only context in which I think this kind of girl-power anthem (deliberately antagonizing the boys) is appropriate is in many Third World countries where women are not just legislated against but physically terrorized.  In those societies it can be relevant/morale-building to play a battle anthem that rallies the lady troops, as this one does.   But in the USA, where it is [currently] against both the legal and moral code to disenfranchise women, “Run The World (Girls)” actually sets us back a little bit, by challenging the opposing side when it ought to extend a hand, or at least an olive branch.

It seems like the fans also find this song a bit distasteful, if catchy:  “Run the World (Girls) peaked at number twenty-nine on the Billboard Hot 100,[49] and became Knowles’ lowest charting lead single as a solo artist.”

For variety and my own amusement, I’m including here an excerpt from the “Featured Meaning” by a user named Alec on the lyrics website:

“So, wait, who runs the world exactly? Sike. [sic] The overt message of female empowerment, although seemingly overconfident and a tad threatening to men, offers yet another strong anthem for women from the lovely Beyoncé…In a pop culture where females in the public eye are endlessly encouraged to be overtly sexual in their presentation…Beyoncé is offering a powerful message that is encouraging and motivating for young women, who will grow up to be in positions of power. Although the song’s lyrics are pretty repetitive, it’s refreshing to hear such a positive message being sung in such an upbeat song!”

Hmm.   What do you think of Alec’s analysis?

 

TL;DR: IN CONCLUSION

 My completely arbitrary assigning of Feminist Points yields the following score for “Run The World (Girls)”:  10 (+40, -30).    As I do more of these, I’ll begin to develop a meaningful metric.   (Or not.)

Anyway, I enjoy this song for its musical qualities and for its badassery, but I’d be wary of playing it for a crowd.   Beyoncé is a fascinating feminist figure who I can’t wait to explore in more detail — I have so much to say about that “Single Ladies” video!

The “battle of the sexes” is a trope that makes me nervous, but Beyoncé managed to throw in some lyrical curveballs along with some clichés.   Diva knows what she’s doing; I just disagree with her on the right philosophy to preach.

 

Next Week on AWF Wednesday:  I’ll be exploring the slut-shaming problematized in last year’s film Easy A.    If you’re a really ambitious commenter, watch it this weekend so we can have fun arguing!

 

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21 thoughts on “Breaking Down the Battle of the Genders: Beyoncé’s “Run The World (Girls)”

  1. Emmy says:

    Fascinating post, LadyG! I like your rating system and learned a lot about Beyoncé.

    I’d like to comment on this part of your post:

    “Also, building a nation is so much more fun/productive if both parties get to help openly. … The only context in which I think this kind of girl-power anthem (deliberately antagonizing the boys) is appropriate is in many Third World countries where women are not just legislated against but physically terrorized. In those societies it can be relevant/morale-building to play a battle anthem that rallies the lady troops, as this one does. But in the USA, where it is [currently] against both the legal and moral code to disenfranchise women, “Run The World (Girls)” actually sets us back a little bit, by challenging the opposing side when it ought to extend a hand, or at least an olive branch.”

    While I wholeheartedly agree with you that pitting women against men is not always the most useful tactic, I don’t know if it is true that, in the USA, women don’t face significant disenfranchisement, both legally and in society. Examples: Recently, female workers at Wal-Mart recently had a huge discrimination case thrown out because the Supreme Court did not recognize the collective action of female laborers to be a legitimate class-action category, even though they were discriminated against on the basis of sex. Sex workers in the United States (many of whom are female) are persecuted by law and, more often than not, are systematically denied adequate protection by the law in cases of sexual assault, as well as access to public welfare services. There are countless more examples in which women, particularly in the working class, are discriminated against by laws in the USA but I’ll keep this brief. Outside the scope of the law, rape culture still leaves thousands of women physically and emotionally terrorized in the USA each year. Trans women are specifically-targeted for systematic violence in our own backyards. Plenty of women are still de facto disenfranchised from certain occupations, social opportunities, and what not despite any type of “moral code” that would prevent this.

    In light of this, I can’t agree that there is not a need for anthems in the USA for women as an oppressed class, or to build morale. Women from all kinds of backgrounds in the USA, whether they are trans sex workers, PhD students in top philosophy programs (hat tip: http://beingawomaninphilosophy.wordpress.com), and even the “college grads” that Beyoncé is raising a glass to, deserve a chance to stand up to the people and systems that oppress and discriminate against them, even if it challenges our image of the country as an evolved, liberal bastion of women’s emancipation. Liberalism has helped some women achieve some types of equality, but it has failed plenty of other women and helped to render them and their plight largely invisible in many cases. The more important issue, that I think you touched on, is how this resistance is expressed, and to what end – the problem I see with this song is that its definition of success is very focused on classist notions of success and what not, but I can see why she would want to encourage girls from certain demographics who historically have not had access to college educations, the pleasures enjoyed by our leisure class, or the chance to dream about “taking over the world.”

