In the wake of International Women’s Day 2016, Kirsty Fairclough-Isaacs picks two stand-out moments for celebrity culture and activism over the past year…
As a celebrity studies scholar and one who is interested the representations of famous women in mainstream culture, when International Women’s Day approaches, I find myself reflecting on the past year in popular culture, trying to identify the most impactful moments that brought feminism to mass audiences via the precarious vehicle of celebrity. There are two moments that seem to stand out most sharply, not least because they involve arguably one of the most famous women in the Western world, but also because they appeared to be at least by celebrity culture’s standards, radical.
When Beyoncé performed her track ‘Formation’ at the 2016 Superbowl, a global audio-visual spectacle was enacted, radically calling into question issues of race and gender in the United States and referencing not only #BlackLivesMatter and Hurricane Katrina, but also the legacy of the Black Panthers and black power more generally. In the aftermath of the event, intense debate on social media accompanied the dissemination of both the televised video of the performance and the music video of the song Formation.
The video for Formation presents powerful political and radical imagery that was clearly conceived to create a conversation and to challenge ideas about black women and self representation. Here Beyoncé presented a challenge to the ways in which black women are often portrayed in the mainstream. Her take on Southern black pride and defiance has rarely been seen in popular culture. “Formation” is essentially a narrative of re-appropriation. At one moment in the video, Beyoncé is seen as the mistress of her all-black household in a southern American plantation-style house. Portraits of black individuals hang on the walls – in one example, showing a family dressed in pink traditional African dress, while another depicts a dark-skinned woman almost blending into the backdrop of the painting. In some ways this could be read as the reclamation of the southern slave legacy, and Beyoncé is front and centre, regally spinning her cream parasol, and dancing in defiance. This is a brazen nod to African history which demonstrates that the forcible shipping of African people has not been forgotten, especially in the South, where slavery lingered on for so long.
There is little doubt that these moments were seismic in terms of the representation of black feminism. Here is one of, if not the, highest paid female performers in the world taking on misogyny, sexuality, black women’s beauty and self affirmation in ways that have never been seen in the mainstream. In a little-seen response, a direct political statement by a celebrity was widely praised by both critics and audiences. For all of this, she is right to be celebrated. Beyoncé has allowed a discourse to be fully opened up that explores the place of famous women as agents of both political and monetary prowess.
Yet it is important to remember that Beyoncé’s political message is also squarely a capitalist one. Her images and performances are meticulously constructed in order to cater to an eager fan base. Let us not forget that merchandise related to Formation was available as soon as the video was released where sweatshirts emblazoned with lyrics such as “I twirl on them haters” were ready for purchase on her website. The merchandising, the songs, the videos, the performances must always be considered first and foremost as an advertisement for her commercialised materiality. The fans are essentially buying into Beyoncé: the business, and her newfound activism becomes a perfectly timed extension of her seemingly limitless brand. This in and of itself is something to behold and Beyoncé’s business savvy is impeccable and extremely astute. Yet when it becomes bound up with such emotive political statements, one cannot help but view this cynically. What she manages to achieve so successfully is to both represent her fans and most crucially, inspire them to be better, essentially to be like Bey whilst simultaneously profiting from them. Whilst she espouses the notion that the “best revenge is your paper”, she is encouraging her fans to smash through barriers of poverty and lack of opportunity, by being gracious and working hard. Yet masquerading displays of monetary prowess as activism is not only a familiar trope within celebrity culture, but a flawed formula for agency.
The impact of Beyoncé’s recent foray into politics has been undeniably powerful, yet it is startling how her message has been so widely endorsed without sufficient pause or enquiry. This is not Beyoncé’s fault by any means, but more a problem of the power of celebrity to shape the cultural conversation. And this in and of itself, must always be questioned.
Kirsty Fairclough-Isaacs is Senior Lecturer in Media and Performance and International Lead for the Americas in the School of Arts and Media at the University of Salford, UK. Contact her on Twitter @DrKirstyIsaacs
Her book, Beyoncé, Feminism and Popular Culture is publishing Autumn 2016