To the Morons Who Call Beyonce A “Whore”

Beyonce and her husband Jay-Z perform at the 56th annual Grammy Awards in Los Angeles

whore  [hawr, hohr or, often, hoor]

noun
1. a woman who engages in promiscuous sexual intercourse,
usually for money; prostitute; harlot; strumpet.

 

Beyonce  stans fans are up in arms, and rightfully so, after a UK newspaper headline referred to Beyonce as a “whore”. The article  details the barrage of criticism, mostly from mothers,  following her performance of “Drunk in Love” for the 56 Annual Grammy Awards . The article quoted one “horrified”  woman who remarked  “Beyonce looked like a whore on stage”

But before we react to this “horrified” British mum, let’s consider first the performance in question, beginning with Beyonce’s wardrobe, which has taken the most heat.  The pop-star took to the stage in a black leotard and pantyhose.

Actually, I wore this very outfit as a three year old. Really, I did. I wore it to ballet class.

The  leotard/ unitard has become standard performance attire for Beyonce, but she isn’t the only performer who relies on this dance staple. The Rockette’s wear leotards.  So does the cast of Fosse. And Chicago. Cher wore leotards, ones that would make Queen B’s look chaste in comparison. Oh, and Madonna, a former dancer herself, has worn the leotards throughout her career, especially during her “Hung Up” phase.

And wasn’t that Pink I saw spiraling from the rafters  in… a leotard?  

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Yet, neither of the aforementioned performers have been headlined as a “whore” because even though a leotard is body-conscious and may entice, it also permits uninhibited movement, a practical feature  for performers who dance as well as sing.

Nothing whorish about it.

Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s consider performance content, the lyrics. She sang about being drunk… in love. That’s right. Not inebriated from Henny, as that could fall into the realm of inappropriate, but rather, she used an extended metaphor to explain the intense exhilaration, even stupor, induced by strong feelings of attachment.

And she sang directly to her husband, the man to whom she avowed her love before God. The man with whom she has a child. In case you missed it, she even  made a point to wear that 18 caret declaration of love, the one she often leaves at home.

Most whore’s don’t even kiss their johns.

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To state the obvious, there is something inherently ghastly, vile, and immoral about the Black female body when displayed within a Western public sphere. There is a natural inclination, a predisposition, among such audiences to denigrate the Black female body, with words like “whore”,  and relegate it to the theater of the grotesque.

Whereas Beyonce’s White pop star contemporaries can deliver a sexually charged performance, Britney Spears or Madonna for example, neither racy costumes nor pelvic thrusts will never propel them into “whore” territory.  Their virtue is vested in their pale skin. Black women don’t share this privilege. Their darkness contrasts with White just as good contrasts with evil.

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In my  opinion, Beyonce is actively engaged in a process of reclaiming the body, the maimed and immoral black female body, that is so often  used to discredit Black women as valid producers of intellectual and cultural capital.

“I’ve done so many things in my life and in my career that at this point I felt I’ve earned the right to be me and express any and every side of myself,” Beyonce remarked during a video she released a week after her visual album.

She was likely addressing both groups of  her critics, the respectability police who coerce Black women to subdue their sexuality, and the mainstream audience that reduces attractive Black women to sexual objects.

Beyonce is using her unique status as an international pop icon to negotiate an independent corporal identity for herself.  She is determined to express her sexuality on her own terms, switching from evening gowns to jeans to revealing leotards as she performs a catalog that is assorted and at times deceptively complex.

More than a sex act, Beyonce’s music explores love, independence, sorrow, motherhood, marriage, and even her experience being a woman in an industry dominated by patriarchal, heteronormative ideals. And yes… sex. She also sings about sex. Deal with it.

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Note, Beyonce isn’t the first performing artist to take on the onerous task of challenging perceptions of Black female sexuality.

Before there was Beyonce, there was  Janet, and I’m not talking Nipple Gate. Janet, in  her  heyday was  a consummate artist who used music to address a myriad of social issues, everything from love and sex, to HIV and racial discrimination.  Her  heavily choreographed productions were provocative. Whether clad in military attire a la Rhythm Nation, or a racy body suit, parading male dancers on stage by leash, her sexuality was completely on her terms. Janet refused to be the stereotypical sex kitten. Even in her lyrics, she demanded respect.

