That’s what people were asking right around the time 4, Beyoncé’s fourth album, came out in 2011. Leading up to 4, Beyoncé had a major part in songs like “Bills, Bills, Bills,” “Independent Woman,” “Survivor,” “If I were a Boy,” and “Me, Myself and I.” All of those songs could be seen as feminist battle cries. The lead single to 4, “Run the World (Girls),” didn’t change that.
”How we’re smart enough to make these millions / Strong enough to bear the children / Then get back to business,” Beyoncé sings in “Run the World,” referencing motherhood.
She followed this up with songs like “Grown Woman” and “Flawless” on BEYONCÉ. “Flawless” samples the words of author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie from a TED talk called ”We Should All Be Feminists.” Adichie’s words are the second verse of the song:
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.
Beyoncé has recently been more vocal about being a feminist, bolstering these messages in her music. This wasn’t always the case. In April 2013, she told British Vogue she was a “modern-day” feminist, saying, “I’m just a woman, and I love being a woman.”
But in an op-ed for the Shriver Report this year, Beyoncé wrote about gender equality, the patriarchy, and the need for equal pay.
”So why are we [women] viewed as less than equal? These old attitudes are drilled into us from the very beginning,” she wrote. “And we have to teach our girls that they can reach as high as humanly possible.”
Still, there are some who think Beyoncé is sending contradictory messages. Author and feminist bell hooks critiqued Knowles during a panel talk at New York’s New School in May 2014. Knowles was on the cover of Time magazine as one of its most influential people, and posed in her underwear. The prominent scholar argued that Beyoncé was being exploited by the patriarchy to sell the magazine.
”Let’s take the image of this super-rich, very powerful black female, and let’s use it in the service of imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy, because she probably had very little control over that cover, that image,” hooks said, before dissecting Beyoncé’s privilege:
I’ve really been challenging people to think about, would we be at all interested in Beyonce if she wasn’t so rich? Because I don’t think you can separate her class power and the wealth from people’s fascination with her. That here is a young, black woman who is so incredibly wealthy, and wealthy is what so many young people fantasize, dream about, sexualize, eroticize.
This isn’t the only time critics have found Beyoncé’s feminism lacking. Many have pointed to the times Beyoncé has sung songs about being subservient to men (“Cater 2 U”) or ones that have seemingly contradictory messages, like “Drunk in Love,” in which Jay Z references a domestic violence scene from the Tina Turner biopic What’s Love Got to Do With It.
These critiques of Beyoncé opened up a bigger conversation about feminism, feminists, role models, and how women treat each other. Roxane Gay, author of the best-selling Bad Feminist, made this observation: ”At some point, though, we have to differentiate between concern and concern trolling. We have to trust that women can be feminists, good role models and embrace sexuality,” she wrote for the Guardian. ”We have to believe that we can hold different points of view without labeling each other bad feminists.”