It's My Body, I Can Do What I Want: Beyoncé’s Role in the Reclamation of the Black Woman’s Body and Sexuality
Sexual empowerment has continued to be confused with hyper-sexualization and sexual accessibility. The three terms are far from identical in meaning, but they are each applicable to the sexual history and culture of Black women. In an age where Black women are fighting to reclaim ownership of their bodies and sexuality, others are critical of these efforts and identifying them as methods of self-sexploitation. Beyoncé Giselle Knowles is one of the women in the hip-hop game that has made it one of her goals to restore the sexual freedom of Black women everywhere. Through her work, she has continuously proven that it is possible to be a professional, mother, sister, wife, and a woman comfortable with all aspects of her sexuality. “There is unbelievable power in ownership and women should own their sexuality,” Knowles stated in her recent interview with “Out” magazine (Monde).
In the 2007 American Psychological Association Report, the following characterized hyper-sexualization: “A person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or sexual behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics; a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy; a person is sexually objectified—that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; and/or sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person” (Zurbriggen et al.). Additionally, the term “sexual empowerment” was defined as the “…feeling entitled to and able to experience sexual pleasure and desire in a culture that restricts girls’ sexuality” (Peterson). Women, such as Beyoncé, are beginning to realize that their sexuality is under their complete control for shaping and molding. They are not promoting hyper-sexualization by encouraging sexiness in their music videos and song lyrics but instead are promoting their innate right to be sexy. They make it clear that their value is not solely derived from sexual appeal and that they are making the choice to embrace their sexuality. The Black woman’s body and sexuality is being reclaimed.
The historical tragedies surrounding the inhumane exposure and abuse of the Black woman’s body play a role in making the movement of sexual reclamation supported by Beyoncé a difficult one. Since the Black woman’s body has been degraded and taken advantage of historically, it is frowned upon when their bodies are flaunted in this day and age. Ever since the Elizabethan era, Blacks were considered to be lusty with bestial sexualities. This served as justification for the rape of Black slave women by white masters. “The Black woman was depicted as a woman with an insatiable appetite for sex” (Rhymes, 2007).
There were a few features of the slavery institution that fueled the idea that Black women were innately and uncontrollably sexually immoral. Slaves were frequently stripped unwillingly and examined before they were sold off. While the function of this procedure was to ensure that the slave was healthy and free of any whipping scars that would suggest that they attempted to run away in the past, this procedure also put the women at risk of sexual exploitation. It was not unusual for them to be taken advantage of during this process. Nudity during this time was associated with a “lack of civility, morality, and sexual restraint even when the nakedness was forced” (Rhymes). Since slaves were thought to be subhuman, they were often left with few clothes. If they did not have sufficient clothing, the quality was raggedy and left them exposed. This deeply contrasted with white women who were always fully clothed—thus creating polar opposite stereotypes with white women being “civilized, modest, and sexually pure” while Black women were “crude, immodest, and sexually deviant” (Rhymes).
Over time, there was also an abundance of household items that featured half-naked Black women, which played a major role in objectification. Things such as postcards, ashtrays, and drinking glasses were decorated with the bodies of Black women. These sexually explicit items were popular in American culture and contributed to the hyper-sexualization of Black women.
Being that Beyoncé’s significant role in the modern movement of the Black woman’s reclamation of her body and sexuality proves to be problematic due to a rich history of hyper-sexualization and sexual accessibility, the role that Sara Baartman, also known as Hottentot Venus, plays is a critical one. Baartman was a woman from the Khoikhoi group of South Africa. During colonial expansion, English men took her in order to travel England and to use her in an exhibit solely for entertainment purposes (South African History Online). Because of her atypical, large buttocks and brown color, she became an object of fascination. Baartman was put on display in a cage, and people from various parts of Europe paid to see her body that was often advertised as being “the ne plus ultra of hideousness” and “the greatest deformity in the world” (South African History Online). During her time in the exhibition, she was often showcased alongside zoo animals and ordered around like she was an animal herself. All the while she was scantily clad. Eventually, French anatomists, zoologists, and physiologists took her to be studied for her seemingly rare body shape, and they concluded that she was a species in between human and animal because of her “odd” body characteristics. Once she died, there was a plaster cast created of her body, and her body parts were kept on display in a museum. Women like Sara Baartman were mocked and objectified due to their African features. Black women today are flaunting the very body parts that they were once put on display for which causes much debate. While it can be said that this sense of pride can be seen as complete disregard for the past embarrassment of the Black woman’s body, women like Beyoncé are taking complete ownership of their bodies by taking control of how much is seen and how frequent it is seen. They are also controlling this aspect of their life by shaping the discussion surrounding their bodies.
Lily Burana, the feminist author of the memoir Strip City, said, “Feminism took a switch. It was no longer women saying, ‘To be taken seriously, I need to be asexual.’ Sexuality became more egalitarian” (Sharpley-Whiting). Becoming sexual without embarrassment or objectification became a viable option for women, especially with role models doing this in the hip-hop industry. As the poster child of this movement, Beyoncé unexpectedly released her self-titled album on December 13, 2013. Not only was it highly renown because of it’s sheer shock factor, it was also popular because of it’s sexual content. It is arguable that this reclamation of body and sexuality started well before the debut of her self-titled album.
