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All The Single Ladies: The Problem with Feminist Anthems

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On 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…)

Surprise Me!