Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Deconstructing Sasha Fierce

I'm guessing that many of us have those fleeting fantasies from time to time in which we conjure up what we imagine would be the AWESOMEST. COURSE. EVER. For example, my fantasy courses: "I'm Not Here To Make Friends: Ethics and Reality TV" (sort of a cross between ethical theory, applied ethics, and existentialism), or "This Land Is My Land: Classical Liberalism and Its Critics" (a history of social-contract political philosophy from the Enlightenment to now, as narrated through American popular music), or "Leave The Gun, Take the Cannoli: Community, Individuality and Authority" (deontology vs. utilitarianism via The Godfather trilogy), or "The Anatomy of An Illusion: Philosophy as Prestige" (already laid that one out on this blog before). Anyway, my most recent addition to my Fantasy Course List is this: "Deconstructing Sasha Fierce: Feminism, Complicated."

Just in case you've been living in a culture-deficient cave for the last few years, I'll remind you that "Sasha Fierce" is the sobriquet of Beyoncé Knowles, pop icon and reigning Diva Extraordinaire. Beyoncé is the total package: drop-dead gorgeous, fashion forward, business-savvy, (sufficiently) talented as a singer/dancer/actress, all the while maintaining the public personality of an approachable and eminentaly likable Girl Next Door. (Not exactly your door, of course.) She's the former member of chart-topping R&B supergroup Destiny's Child, happily married to rap and hip-hop mogul, Jay-Z. And also, by the way, she's just so happens to be a feminist. Sort of. I mean, maybe. Accidentally.

In a recent interview with UK-based mag You, Beyoncé was quoted as saying:
"I think I am a feminist in a way. It’s not something I consciously decided I was going to be..."

Well I'm here to tell you, Sasha Fierce, you are a feminist. Sure, you're not exactly the poster-girl for feminism, and it's likely that your unrivalled good looks and paramount popularity will cause many a raised eyebrow among the guardians of Feminism's ancien regime... but, even if you've only "unconsciously" happened upon feminism "in a way," you've definitely situated yourself quite comfortably in it. I offer up for the jury's consideration the following evidence:

Exhibit A: "If I Were A Boy"
Anyone who has ever taught a class on feminist theory knows that the very first lesson one must impart to the skeptical involves some kind of a reasonable rejoinder to the protest: But why do we even need feminism? It's just so passé! The answer, for better or worse, is as clear as it is complex, as obvious as it is invisible, as simple as it is torturously convoluted and intricate. We need feminism because the deepest struts and girders of our social ontology are governed by patriarchy. You may be 18 yrs old and fully confident that you needn't marry, that you needn't stay at home barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen, that you can educate yourself and get a good-paying job and be a success without ever having to encounter the sexism that so regrettably shackled your mother (or, er, grandmother?) in any really existentially-felt way. But, Beyoncé and I are here to say that if you think you're anything like an equal to the men in your world, you are sadly, sorely, mistaken. Enter Sasha Fierce, whose song imagines-- as sweetly and sentimentally as a "girl" is able-- what it might actually look like "If I Were A Boy." Oh, snap. That's patriarchy, sistahs.

Exhibit B: "Irreplaceable"
Oh, Sasha, now that we can see clearly that it JUST. AIN'T. FAIR!... whatever is a girl to do? Surely there must be some way to re-value what it means to be a woman. Surely there are options other than to just keep-on-keeping-on in the same old unhealthy, pathological, self-sabatoging, asymmetrical bu(llsh*t)siness-as-usual manner. Surely we girls can up the ante somehow, make it more expensive to treat us like discardable, recyclable objects. Isn't it THE fundamentally unearned privilege of patriarchy for men to act like they're, well, irreplaceable? What would happen if we acted as if we were, too? Maybe, just maybe, we'd pack all his sh*t up, everything he owns, put it in a box to the left, and say to him and the whole system that makes him what he is: "Keep talkin' that mess, that's fine. But could you walk and talk at the same time?" Indeed, you must not know 'bout me.

Exhibit C: "Telephone"
Now that we've decided that we women are, in fact, irreplaceable-- and now that we've kicked that nuisance patriarch to the curb-- maybe it's time to bring in some backup. Who should I call? Oh, I know, Lady Gaga! (For you instructors, this is the glorious point in the semester when the light-bulbs flash over all of the students' heads and, even if only for one brief moment, you've got a classroom full of bona fide militant feminists.) All bets are off, gentlemen. Everything is permitted. Hollaaaaahhhh.

