Girls do run the world, but patriarchy keeps that fact quietly bracketed: Listening to Beyonce’s “Run the World (Girls)”

Feminist bloggers all over the political and aesthetic spectrum have been criticizing Beyonce’s “Run The World (Girls)” for proffering post-feminist falsehoods, for objectifying/sexualizing women in the video, and for limiting women’s “accomplishments” to traditional roles (like behind every “great man”). In this post, I’m going to argue that these criticisms fail to fully appreciate what Beyonce is doing in the song—especially because they are not listening to how it works as a piece of music. Beyonce is not giving us some post-feminist argument that women have finally “made it” and that patriarchy is finished. She’s arguing that the world runs on girls: without our labor, both (disproportionately under-)paid and unpaid, without our care work, without our accomplishments in traditionally feminized and de-valued industries/economies, the world as we know it would fall apart. Patriarchy runs on girls. It tries to eat us up and spits us out. But we still manage to critique it, resist and subvert it, and leave the world a little better than we found it. The world can’t run without girls, no matter how much patriarchy would like to (literally and figuratively) eliminate us and overlook our central role in keeping the world running.

This read of the song is made most clear not in the official video, but in Beyonce’s performance at Oprah’s farewell gala. I can’t embed the video, but here’s the link:
Note that Beyonce prefaces her performance with a shout-out to Oprah: “Oprah, we can run the world!”. This is hugely significant. Here we have an exchange between probably two of the three most powerful, successful, and influential African-American women alive today (Michelle Obama might be the third). Hell, these are two of the most powerful American women alive today. Beyonce and Oprah consistently sit at or near the top of various lists of power and influence, such as Forbes’ list of the most powerful people in entertainment. In 2010, Oprah topped the list, Beyonce was second, and Lady Gaga was fourth.* Beyonce and Oprah do run this world, the world of American soft power. (Forbes has also listed Oprah as the third most powerful woman in the world, period, after Obama and the CEO of Kraft—interestingly, all three women are from Chicago.) Towards the end, Beyonce personalizes one of the lyrics, singing “Oprah, your persuasion can build a nation.” That’s more a statement of fact than an idealized hyperbole offered for encouragement: Oprah’s persuasions—like her “Favorite Things,” or her book club—have been one of the most visible and powerful cultural and economic forces in the millennial/postmillennial US. NPR’s “Marketplace” strongly suggests that she single-handedly revitalized Chicago’s West Loop. Oprah’s persuasions have such an impact that we now have a phenomenon called the “Oprah Effect,” detailed here by PBS. The problem here is that their power is only thought to be “soft”; entertainment is not thought to be a field of “real” importance, like politics or business. Entertainment, a world where black women have significant influence and success, somehow doesn’t count as a “real” world. This is a way of trivializing the accomplishments of Beyonce, Oprah, and other women and people of color. To deny the significance of “entertainment” or “soft power” perpetuates the very white, heteropatriarchal systems that privilege “masculinized” domains (like business, politics, etc.) over feminized ones (like entertainment and care work). So I worry that when feminists contest Beyonce’s claim to “run the world,” they’re calling on and reinforcing patriarchal norms about what counts as “real” accomplishment or “important” work. (I develop this argument at length in chapter 4 of my book.)

