All The Single Ladies: The Problem with Feminist Anthems

December 15, 2009 | 1 book mentioned 18 4 min read

coverOn The Sexist, Amanda Hess lists the Top 5 Pseudo-Feminist Anthems, and as an introduction to these questionable songs, she declares, “Empowerment has been a convenient posture for pop music to assume.”   This is often true, but I took umbrage with a couple of the songs included on her list, and perhaps with the implicit suggestion that pop songs can and should function as purveyors of messages.  (Wait–isn’t that what Christian rock is for?)   Yes, girls and young women need mentors and positive role models, but might this article be taking that idea too far?   I don’t want a feminist anthem if it requires aesthetic restraint and an avoidance of emotional honesty.

When I was young, I loved Madonna’s “Material Girl.”  This song did not ruin my ability to have a healthy and meaningful romantic relationship as an adult, nor did it rot my sense of self worth.  I am a feminist, and I still like this song.   I also like Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” which Hess includes on her list.  She argues:

The sheer awesomeness of this song is almost enough to make me overlook the anti-feminist weirdness. Beyonce looks and sounds even stronger on this track than she does in the more traditionally girl-power songs in her catalog (”Independent Women Part I”; “Survivor”). I mean, she has a bionic arm in the video. What’s not to like?

Well—a few things. Beyonce referring to herself as “it”? Equating herself to bling? Handing herself over to a man who will determine her self-worth through a demeaning, years-long game which can only end with Beyonce emerging triumphant as his symbolic property, or crawling away as a meaningless ex?

I must disagree with Hess’s interpretation of the song, which assumes a lot about the speaker.  Firstly, when Beyonce says, “Put a ring on it,”  she certainly isn’t, as Hess says, “equating herself to bling.”  That would mean she was singing, “If you liked bling you shoulda put a ring [bling] on bling.”  Huh?

The song’s cleverness lies in the instability and elasticity of that word “it.”  One could argue that “it” refers to her finger, but the phrase uses “it” twice:  “If you liked it, you shoulda put a ring on it” [italics mine].  The second use of “it” refers, literally, to her finger–one places an engagement ring on the left ring finger.  But the first “it” isn’t so literal–or is it?  The speaker seems to refer to both her literal body, and thus, her vagina,  but also the “it” that was their relationship, the pleasure of being together, of being close and intimate.   “If you like having sex with me, you should have committed to me,” is the gist of her argument.  (Notice that it’s “if you like it,” present tense, but “shoulda” is “should have”–as in, you missed your chance…maybe.)

Perhaps it’s anti-feminist for sex to lead to marriage, or to desire that.  But why?  Why is it unacceptable for a woman to require commitment from the man she’s sleeping with?  Hess’s brand of feminism prohibits marriage as a viable choice for women, and the goal of feminism–or so I thought–was to give a woman choices.  To marry, or not  marry.  To have sex or not have sex, with whom she chooses.  To have children, or not.  To be a working mother, or a stay-at-home mother.

In “Single Ladies”  I get no inkling that Beyonce is “crawling away as a meaningless ex,” as Hess believes.   She’s in the club (or, ‘da club), singing a final ultimatum.  She knows her lover is jealous, that he’s ruing his past behavior.  She isn’t putting up with his shit any longer.  She admits, “Your love is what I prefer, and what I deserve,” a bold announcement of desire and self-worth.  And–okay–I love when she says, “Pull me into your arms.  Say I’m the one you own.  If you don’t you’ll be alone.”  Yes, the notion of marriage as “ownership” might make one uncomfortable, but, then again, what if that ownership is requested?  If it’s consensual?  There’s the implicit sense that once this man owns her, and her body, she will also own him, and his body.  Here, the “ring” signifies a union of love and sex, and that it will, by necessity, carry with it the whole fraught history of marriage as a cultural institution.  I might go so far as to argue that Beyonce’s playing a little wink-wink game with the notion of wife-as-property.  It’s her mandate, not his, and she’s in control.

One can’t separate “Single Ladies” with its phenomenal video, where Beyonce and two other women dance in black leotards and high heels.  Beyonce’s waist-to-hip ratio and strong quads are out of sight, as are her dancing skills.  This video is actually an homage to Bob Fosse, who choreographed a slightly similar routine for his wife and two other dancers, and also shot on a stage in one take.  Beyonce’s video modernizes this choreography, much in the same way the song itself modernizes, or at least complicates, a traditionally female desire for commitment.   Perhaps “Single Ladies” can’t be a feminist anthem because, to reduce it to a rallying cry, a slogan, does not acknowledge it for the complex song that it is.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must head back to the library to dissect Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me.”  (Or, like everyone else, maybe I’ll go film a living room-homage to Beyonce’s video and post it on YouTube…)

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.


  1. Agreed – I always interpreted the message of this song as, “We could’ve had a life together, I could’ve loved you, but you lost your chance because you would not give me what you need.” The song felt similar, in message, to the other songs that Hess references (“Survivor,” “Independent Woman”) rather than disparate, because Beyonce was proclaiming that if the relationship did not fulfill her emotionally (as well as sexually) than she wouldn’t stay with the man. “If you liked it than you should’ve put a ring on it” was her way of playfully saying, “you missed your chance at something good. Because I didn’t get what I deserved from you, you have lost as a companion.”

