ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: Gold Leash: The Gap Between Role Model Feminism and Our Obsession with the American Gangster Wife

ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: Gold Leash: The Gap Between Role Model Feminism and the American Gangster Wife

In
her song, “Royals,” Lorde catapults herself into the music scene purring, “I
cut my teeth on wedding rings in the movies.” This lyric epitomizes everything
that made 2013 tick in pop culture. Lorde, unlike the l’enfant terrible Miley
Cyrus, or the warm and inoffensive Taylor Swift, or even the sultry and divisive
Lana del Rey, offers stunning commentary on the kind of pop culture backdrop millennials have been raised on, as well as the effects and repercussions of
being immersed in this worldview. “Royals” is about the tension between
resenting the purveyors of wealth, while still longing for the privileges of
royalty.

These
same tensions play out uncomfortably throughout Beyoncé’s latest visual album,
where Beyoncé is a female fighter and contender, who angrily smashes her
collection of pageant and talent trophies, but is still being marketed as the
poster girl for having-it-all.

Make
no mistake—when we talk about Beyoncé being Queen Bey, we are not just
referring to her creative talents; we are talking about her entire real-life
identity. As opposed to Janelle Monae, who actively constructs a creative
universe in her immersive concept albums, Beyoncé’s creative work is about her
own development as a woman and an artist. Throughout Beyoncé you see clips from
the artist’s own childhood, coming of age in the public eye. Beyoncé owns these
images in a way that Miley Cyrus did not. Part of me wonders about the way we view
little white girls as sweet and virginal, in need of rescuing. If Beyoncé never
had these trappings, she also never had these privileges. She was never held up
as an icon of girlhood, but she has grown into an icon of what it means to be a
woman coming into her own strength.

Historically,
the queen’s power comes from her ability to shape-shift. Both Beyoncé and
Madonna have been heralded as great based on their ability to shift their
images: mother, virgin, beauty queen, whore.  Beyoncé’s latest album is a gorgeous montage of transformation, both
tender and aggressive, though never at the same time. Yonce is on her knees in
a limo with her husband in one scene, and growling with Chimamanda Adichie
about giving girls the power to be who they want to be on the next. Bey wants
everything and has the ultimate in today’s feminist status symbols- a
supportive and committed husband to help her get it all done.

Throughout
the history of music and film, images of girls and women have been used as
symbols. As female artists reclaim those
images, they also have the burden of addressing that history, which is why it
is often so unclear what these images mean and what they ultimately represent,
especially in regards to female sexuality. When Beyoncé wears the garb of
motherhood, she is a symbol of all motherhood. When she shakes her hips on a
beach, she is encouraging all women to get more in touch with their sexuality.

Role
model feminism, the dominant feminism of the digital age, is all about asking
women if they measure up, and has ended up manifesting as bullying, more than
thoughtful discourse about what feminism can or should mean in the future. I’m
not sure why we would lobby for our pop stars to deliver public service
announcements anyway. After all, art, at its best, doesn’t teach us to be
perfect. It stretches us. It makes us open up. It gets under our skin. It forces us to grow.

The
closest Beyoncé comes to greatness is her song “Flawless,” which is
imaginative, inventive, powerful and provocative, but throughout much of her
visual album, Beyoncé doesn’t directly deal with the tension between her desire
to be seen as a creative agent and the fact that a great deal of her power
comes from her status as a self-described “gangster wife” and how her
status as Jay-Z’s wife allows her to be an alpha female, rather than just
another replaceable video vixen.

Perhaps
in response to the antihero alpha male trend, the 2010s have been filled with
icons of frail femininity trying to have teeth. Lana del Rey describes herself
as a  “gangster Nancy Sinatra,” which
plays out as tarnished Hollywood beauty rather than street smarts. TV shows
like Breaking Bad were notorious for
dividing viewers on whether or not Skyler, who inadvertently became a mob wife,
was an ungrateful shrew or a beaten down heroine.  In Sons
of Anarchy,
Jemma’s status allows her to see the other younger women her
husband and the entire gang screw on a regular basis as objects to be used,
rather than a true threat to her power.

The
true mob wife gains her status at the expense of other, more disposable, women.
This is not the kind of marriage that Chimamanda Adiche speaks about in her wonderfully
revolutionary call for women and men to aspire to marriage on equal terms. The
“powerful” gangsta wife is feminism on a gold leash, where a ring (and a man)
is a status symbol, rather than a true partnership.

In
order for the type of feminism Adichie calls for, we not only need to see women
as powerful, but we need to dismantle the deep-rooted patriarchal
ideals that consumer culture continues to dictate. Videos for songs like
‘’Pretty Hurts” pretend to illuminate the harm of beauty standards, even as they sell us back the same image of perfection—how gorgeous Beyoncé revels
in her thinner body after quickly losing her baby weight. The reason so many
girl power ballads fall flat is that feminism loses when it becomes just
another marketing tool, another way to make money. Girls don’t run the world and Beyoncé knows it. The idea that an
individual woman can be powerful is not really a new idea at all- we love our
Cleopatras, our Madonnas, our Beyoncés bouncing on a beach, completely in control
of their money, their sexuality, their public persona. It is the idea that in a
sea of video vixens, or in the backdrop of women in a party scene, each woman is
individually worthy of respect that is truly radical and revolutionary. “I’m a
grown woman. I can do whatever I want,” Beyoncé coos in the last song of her
album, smiling knowingly and mischievously at the camera. Never has a woman
enjoyed the love and attention of a million adoring fans as much as Beyoncé
does. If only we gave every girl who took a selfie that much power.

Arielle Bernstein is
a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American
University and also freelances. Her work has been published in
The
Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She
has been listed four times as a finalist in
Glimmer Train short story
contests
. She is currently writing her first book.

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