Two Meditations on Beyonce, Race, & Queerness
These are two polished-up versions of analyses that have already appeared here. I needed a 1k word writing sample, and nothing from my recently-in-print work could be cut to stand on its own. I’m using this material in manuscripts I’m developing, so it will “officially” appear in print eventually, and in a more comprehensive argument.
Many people understand Beyoncé Knowles’ 2009 single and video “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” as a clichéd paean to marriage and traditional gender roles. [i] The refrain, “if you like it, then you shoulda put a ring on it” leads people to hear this as the anthem of single women who wish they were married. People wrongly hear this song as an endorsement of the marriage-industrial complex and the commodification of women.
But this song isn’t about women, single or otherwise. The song is about robots; careful attention to the video and to the instrumental track provides ample evidence of this. The video clarifies that the refrain is to be taken sarcastically, not literally. Here, we see that Beyoncé wears a jointed metallic glove on her left hand—the hand on which wedding and engagement rings are worn. When she sings “put a ring on it,” she literally means “it”, the cyborg hand—she doesn’t say “put a ring on ME”. The refrain is a criticism of the narrator’s ex-boyfriend who treated her like a thing to be owned—an “it”—not like an autonomous subject. Beyoncé’s cyborg may not be “genderless,” per se, but she is certainly not stereotypically feminine, nor does she willingly accede to traditional female roles. The song’s first and second verses challenge the narrator’s ex-boyfriend’s authority over her and her sexuality. They say, in not so many words, “you don’t own me.” Other lyrics reinforce her critique of the idea that women can be bought and/or owned: “Don’t treat me to the things of this world, I’m not that kind of girl,” she assures us. Like Levi-Strauss, Irigaray, and Gayle Rubin, Beyoncé argues that traditional hetero marriage treats women as property. Beyonce sings to “all the single ladies,” because even and especially in the 21st-c marriage-industrial complex, women are little more than “Stepford wives,” objects men purchase as status symbols and as care workers. The song is a critique, not an endorsement, of hetero-capitalist marriage. Instead of humanist marriage, Beyoncé says she wants an extraterrestrial relationship, one that, like Buzz Lightyear (the astronaut figure in Pixar’s Toy Story), can transport her offworld, “to infinity and beyond!” Preferring robots and extraterrestrials to traditional hetero-capitalist gender roles, “Single Ladies” uses Afrofuturism to queer white heteropatriarchy.
The song’s compositional form and instrumental track reinforce this Afrofuturist interpretation. Compositionally, this piece is rather avant-garde for a hit of its size. There is no real harmonic or melodic development, nor building up to a harmonic and/or dynamic climax. The song is mainly a clap track with sound effects and vocals. Interestingly, the main pitched instruments (what I just called “sound effects”), both high and low, resemble the sounds of a robot’s joints moving; they certainly qualify as the “electronically engineered sounds” that Edelman identifies with sinthomosexuality. In this song, “all the single ladies” seem to be having a fabulous time out on the town on their own; the “meaningless jouissance” of a night out dancing with one’s girlfriends seems to be far preferable to the (re)productive duties of hetero-capitalist marriage. “All the Single Ladies” is Afrofuturistically queer.
Counting Down, Queering Up
Feminists tend to laud Lady Gaga’s queerness by comparing her positively to aone-sidedly-heteronormative Beyoncé. This gesture is problematic for a number of reasons, but I want to concentrate only on the most complicated and important one: race and its manifestations in/through queerness.
Racialization occurs through (de)queering, and (de)queering occurs through racialization. This is Jasbir Puar’s point in Terrorist Assemblages, where she argues that Muslim “terrorists” are racialized as unruly, non-white bodies via their association with a specific kind of “queerness”—a queerness that is more anarchic, less “civilized” than the homonormativity displayed by “good” American gays and lesbians. I take Puar’s framework to argue that Beyoncé’s work uses race to intervene in discourses of sexuality and queerness.
Gaga has license to queer femininity—to make her body monstrous, either through monster-drag or king-drag—because she is white. In other words: her gender identity is not already qualified by non-whiteness. In the hegemonic, mainstream eye, Beyoncé’s blackness already qualifies her femininity. She often plays around with femininity by adopting stereotypically white feminine iconography, e.g., in “Why Don’t You Love Me?” (where she does the 60s housewife thing), or in “Video Phone” (where she does the 40s pinup/Betty Page thing). Beyoncé critically adopts white het-fem identities and images, gender-troubling them through blackness. If race and queerness are mutually (de)intensifying, then Beyoncé’s play with femininity via race is also an experimentation with its sexuality. Beyoncé works in a climate where there’s a new “Why Can’t (Middle Class) Black Women Find a (Good Black) Man/Get Married Already?” article every day, and in a culture that frames black heterosexuality as always already broken. In this context, her “Countdown,” which is about her long-term relationship with a successful black man who also happens to be the father of her soon-to-be-delivered child, is actually pretty radical. If the homonormativity of whites is conditioned upon the always-already “queered” status of non-white/black sexuality (i.e., it’s fundamentally, irreparably broken, black people can’t ever maintain boring, white-bread hetero relations), then “Countdown’s” apparently square het story actually undermines white homonormativity.[ii] The music supports this interpretation. “Countdown” specifically critiques “catalog” songs, in which male singers (from Don Giovanni to Lil Wayne) “count up” the women they’ve seduced. Beyoncé counts down rather than up: “My baby is a ten / We dressing to the nines…I’m trying to make a three / From that two / He still the one.” While a child-producing heterosexual monogamy might seem like thedefinition of heteronormativity, when it’s a black woman talking about her black partner and their baby, blackness queers the normativity of this hetero narrative, changing its sexual-numerical orientation. The song’s inverted numerical direction reflects this racialized queering of reproductive hetero monogamy.
While Gaga has the racial privilege to directly address sexuality, Beyoncé’s superficial avoidance of queerness is actually more critical and radical. Throughout her work, Beyoncé attacks race and sexuality together.
[i]. Beyonce. “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” on I Am Sasha Fierce. New York: Columbia Records, 2008. Video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8mVEGfH4s5g
[ii][i] I wonder if the Beyoncé Knowles/Sasha Fierce split isn’t also relevant here, and worth examining further. In interviews about “I Am…Sasha Fierce,” Bey indicated that she herself is pretty “boring”—square, “white-bread” even. She invented Fierce as a character or persona through which to channel a more “extreme” performative identity/effect. So Bey might not at all be excessively sexual, excessively confrontational—she might just be, as Touré’s recent article suggests, the nicest little blonde girl ever. But that doesn’t sell when you’re a black female artist, because you’re always already read through the controlling images of your excessive sexuality. So Bey invents Fierce to intervene in “misinterpretations” of her performances of her “self.” But she doesn’t use Fierce to facilely reproduce stereotypes—she uses this character to exacerbate the misinterpretations, to make arguments ad absurdam that critique the very stereotypes she seems to traffic in.