Now that the prefatory remarks are out of the way, let’s get into the song/performance itself. I’ll focus primarily on the song, both b/c as someone interested in music as music, that’s what I find particularly interesting, and because it is what most other feminist bloggers are overlooking. If you listen to the song, you notice a difference among various “modules,” both in musical style and in lyrical content. There’s the “Who Run the World?” module, the verse-like module that’s delivered with a monotone sprechstimme-like style, and then the module that is more obviously sung. The first two modules are more aesthetically and politically progressive; the third module, at least superficially, is more aesthetically and politically traditional. Listen for assertive WOC feminist statements in the second module: things like “I work 9 to 5, better cut my check!” I identify these as “WOC feminist” (women of color = WOC) because they describe the everyday lifeworlds common to many working class and poor women of color: (under)paid labor, female-run households, women’s disproportionate achievement in higher education, and so on. The experiences and attitudes described in the lyrics are well within the black feminist tradition Angela Davis identifies in the works of classic female blues singers. They also describe the lives of women in communities whose young men make up a disproportionate share of the nation’s prison population. So, while the second modules are politically progressive, they also aesthetically more progressive than the third module: the second modules consist in sprechstimme/rapping over minimal, mainly rhythmic effects. The instrumental track shares more with “Single Ladies,” Weezy’s “A Milli,” or even Laurie Anderson than it does with B’s more traditionally song-like numbers (e.g., “Irreplaceable,” “Halo,” etc.). The third module is more traditionally “pretty” and musical: there’s a clear vocal melody, for example. So there’s a contrast between old aesthetic norms and new aesthetic norms—between trad pop and postmillennial hip hop—and old views of women’s power (lyssiistratia-like power as a sexualized object of desire) and new realities of women’s integration into pink collar jobs, globalized manufacturing, colleges and universities, etc. The lyrics reinforce this association of progressive feminist politics with relatively progressive aesthetic choices: “Boys don’t try to touch this/This beat is crazy,” they assert.

Even though the lyrical content superficially seems to reinforce traditional women’s roles “behind great men,” they actually don’t make that argument. They subvert it. If you listen carefully, Beyonce ends each of the third modules with the aside “Pay me.” This aside demands recognition from patriarchy, both of the monetary and moral/cultural value of women’s work. More importantly, it shows that we are not to take the lyrical content of the choruses literally. (The sarcasm is reinforced by her and her dancers’ gesture at 2:30. Here, they do the “Single Ladies” left-hand flip, thus calling on this track’s own deployment of sarcasm, which I’ve discussed here.) Beyonce is not arguing that women run the world by being the “good woman” behind every great man. She’s critiquing the very systems that try to limit women to this role. This critique is not limited to somewhat oblique refutation—she overtly lists many of the ways that women do important work and achieve independently of men: they work 9-5 jobs, raise children, graduate college, run media empires, etc.

Let’s think for a minute about pink collar jobs. And about women working in factories across the globe. And about women doing care work, both paid and unpaid. And women in the service economy. And women in the food industries. And women in informal economies both in the global South and increasingly in the global North. Think about the women of color who cleaned up after Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The world runs on girls. If you want to know how the world really works, you need to look at what the women are doing. Feminist political scientist Cynthia Enloe makes precisely this argument with her methodological maxim, “Where are the women?”. Enloe thinks that we can’t fully understand politics proper (e.g., international relations, public policy, governements and laws) without a robust account of the apparently apolitical or private-sphere activities of women. This is so because all these highly masculinized and disproportionately male institutions assume and require women to be feminized (that is, to be marginalized and devalued) and to do feminized (you got it: devalued) things. As Enloe explains,

states are more dependent on women and on particular ideas of femininity than they admit. If I could show that the state is so dependent on these people called military wives, who are never thought of as serious political actors, I could show two things: one, that states were more fragile than was presumed because, look, they were dependent upon a whole group of actors that people didn’t give the time of day to; and two, the state is conscious of that dependence and expends scarce resources to try to control these women (89).

The world would not run without girls. Girls just don’t get any of the credit, or any of the rewards. That’s why we have to parenthetically remind everyone that the people who are on the ground, running the world, are girls. Girls do run the world; patriarchy just keeps that fact quietly bracketed.
Enloe also emphasizes that it is important not to view women only as victims, only as the objects of patriarchial oppression, but also to pay attention to what they do, say, choose, and create. She argues that, for example, “the politics of women in the globalization of sneakers is not understood by looking at simply the impact of globalization on women. Rather, women at several points have shaped globalization” (Enloe 59). Sure, patriarchy exists, and it’s just as surely Eurocentric, white, and straight. BUT, no matter how much patriarchy devalues femininity and women, it can’t get rid of them, because it is built on the backs of girls. Where are the women? Making sure the world keeps running. So perhaps one of the most radical things feminists can do is to stop portraying girls only as victims, and start giving girls credit where credit is due…this includes credit for achievement in traditionally “feminized” industries like media and entertainment.