It has been over two weeks and I am still rolling to the BEYONCÉ album in deep rotation. To my delight as a strip club anthropologist, last Tuesday King Bey released a video of her musing on her experience of taking her husband to an exotic night club during her mini documentary series about the album.
“I remember thinking, ‘Damn these girls are fly. I just thought it was the ultimate, sexiest show I had ever seen. I wished I was up there. I wish I could perform that for my man.’ So that’s what I did for the video.”
At first I smiled at the fact that a heterosexual female who has been deemed the most beautiful woman in the world was talking about her pleasure and excitement from gazing at other female bodies—and her desire to emulate their dominance over the male gaze. But I was really amused at how Beyoncé admits that her music and accompanying images (especially images depicting her as a cabaret dancer) in the videos are an extension of her fantasies, exaggerating her experiences and making bold contrasts with her reality as a wife and as a mother. It is this tension between imagery and reality that I felt was most compelling about the album because it made for a beautiful expression of the erotic that black feminists have been theorizing for years. In fact, the album inspired me so much that it reawakened my own pursuit of the erotic in the real world. I concluded that being at peace with my sexuality rested not in gazing at desirable images, but in accepting that my pursuit of pleasure is bound to collide with opposing forces that are out of my control.
Before I elaborate, I must say that I was almost hesitant to even bother writing about BEYONCÉ because EVERYONE and their mom have made commentary about the album in the black blogosphere (as well as black Twitter, of course). On one side, you had fans like Joan Morgan and Melissa Harris-Perry who argued that Beyoncé exercised her agency as a sexual being while bringing black feminism to the mainstream. And then you had critics who vehemently disapproved like the writers of the Real Colored Girls collective. They felt that King Bey was just a “bottom bitch” whose “simplistic, pro-capitalist, structurally violent sampling” was a sell out to our black feminist and womanist foremothers.
Admittedly, Jay Z’s “Annie Mae” reference made me shudder. I couldn’t fathom why such an obvious nod to domestic violence was so carelessly inserted into an album that was being celebrated as a feminist manifesto. Still, I thought BEYONCÉ was incredible. I was surprised at how Beyoncé’s sound and conceptualization behind her songs had matured. In “Haunted,” her “wicked tongue” conjures up the tale of a lover from the past. In “Partition,” we see the contrast of the quiet, even sterile personas that righteous black folk have been pressured to project versus the titillating and outlandish daydreams that roam every human being’s thoughts during our most mundane activities. In “Rocket,” its shots are short and simple: a stove-top slowly flares up, a pendulum steadily rocks from side to side, a woman’s hair bun spontaneously cascades down her back, a bud of lipstick swivels out of its tube. Each shot captures the organic and effortless nature of the bonds we make with the people we are attracted to.
From a womanist standpoint, King Bey beautifully and boldly responds to the jabs that have been made towards black families for being divided and dysfunctional through her strong and proud identification with her Creole background as well as her identity as a wife and mother. However, her most obvious contribution to the feminist movement is that she refutes the idea that black women must adhere to respectability politics by displaying her love and comfort with her sexuality for the world to see. Just like every other person living on this planet, Beyoncé is filled with contradictions. It is no crime that her album reflects that—especially in the context of her budding feminist arguments.
But despite my enthusiasm, somewhere between “Rocket” and “Mine” on my seventh time listening to the album, I became depressed. I had fallen in love Beyoncé’s depiction of life and the erotic, but I felt foolish and hollow when I remembered that those images belonged to her—not me.
I did not stay depressed for very long. Suddenly I was compelled to move, to yell, to laugh, to sing and to dance. If Beyoncé was able to commodify her own gaze that paints her perspective on the erotic and then use it to create an experience for her fans, then what does my erotic look like? The toils of my college experience had worn at my body in a similar way that Beyoncé’s childbirth had worn at hers. Furthermore, as a creative I’d fallen into the trap of becoming so invested into my work that I’d lost sight of the vibrant world going on around me. I was ready to step away from the computer screen.
Lucky for Beyoncé, she has millions of dollars and her own production company to create breathtaking multimedia that brings her fantasies to life. I, on the other hand, only have real-time experiences at my disposal. My erotic is not only what I will it to be, but also what my fate lays out for me.
In my “Partition,” I sit with my leading man in the back of a cab. He asks me for my phone number as he leans in to graze his hand on my thigh and kiss my cheek. He never calls.
In my “Drunk in Love,” my lover groans with satisfaction as my lower lips pulse around his manhood. I smile. He smiles back. The faint smells of henny and Corona waft around us in a dimly lit room. I am disappointed when he tells me he is leaving for the army the following month.
In my “Flawless,” I am winding my waist to my favorite reggae song at a holiday party hosted by a famous hip hop station. To my horror, a stranger grabs my blouse to expose my naked breasts to the partygoers around us. I feel angry and empowered when I violently push him away. But despite my efforts, he stays standing, laughing and staring at me with glazed eyes.
We all want to live in our own music video. I think that’s why we spend so much time ignoring each other in the streets and in the subway with our beads in our ears. The idea of controlling the way we are presented to one another, the things we experience and the timing of how those experiences unfold is seductive because it gives us a sense of ownership over our lives that we could never really have. Eighteen days after the big release, episodes from my BEYONCÉ adventure have taught me not to rely on the media to create the erotic for me, and that expressing my erotic makes me vulnerable to people who don’t care if they violate my mind or body. But it also taught me that to embrace my erotic is to embrace the unknown. I don’t know whose image, sound or touch will arouse me next. Pleasure comes from what we feel, not just what we see. It comes from submitting our entire beings to sensations that are too powerful for our human hands to create.