By Lewis Dominguez
As we are born into this world, so are statuses ascribed onto us, tethered onto us through our physical appearance. These dubious words define us in the face of society: race, sex, gender, sexuality and so forth. In truth, we have little, if any, choice in these statuses we must carry with us throughout our life. We never asked, we were never consulted, on what we were to be labeled: man, woman, homosexual, African-American. In one sudden moment, we simply were. None-the-less, society at large has chosen, for us, distinctions upon the rights and privileges of those of given ascribed statuses. The most noticeable of these privileges is arguably the most invisible, as the people who find themselves the most empowered are those who get to be “normal”, they are the standard. They are not referenced by their race, gender, sex, etc. They have the privilege of being who they are, rather than what they are. While this may be an ever changing issue, it has been the norm for a larger duration of history, and what will be generally considered from here on. Throughout this paper, I will discuss how Beyoncé may never be just a person, but rather must be a black female person, and how she both actively fights and embraces these ascribed statuses she has experienced in life. Finally, I will connect the actions and experience of Beyoncé to the lives of minorities in the US and address how their experiences relate to the larger issue of social order vs. individual liberty.
According to Our Social World, an ascribed status is defined as “[A status] assigned at birth [which] does not [generally] change during an individual’s lifetime” (Ballantine, Roberts, and Korgen, 2016, pp. 135). For example, sex and race are traits which generally do not change during one’s lifetime. These ascribed statuses often have associated stereotypes or roles, which society at large often expects those of a given status to follow. A simple stereotype would be POC (people of color) being associated with poverty, and additionally with the neighborhoods where POC often live in referred to as “ghettos” or “hoods”. While POC can be found in poor neighborhoods, it is morally and factually wrong to stereotype all POC as associated with poverty. President Barack Obama and Beyoncé herself are two simple examples which contradict this stereotype of poor POC. None-the-less, stereotypes and assumed roles like the “angry black woman”, the “Latina housekeeper”, or the “lazy black man” have permeated our society, and they are firmly associated with a number of ascribed statuses, even if there is little to support them aside from racism. When considering these ascribed statuses and associated stereotypes, individuals may fight against the associated roles, embrace them, or work to change the roles associated with them. While this provides a breadth of options, it importantly does not allow one to remove or change an ascribed status itself, only the associated roles, as within the sociological model I observe, such a concept is not permissible, and within our society we live in, it is generally regarded as implausible for most individuals.
Read More: The Lemonade Syllabus
In many ways, Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter is a different persona from Beyoncé. This concept is more visible with performers like Lady Gaga, whose actual name Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta isn’t known by a significant portion of the population. Regardless, there is a differentiation between who Beyoncé is as a member of society is, and the persona she portrays as a performer and activist. She can choose which portions of her personality and heritage she wishes to amplify, and over time, mold her public image into something which may not entirely coincide with the ascribed status related to her, such as the level of wealth she wants to portray herself as having. Additionally, this persona can change over time, just as she herself can, but it gains the benefit that she has much more control over the appearance surrounding it, such as the differential racialization of her music. While this will be a topic more important later on, it should be considered for the history of her performances and songs as a whole, since exploring a new genre or meta could mean Beyoncé wants to change her public persona.
In the first two songs of the double album I am…Sasha Fierce, If I Were a Boy and Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It), Beyoncé highlights the stereotypes surrounding men, such their failure to understand women, to respect women post-relationship, and to commit to a relationship at all. While it has received accolades for its artistic value, through songs like Single Ladies the album is undeniably infused with a message that man should respect women and make the effort to understand them. The album simultaneously fights against widespread disrespect toward women while also, unfortunately, enforcing some aspects of the stereotype that males lack empathy. Though the latter may be an issue in other ways, she is visibly using her influence and ability as an artist to fight against the ideology that women should accept how men treat them and that they need a man. This is a continuation of her prior activism in songs like Irreplaceable in the 2006 album B’Day, which taunts, “I can have another you by tomorrow” (Erikson et al., 2006, Track 9). She chooses to be in this relationship and can find another man if he doesn’t treat her with respect.