In 2004, Beyoncé released her single “Naughty Girl.” The popular ode to a woman’s freedom of sexuality and choice to share her body with the man of her dreams was accompanied by an equally sexy music video. Upon the beginning of the music video, Beyoncé and her dancers are mysterious silhouettes dancing behind a white screen to the track. Before the beat drops, Beyoncé rips off her skirt and begins to dance sensually with her girls. Throughout the remainder of the video, she is seductively dancing with Usher Raymond as he finds it hard to resist the spell that her and her body has him under. Beyoncé shows what it means to take power in the ownership of her body and sexuality by doing whatever she wants with her body. Unlike Sara Baartman, there is no man putting her on display for the masses; she is choosing to share what she was born with and embrace it. This isn’t degradation. It is empowerment.
In the “Naughty Girl” music video, Beyoncé took distinctive characteristics of two traditionally negative stereotypes of Black women and transformed them into a positive, uplifting image. By being a woman that resembled a mulatto with light skin, long hair, curvaceous body, and few African features (Jezebel image) that used her sexuality to emasculate and control the man in the video (Matriarch image), she created a more unique, modernized image that asserted her as the person in control.
"You can be a businesswoman, a mother, an artist, and a feminist - whatever you want to be - and still be a sexual being,” said Beyoncé in her “Out” magazine interview (Monde). She is a woman that has her own fragrances in the market as well as a clothing line. She is the mother of a two-year baby girl. As mentioned in one of her latest singles “Flawless,” she supports feminism as it relates to the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. At the same time, she poses in photographs that show off her curves and has no shame in doing so. She balances her right to sexuality and independence.
On her newest album, another single that proclaimed her sexual independence was “Grown Woman.” “I'm a grown woman, I can do whatever I want, I'm a grown woman, I can do whatever I want, I can be bad if I want, I can say what I want, I can live fast if I want, I can go slow all night long” (Knowles) is one of the verses that captures Beyoncé’s movement going against society’s restraints and doing what is rightfully owed to her due to her maturity and independence. The verses, “Go girl (go girl), She got that bomb (that bomb), That girl can get whatever she wants, Go girl (hey girl), She got that tight (that tight), Them boys, They do whatever she like” (Knowles) makes a reference to the desirability of her vagina and how it helps her in asserting her power. She has claimed her body as weapon of control. She knows that what she has is wanted, and she is claiming the rights on how she chooses to distribute it.
Additionally, there was much debate surrounding one of her newest singles from her self-titled album. “Partition” was an ode to being freaky for her man, and the video was an explicit visualization of that idea. “Driver, roll up the partition please, I don’t need you seeing Yoncé on her knees…” (Knowles) is how the song begins—and it had many jaws dropping. She hinted at giving her man fellatio while in the vehicle—something that was completely explicit and racy but honest nonetheless. There was no man forcing her to get on her knees; she expressed her choice and accepting of doing this act. Other controversial lyrics from the song included, “Now my mascara runnin', red lipstick smudged, Oh he so horny, yeah he want to fuck, He popped all my buttons and he ripped my blouse, He Monica Lewinski'd all on my gown,” and “Hand prints and good grips all on my ass, Private show with the music blastin', He like to call me Peaches when we get this nasty” (Knowles). Those lyrics are indubitably explicit in nature but also tell a story of a woman enjoying a sexual encounter with a man. For Beyoncé, it tells of the sexual encounters that occur between her and her husband. She aspires to create a shared narrative that many Black women, especially those whom are married, are discouraged to have—a sexual narrative that gives the women enjoyment. She closes the song with a few French verses that translate to, “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” (Knowles). Beyoncé is no longer insinuating that she is a sexual being; she is explicitly stating it while suggesting that it is completely okay to love sex and retain your rights as a woman. She also openly shows it during the music video.
At the beginning of the music video, she suggestively drops a napkin on the ground and tries to seduce her husband from across the dining table. At the start of the next scene, she is then leading a car that contains her husband down a road. She is dressed in a rain jacket and at the end of the road; she opens it and exposes her lingerie. The video then cuts to a hot and steamy scene of her and her husband caressing one another in the vehicle. He is undressing her as she moans and touches herself. The scene then cuts to a dance number in which she is dressed in a diamond bikini top and thong. She seduces her husband, who is seated in front of the stage, through sensual dance.
The “Partition” music video was Beyoncé’s main weapon in reclaiming the Black woman’s body and sexuality. By choosing to dance for her husband and have him see her naked, she controlled the way in which he would be able to view her. By making this a music video available to the masses, she also controlled how the world would see her and proudly upheld her “sexy mother and wife” image. She controlled the way in which the world would be able to view her. The music video was consciously created by her and helped her in accomplishing her goal of showing that she had no problem being a sexual being and role model for other Black women who should also feel the same way.
“"There is a double standard when it comes to sexuality that still persists. Men are free and women are not. That is crazy,” Beyoncé commented during a magazine interview (Monde). Black women are not openly accepted when they embrace their sexuality and choose to reclaim their bodies by decorating it in whatever they desire and flaunting it as they want. As stated before, sexual empowerment has continued to be confused with hyper-sexualization and sexual accessibility. Just because black women are beginning to feel entitled to sexual pleasure does not mean that they are encouraging sexual exploitation of themselves. “I'm very happy if my words can ever inspire or empower someone who considers themselves an oppressed minority … We are all the same and we all want the same things: the right to be happy, to be just who we want to be and to love who we want to love,” commented Knowles (Monde). By creating anthems such as “Naughty Girl,” “Grown Woman,” and “Naughty Girl,” Beyoncé is creating a support system and source of encouragement for Black women that never existed before. She is empowering all women—both old and young. She empowers her ancestors that were taken advantage of before her and objectified—such as Sara Baartman—by reclaiming her body and what it can be used for. By taking control of her body, she is taking control of the portrayal of Black women and letting society know that Black women could be whoever the hell they want.
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