On April 23 Beyoncé, Queen of Pop and Probably the World, dropped Lemonade, a visual album in which she dramatically took control of the narrative about her relationship with Jay Z. (Sample: "Ashes to ashes, dust to side chicks.") Twitter lost its collective mind with joy, calling it empowering, brilliant art.
But there's one Portlander who may have sighed and thought, "This again?"
We Were Feminists Once (Public Affairs, 304 pages, $26.99), by Andi Zeisler, co-founder of local feminist magazine Bitch, grapples with the meaning of the new coolness of feminism. Zeisler criticizes pop-star brands like Beyoncé, whose "marketplace feminism" she sees as a superficial co-opting of the movement. "Marketplace feminism," writes Zeisler, "tells us that we should be happy with what we've got, because we still don't have enough power to ensure that what we've got won't be taken away if we push for too much more. That's not feminism, that's Stockholm Syndrome."
I am a feminist from a long line of feminists, and I love what Bitch does. Zeisler and I agree that feminism still has a long way to go and much work to do. But we disagree on Beyoncé. It is my humble feminist opinion that art like Lemonade disproves Zeisler's theory that marketplace feminism has "convinced people that feminism can be accomplished by dressing up the status quo in slogan T-shirts and I-do-it-for-me heels."
When talking about Beyoncé's use of the word "feminist" in her 2014 MTV Video Music Awards performance, Zeisler concedes that Beyoncé's feminism is "confident, compelling, powerful, beautiful and loud." But she also thinks it's grounded in nothing, lacking history and toothless, and "part of a host of other aspirational products already associated with the Beyonce brand."
But Lemonade has a mouth full of sharp points. It's a tear-down of the idea that a woman with an unfaithful spouse is weak, unattractive, at fault, a victim. Women publicly telling their stories, from Lena Dunham to Beyoncé—in a way that is extreme, loud, entertaining and financially rewarding even—isn't "empowering," it's empowering. Look at the domino effect of Bill Cosby's victims coming forward or the number of women who have felt safe to talk about their experiences with abortion after #ShoutYourAbortion.
To imply that Beyoncé's art is uncomplicated, or will have no impact on women and girls, and that it isn't the direct result of pop music and culture, which has slowly begun allowing women to speak for themselves, is short-sighted and a bit condescending. If feminism is marketable—just like Zeisler's book, on sale even at Walmart—then that means its audience is so large it can't be ignored. If Beyoncé can teach girls they have a right to tell their stories, I don't care what you call it or how pure it is. We've still got a long way to go, but—as the old ad says—we've come a long way, too.
GO: Andi Zeisler will read from We Were Feminists Once at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 503-228-4651, powells.com. 7:30 pm Monday, May 2. Free.