    I didn’t know that the music video was prolonged Fosse reference – that’s very interesting.

  2. Thank you, Stephen and Kaelan!
    Catie, thanks for your comment. There used to be a full video of the original Fosse return, but I can’t find it anymore. A friend told me there’s a Beyonce-Fosse mash-up, which, when I find, I shall post. Unless my friend (hi, Doug), does it first…

  3. Love your argument and I completely agree with you about the use of the word “it” in Beyonce’s lyrics.

    The only slant that I can see where Beyonce could be seen as anti-feminist is her over-sexed image in many of her videos. The sexualized image is not just targeted to “All the Single Ladies” video but her overall image. Frankly, not just Beyonce, but other pop performers as well.

    I would love to see some of these performers where a baggy sweatshirt, some loose jeans, a t-shirt…not just tight clothes all of the time.. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the video, but I would just like to see more sides of a female performer rather than just the “sexy” side.

  4. I always thought the line was “Say I’m the one you WANT.” “Own” would certainly take it into anti-feminist territory. Bouncy is very much a Southern black woman with many of those traditional gender views on display (said as a black woman who grew up in the northeast and has lived in the south for a decade). An underlying theme of her songs is that a man should provide and pursue.

    I don’t think the song is particularly feminist or anti-feminist though. Party A wanted a commitment. Party B didn’t. Party A left. Party B is upset. And Party A says “Too bad. So sad. You missed your chance. And I am angry for you for not loving me the way I love(d) you.” Swap the genders in any combination, and it’s the same story.

  5. Tiffany, you may in fact be right about the lyrics–though “own” makes the song a wee bit messier, which is always more exciting to me! And thanks for the link–it’s great!

    Tracie, you make a good point, and my friend Christine recently echoed a similar sentiment. It’s true, Beyonce could do far more. Being sexy is what she seems most comfortable with, and, beyond her obvious singing and dancing talents, perhaps that’s what she’s best at, performance-wise…? I do wish she would get a little more exciting in that regard.

  6. Wait wait wait – a song by a married female-bodied artist pronouncing heteronormative patriarchal desires and a prescription for groups outside of her current experience (“single ladies” and “men in the club”) is all about choices? Beyonce ain’t empowered here – hell of a dancer, but not an empowering role model.

    In response to “What if it’s consensual?” Cultural pressure and coerced consent to patriarchy is not simply something that makes me uncomfortable, but rather it reinforces a narrow mode of thought that touches off on many other issues that I find carry towards distressing and unhealthy experiences for all parties involved. I agree with Hess: this is a portrayal of pseudo-empowerment for commercial appeal with no real radical analysis. Again, though – wish I could dance like that.

  7. Thanks for your comment, Trevor. I think you make an excellent point about Beyonce speaking for groups she’s not a part of–I hadn’t thought of that.

    I take issue with faulting her for having “heteronormative patriarchal desires”–it seems to impose a reading on a song that’s not intended to be a feminist anthem. And, again, the reading suggests that a straight woman who wants to be involved with a straight man cannot ever be a feminist. That excludes a lot of women from the movement, and it places requirements for behavior on women, which seems to defeat the purpose of feminism in the first place.

    I’m not so sure Beyonce’s “consent to the patriarchy” is “coerced”, either. I guess, overall, I don’t think anyone can really duck out of this patriarchy, or that this patriarchy is a static, monolithic structure. We just can’t say, “No thank you, Mr. Patriarchy.” That shit is everywhere, and we are all participating in it, in one way or another, even if it’s in rejection of it.

    On a side note, this reminds me of a line from Margaret Atwood’s wonderful novel The Robber Bride:

    “Male fantasies, male fantasies, is everything run by male fantasies? …Even pretending you aren’t catering to a male fantasy is a male fantasy: pretending you’re unseen, pretending you have a life of your own, that you can wash your feet and comb your hair, unconscious of the ever-present watcher peering through the keyhole, peering through the keyhole in your own head, if nowhere else. You are a woman with a man inside watching a woman”

  8. You are completely wrong. It’s anti-feminist because she’s using her body to get back at the man. She’s handing herself out to some stranger to enact revenge. She shouldn’t even be trying to get revenge in the first place, it’s childish and immature. Still she objectifies her body, like a possession, and hands it around to see how some guy that didn’t want her feels. She is desperate for marriage. She wants to marry a guy who doesn’t even want her. She’s begging to be taken, to be domesticated. She wants to be owned. A feminist song? Give me a break.

  9. ps. yeah the whole intention of the song is muddled. She wants to be all strong and break away from her previous relationship? dont ‘Say I’m the one you own” or break up with a dude simply to run to someone else. Be single for awhile!!

    Perhaps he ‘didnt put a ring on it’ because you kept nagging him to.

    and besides, isnt beyonce married to Jay – Z? the song is completely redundant.

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