“My first name ain’t baby, it’s Janet – Miss Jackson if you’re nasty”

So often, in a patriarchal system,  to be sexual as a woman implies surrendering power or  leveraging ability, to a man. Janet Jackson made sexual expression a form of power, which in itself, is a revolutionary act. Tina Turner did the same thing. As did Diana Ross,Eartha Kitt and Grace Jones.

Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker held Paris in thrall, challenging primitive notions of Black sexuality by performing La Danse Sauvage by day, and appearing at high society events in Parisian couture by night. Her famous banana skirt was  a marketing gimmick contrived by promoters, and a subtle reference to racism, colonialism and consumption. Yet Josephine danced in a way that mocked Parisian preoccupation with the so-called uncivilized.  She ultimately became a fixture of Parisian society, so much so that droves of French women took to slicking their hair with “Bakerfix” in order to imitate her signature look.

 Like all of the aforementioned women, Baker too was fanatical in controlling her career, and even notorious for breaking engagements with top club proprietors at whim as a way of  asserting her independence.

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And then there’s  Erykah Badu’s who’s music video for  “Window Seat” condemned  “group think”, but on a more subtle level also challenged notions of Black sexuality as well.

Here’s Badu’s monologue from the video:

They play it safe, are quick to assassinate what they do not understand. They move in packs ingesting more and more fear with every act of hate on one another. They feel most comfortable in groups, less guilt to swallow. They are us. This is what we have become. Afraid to respect the individual. A single person within a circumstance can move one to change. To love ourself. To evolve.

Badu’s statement is equally applicable to a Black woman asserting her sexuality before a group that is “afraid to respect the individual” and independent bodily identity. Just the act of a made-down woman, no make-up, no hair,  no heels,  disrobing in historic assassination sight challenges notions of what it means to be sexual all the while confronting the unexpected viewer with the Black female body.

Male fear of unbridled female sexuality and its potential to consume drives men to control it. That is the essence of patriarchy. Hence, to me, “whore” allegations  sound like threats made to coerce defiant women  back into an unfair dichotomy, a dichotomy where she is either a whore or virtuous mother and wife. Which one is it? Those who throw verbal stones, most of them women,  fail to realize that both roles are defined by men and  surrender to men control of the female body.

Beyonce and her predecessors have used their sexuality to turn this dichotomy on its head, by suggesting their is an alternate purpose for sexuality, beyond male gratification and identity politics. In this regard, Beyonce is a part of a continuum of revolutionary Black women who’ve used sexuality in performance as a means of cultural subversion and challenging discriminatory notions of race and gender.

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Sex maybe an anatomical act but sexuality is culturally mediated. It’s also performative and in that regard it can be expressed in various ways.  For example, there is a difference between Beyonce’s performance of  sexuality and Lil Kim’s stage act during the 90’s. Lil Kim combined racy attire with sexually explicit lyrics to create what activist C. Delores Tucker once called  “gangsta porno rap”. The title of her first album was Hard Core. Enough said.

And even still, that observation does not suggest that Lil Kim is somehow worthy of the title “whore”.  It’s to say that she was a lady rapper performing in a a hyper-masculine domain. Her sexuality wasn’t used to subvert, rather to titillate and to shock.

In the latter half of the twentieth  century, particularly in the last three decades, Black women began to broaden the discourse surrounding the Black female body.

In  1994 Bell Hooks wrote:

By conceding the turf of sexuality to the phallocentric sexist media, feminists- whether liberal or radical- become complicit with conservative repression of public discourses of sexuality.

I’d argue that this quote does not exclusively pertain to feminists but to women in general. I’m not surprised that women were the  main critics of Beyonce’s Grammy’s performance, because in many ways, women have allowed men to define sexuality for them. For Black women,  however, the boundaries are more narrowly defined. She is allowed to be a mother symbolically, as the keeper of African tradition, socially as an asexual nurturing figure, or biologically, as a woman who’s  primary function is to breed.  The other option is whore, in which case  her body is meant to be examined, probed, enjoyed, and ultimately discarded. (See Sarah Baartman)

One woman quoted in the article describes shielding  her 8-year-old daughter from the “trashy” performance. And I admit, “Drunk In Love” may very well be inappropriate for a pre-adolescent.  But it’s irrational to deem the performer a “whore”, and reckless for a national news paper to take that designation and run with it.

 

 

 

 

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