Overall, we can see how Beyoncé is fighting against the current social order through usage of her personal liberty. At the same time we acknowledge this, we must also question if it is an entirely altruistic choice, or if she has anything to gain personally. By tearing down some of the stereotypes associated with her race or gender, she can further herself as an artist, even if she cannot remove these ascribed statuses from her life. While this could be a feasible explanation, we might also extend the definition of self-interest to benefitting one’s own culture or heritage. Then, Beyoncé could still be fighting these associated roles on the macro-level through an intent to benefit herself or her own heritage.
While fighting against stereotypes is an important aspect of removing them from society, embracing the positive aspects of an ascribed status can be just as powerful a tool to change the motions of social forces. This is distinctly different from just accepting the associated stereotypes, as it does not necessarily conform to the stereotypes which are being purported, and often instead takes negative words or terms and uses them as words of empowerment. There is, in fact, a reason Beyoncé has referred to herself as “A Texas Bama” in Formation (Williams II et al., 2016, Track 12). Bama was once a word used to describe newly migrated southern African-Americans and differentiate them from ‘intellectual’ northern African-Americans, which in reality makes it a discriminatory and borderline if not racist slur. But in this context, Beyoncé is using that very definition to empower herself, using “bama” to demonstrate about how proud she is to be a southern-cultured African-American. In the past, she has permed and bleached her hair, and additionally there was controversy surrounding a possible rhinoplasty, actions which might be taken to increase the appeal of her persona to less ethnic audiences.
In contrast, Formation includes the line “I like my baby hair with baby hairs and afros. I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils”, most likely referencing how she has decided to leave her daughter, Blue Ivy, “all natural” with her traditionally African-American afro and nose (Williams II et al., 2016, Track 12). By now embracing these aspects of her ascribed status, she has denied anyone the opportunity to use the slur “bama” against her, to use her heritage, to use her or her child’s appearance against her, as you cannot insult someone by pointing out something they take pride in. While this does not actively fight to remove negatively associated roles or stereotypes, this change in mindset often makes the attempt at using stereotypes less effective on a degrading level, even if these negative stereotypes can still affect the life opportunities of an individual. In my opinion, this is the reason Beyoncé fights against associated stereotypes and embraces the cultural heritage of her ascribes statuses. In doing this, she puts herself at the forefront of changing a social order she disagrees with, while also empowering those who are oppressed by stereotypes and discrimination against a given status.
Formation signals a large shift for the persona of Beyoncé, though the other songs of Lemonade are not entirely out of character. For a significant portion of her career, the persona of Beyoncé was not specifically black or white, she largely avoided the question. In many ways, Formation signals that Beyoncé is ready to “re-racialize” her persona, something which she has attempted to shy away from in the past, often through Eurocentric cosmetic changes. Reasons behind doing this may vary, as one can argue it in two ways. On one hand, the ongoing BLM movement and third wave civil rights movement in generals means Beyoncé has an opportunity to now exist as a person of color, with less backlash than may have previously occurred. If this is true, we might equate this with the removal of a mask: she cannot remove her blackness, but now she may embrace and celebrate it, baby hair, afros, and all. From a more economic standpoint, embracing her race will associate her with these movements and POC in general, possibly making her a champion of POC, something with obvious economic value to a performer who largely makes their political statements through their music. As I see it, the former is the more likely, as Knowles usage of “bama” signals she accepts her race now, negative connotations included. While her taking pride in this heritage and race may void attempts to insult her with it, it additionally comes with these associated costs, something I imagine is too unpredictable to use only as a platform for gain, though I won’t say gain wasn’t somewhere in mind.
While all of these things are examples of how Beyoncé uses her music and personal influence to be an activist, the question remains: how are these actions being perceived by society at large, and do people think they are affecting society? The one piece of clarity is that people feel Beyoncé’s album exists as a portion of a larger shift in social order, with Kiana Fitzgerald stating “Lemonade has been made possible by the cultural, social and political upheaval we’re in the midst of,” something many POC and other minorities support. But not everyone supports it, such as Rudy Guiliani saying Formation was an “attack on police officers” (Jusino, 2016). While there was some symbolism in the music video, the only major reference to officers of the law ended in a simply graffiti reading “Stop shooting us,” something I would label closer to a cry for help than an “attack on police officers.” Though this is a minor statement in the video, I will admit this terminology might be inflammatory from the view of an officer, as it could create a feeling that all police officers are equivalent and equally in the wrong, regardless of their behavior and attempts to prevent violence. Despite this, I think in many ways POC feel they are all equally attached, despite their efforts to prevent violence. The conflict between implicit insults and the need for a dialogue may be something we cannot escape, though in theory, finding a solution to the problem itself will remove the conflict these phrases create.