    • Christina says:

      All of these are important issues, Emmy, and I’m glad you brought them up. Too often we leave the US or the West out of our analysis because we assume the work has been done. But even given that, is making boys/men the enemy the way we fight the patriarchy? Are we willing to set up that conflict in order to raise morale?

      • mumblerant says:

        it’s important to distinguish between genres of conflict here. this song is not conflict in the same way as a walmart lawsuit. it is conflict on the symbolic level of play. it is not ‘real’ in the same way. as a game, its parameters are fixed, in a broad way, but it is endless replayable with infinite permutations. that is, a game like this can be used as an iteration of a great project of 21st century popular culture, working out gender roles for the post-modern world (that is, digesting the upheaval of ‘tradition’ that was entailed by the original feminist revolution). thus, it is less worthwhile to read Beyonce in the context of legal/normative disadvantage and more fitting to read her in the context of a thousand Lil’ Jon songs which push against her message.
        see this very interesting post by another anonymous friend: http://thugout.wordpress.com/2008/12/24/im-a-feminist-woman-flirtation-and-liberation/
        by the by, i’m not sure about this accusation of ‘classist notions of success’. they DON’T align with OUR notions, as is clear from Lady G’s disapproval of some of B’s crass materialism. that kind of goal-direction, AND college education as a highly-regarded achievement (as opposed to, for me, kind of passe) is i think pretty well aligned with a working class outlook.

      • LadyG says:

        I’m just going to go ahead and just shout AMEN to everything mumblerant said in this comment.

        i agree that the political fight for women’s civil liberties and thus safety is far from over, but that is also not what Beyonce is singing about. watch the music video if you want to see where first world vs third world distinctions become relevant, then talk to me about classist notions of success.

        ps i love you; not hatin’

      • Emmy says:

        @mumblerant:
        Thanks for the link! What an excellent post.

  2. T says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot of the stuff you mention in terms of lyric/content analysis. It’s nice to know I’m not just going crazy =D And I think I laughed out loud at lyrics I just don’t understand. Looking forward to a post on the music video! (Not so subtle hint hint)

    • LadyG says:

      I can’t guarantee you’re not going crazy just because I’m thinking about this too. :-p

      And there’s no way I’m going to get to the music video before September, there’s too much to write about

  3. Cookie Monster says:

    This is great! I found this song really strange when I first heard it, and I’m glad someone took the time to really work out what’s going on in it.

  4. Quintus Varus says:

    Can we easily distinguish between legislation against women and a physical assault against them? The law is enforced through violence, and so a law prohibiting women from a particular occupation is socially organized violence against them.

  5. Nymphadora says:

    I definitely agree that it would be more productive in the long run to extend the olive branch. But I don’t think we’re at a point yet where we can move beyond the “battle of the sexes” when even women in the U.S. don’t always have a choice over what happens to their own bodies.

    • LadyG says:

      I think the point that I didn’t make clearly enough is that I think that this isn’t a song about the battle of the sexes, which is crucial, but a song about the battle of the genders, which is not required and perhaps not advisable

  6. mumblerant says:

    so. i think this song is cool and i think it is strategically a positive thing. not because women are legislated against or terrorized in our country. but because i think as a general rule there is not much in the way of gender solidarity amongst the women of this country. see: women competing against each other for recognition, approval, success etc. i remember this from back when my sister was in school, but i think there is also evidence for it in TV and stuff.
    in a culture where bro-ishness has provided a stable ground for solidarity amongst men just on the basis of masculinity (we all like beer, we all like chanting and making noise, whatever), i am happy to see efforts to construct a parallel collective identity for women (check out how sororities are NOT like fraternities for girls, but instead appear to be electively entered battle grounds for women to insult each other [in my understanding of them]).
    as always, when you see a front for battle being mobilized, look at what is unified behind the front: if starting a fight with the boys means being collectively harmonized as women, ok, that’s something.

    • Emmy says:

      This is very spot-on. Women are systematically and culturally encouraged to turn on each other, so this kind of solidarity expression is far overdue.

      You’ve inspired me to post on bro-ishness in the future, from the perspective of an aspiring girl-bro who has always wanted to be in a frat of sorts and often struggles quite a lot to find any basic connection to other women who are not also girl-bros.

    • LadyG says:

      i love your depiction of sororities, but i was told this weekend that sorority culture does actually vary from campus to campus. so perhaps we need to meet some new sorority sisters to prove us wrong?

      i agree that it’s not only something, but a valuable something. i do like this song; i just don’t think it’s perfect

  7. Queer Jewish Dandy says:

    Interesting analysis, LadyG! I think it says more about our culture than the song that the ways women can best advance themselves even today are money, sex, and manipulation. Let us hope that intellect actually becomes the normative mode of advancement in society soon. Also, I wish to give you +10 inclusiveness points for your use of the phrase “menfolk and other non-girls.”

    As to the question of whether the best way to dismantle the patriarchy is to antagonize straight white men, I think this mostly hetero tranny-fag should stay out of that conversation. I am way too biased in many ways to be articulate.

  8. Justine! says:

    Who runs the world? Ham.

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