Exhibit D: "Single Ladies"
Whooooaaaa, Beyoncé, hold up a sec! Have we just inadvertantly committed ourselves to man-hating? To bra-burning and folk-singing and rally-marching? To irrecoverable singlehood? Or worse-- gasp!-- to being a LESBIAN? (Though, okay, we'll admit that prison stuff with you and Lady Gaga was AICH-OH-TEE-TEE, even if I did leave my heart and my head on the dance floor.) Anyway, no thank you very much, Sasha Fierce. HELLZtotheNO! I can be all "down with patrirachy" only so far. So what if I want to get married? So what if I want the white wedding and the sparkly ring and the poofy dress with a crinoline slip? Is that so much to ask? I'm a single lady in total solidarity with my other single ladies, whatever it is that they want to do (even if that is play softball). At the end of the day, I'm just asking for something really, really simple: I don't want to be treated like a streetwalker and tossed aside. I mean, if you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it, right?

Well, here's where the deconstruction comes in. (DANGER, WILL ROBINSON, DANGER!) Feminism isn't just a one-size fits-all phenomenon. (Would that it were!) So, sure, you can still be a feminist, even if you want to be a wife (and/or a mother), and even if you want look pretty or dress sexy, and even if you actually do care more about the white wedding and crinoline slip than you do about equal pay for equal work. The truth is, we HAVE come a long way, baby. And that means, among other things, that it might actually be (strangely, ironically) MORE difficult for women who find themselves independently, autonomously, inclined toward the "traditional" to claim the title "feminist." There are problems with the whole put-a-ring-on-it institution to be sure, but that doesn't mean it doesn't still have some value. So, to each her own, Sasha says:

There's more than a semester's worth of feminist material to cover in just these selections. And, what's more, I'm convinced that Beyoncé offers a lot more opportunity for complicating the traditional feminist narrative than the current scholarly literature does. But, whatever, we've all got our fantasy courses, I suppose. I'm not holding my breath that "Deconstructing Sasha Fierce" gets adopted.


Emma B. said...

Uh, I'm fairly sure my quite fabulous colleague Robin James teaches that course! With nods to robots, afro-futurism and queer theory, naturally (or technically, technically).

And hey, did you hear that This American Life segment on "I'm not here to make friends?" Act Two of this program: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/389/frenemies

robin said...

Thanks EB for the name-check! And, I'm really super glad that Bey is getting some serious attention from another philosopher. Gaga gets all the academic love, but I think Bey is actually a lot more interesting. (IMHO, racism/whiteness makes it harder for Bey's work to be seen as anything other than superficial pop...when, if you listen carefully, it's not).

You might want to check these posts from my blog about Bey:






Art Carden said...

Two course thoughts, whivh we can add to our post-tenure team-teaching portfolio:

1. "The Fabric of Our Lives: Cotton and the Human Experience." This would involve a multi-disciplinary team of historians, economists, philosophers, literary critics, biologists...what the heck. Let's just make it a course taught by the whole faculty.

2. "The Man in Black's Search For Values in the Light of Western History and Religion," a team-taught seminar with every class meeting based on a Johnny Cash song.

DOCTOR J said...

@Art: Dude, I could do your #2 drunk. Like, really drunk. With my eyes closed.

DOCTOR J said...

@Robin: I can't even exaggerate how much I love your stuff. I updated my post with a link to yours. Hope that's okay. Thanks for sharing.

robin said...

Thanks, DoctorJ! I'm so happy to see your stuff too. And, can I say it's sorta uncanny to see "DoctorJ", b/c I often go by "doctaj". Great minds, I guess...

Art Carden said...

@DoctorJ: Fortunately, I think there are at least 15 students on campus who would pay to see that!

Stephanie said...

At Rutgers, there is a graduate student teaching a course in the WMST department just on Beyonce! It's too bad the two of you can't get together for a beer.

steventhomas said...

I admit that I'm a big fan of Beyonce, and so I love this post of yours. But one of my favorite videos is definitely not feminist -- Crazy in Love. I blogged about that in the context of Chris Rock's "Good Hair" and India.Arie's "I am not my hair" a few weeks ago.

I was thinking of teaching a whole course just on the feminist politics of Christina Aguiler's album Stripped. Great album.

Meanwhile, speaking of Afrofuturism Emma, what do you all think of Janelle Monae?

Wendy said...

I love this post so much I just might cry. Like a girl.