Simply stated, Beyoncé has pushed down on the accelerator of society, asking for change, but her ascribed statuses, the very things she wishes to change the social view of, are holding her back. Additionally, the structure of our society itself is lending no assistance, with redlining that occurred in the past forcing the cycle of poverty and crime to continue for many inner-city POC. A simple solution would be convenient, but as more information is obtained, this necessity for a larger and realistically long-term solution becomes more apparent. At the same time, Jusino claims “Bottom line: she would not be getting any of this backlash if she weren’t a black woman. Period.” After some consideration, I don’t think this is entirely true, as celebrities like Bruce Springsteen still faced backlash when protesting the murder of Amadou Diallo, and while not entirely related, Shailene Woodley was still arrested for her participation in the “No DaPL” protests. There is likely to be an amplification of backlash caused by Beyoncé’s race and gender, especially with her persona more noticeably embracing this heritage. This said, even those who are the ‘norm’ still will face backlash, which we’ve seen as a trend in previous civil rights movements.
This mirrors 1964 America, something we seem to be finding more similarities with every day. A 1964 poll found 63% of Americans felt civil rights was moving too fast; 57% of modern Americans find themselves undecided or opposing the BLM movement (Massie, 2016). Though I can understand how some of these undecided or opposing Americans do not support riots or disorder associated with the BLM movement, I must ask how civil rights can be moving too fast? As before, the social order is changing, and while not everyone is on board, Beyoncé is a serious personality helping push change, paralleling Malcolm X and MLK. Their methodologies, social status, and personal liberties may be radically different, especially due to what Malcolm X and MLK succeeded in obtaining, but the truth is that change is not just coming, it’s already happening. Beyoncé wants to empower those who she feels need it during these times of expedient change. She is using the power and privilege she has both been given and earned, and hoping to break down barriers so those less fortunate will not have to face them in the future, a rational choice she has made by weighing morals and equality vs. risk of backlash and profit loss.
I do not believe there will ever be a day Beyoncé can escape her ascribed statuses, and I especially believe these statuses have associated stereotypes that have led to serious barriers and discrimination, but I do believe her music is working towards tearing town walls and making POC, women, and even men, feel empowered and more human than they have in the past. She is not a lawmaker, nor a judge, nor a jury, but she is a person whose fame and power allow her to platform for this change in social order, and someone whose individual liberties and social statuses allow her to do so; Beyoncé is a performer, celebrity, and activist. And while I do believe profit is somewhere in mind, her actions as an activist have earned the greatest level of respect I can imagine, as someone who can and someone who does. Knowles interview presence may not be a major aspect of her activism, but we cannot believe songs like Single Ladies (Put a Ring on it) and Formation are just popular beats. They are paramount anthems of empowerment, they are a basis of change in tidal-like social forces, they are something black women can listen to and not just hope for but hear change in, they are a call for us of privilege to listen, and they, in my opinion, are an art in their blend of activism and euphonious nature.
Ballantine, J. H., Roberts, K. A., Korgen K. O. (2016). Our social world: Introduction to sociology. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.
Eriksen M, Hermansen T., Lind E., Bjorklnd. A., Smith S., Knowles, (2006). Irreplaceable [Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter]. On B’Day [CD]. Location: Columbia
Fitzgerald, K. (2016, April 25). Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ Is Defiant In The Midst Of Upheaval. Retrieved November 28, 2016, from http://www.npr.org/2016/04/25/475542607/beyonce-defiant-in-the-midst-of-upheaval
Jusino, T. (2016, February 10). Men Come Out of Woodwork to Criticize Beyoncé in the Most Racist and Sexist Ways Possible. Retrieved November 28, 2016, from http://www.themarysue.com/owen-benjamin-beyonce-super-bowl
Massie, V. M. (2016, July 24). Americans are as skeptical of Black Lives Matter as they were of the civil rights movement. Retrieved November 28, 2016, from http://www.vox.com/2016/7/24/12236580/black-lives-matter-support-civil-rights-movement
Williams II M., Brown K., Hogan A., Knowles, (2016). Formation [Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter]. On Formation [CD]. Location: Columbia/Parkwood.