Last week I fell a little bit in love with Beyonce. I tried to be cynical, watching her documentary Life Is But a Dream on Thursday night. I had been preparing to watch Question Time, so my cynicism was primed and ready to go. I also watched knowing it was written, directed and produced by Beyonce, about Beyonce, and therefore is essentially an 80-minute Beyonce PR exercise. But I couldn’t do it. I’m tired of the cynicism that pervades so much of our contemporary criticism. And so I just watched it with fascination and enjoyed it for what it was – a very small, very well choreographed, window onto the world of one of the most famous women on the planet.
Here’s what I loved about it:
1. She said this: “Stop pretending that you have it together. If you’re scared, be scared. Allow it. Release it. Move on.” This is great advice, for anyone, at any time.
2. She’s totally, head-over-heels in love with her husband. When Beyonce Carter-Knowles announced she was calling her upcoming tour The Mrs Carter Show, commentators went into overdrive asking ‘what does this mean’, and ‘is this ok’? Was it right that she was choosing to define herself through her husband? What sort of message did it send out? Surely a feminist would never do such a thing? Well, I think that is bollocks. Being a strong, independent woman, being a feminist, doesn’t preclude you from being in love, or wanting to celebrate that fact. It’s a part of who you are. That’s all she’s saying.
3. And, you got to see her do this:
I loved the Beyoncé documentary that’s on BBC1 now. You see her wankered singing “Yellow” at Jay-Z.
— Caitlin Moran (@caitlinmoran) March 28, 2013
Even though it’s BEYONCE singing it at him, he has the look of all husbands when their wife’s on the red wine karaoke.
— Caitlin Moran (@caitlinmoran) March 28, 2013
4. Often the subject of an is-she-or-isn’t-she-a-feminist debate, my cynicism was tested most during the part of the documentary where Beyonce talks about gender equality. She says the following:
“I’m not interested in a free ride, but women have to work harder in this world. Women do not get the same opportunities as men do, or money for that matter. Because let’s face it, money gives men the power to run the show. It gives men the power to define our values, to define what’s sexy, what’s feminine. And that’s bullshit.”
All well said. Except that the audio is played over clips of her writhing on stage, in arse-skimming skirt, and teeny-tiny sequined top. When she made similar comments to GQ, while being shot half naked for its cover, the brilliant Hadley Freeman despaired. But here’s the thing – I’m a woman, and I thought she looked amazing. My first thought on hearing those words, played over those images, might have been is she a hypocrite? But it got me thinking that the opposite side of that argument always appears to start from a viewpoint that if a woman ever wants to feel sexy, feminine, or good about how you look, that is somehow anti-feminist. As Emma Gannon argued in The Telegraph last month, maybe it’s possible to be both. When I looked back on the documentary as a whole, I saw a woman doing sexy, and doing feminine, in a way she felt comfortable. Her stage wardrobe would be unlikely to put me at ease, but I came away sure that wanting to feel confident, feminine, and feminist are not mutually exclusive concepts.
5. Beyonce is totally in control. Critics of the documentary have talked about how calculated it was, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a negative thing. The woman appears to exert complete control over her identity and how the world sees her, and lets us in only when she chooses – as she has every right to do. In what at times feels like a completely unmediated world, where we see stars lurching from one crisis to the next under the blinding glare of paparazzi flash bulbs, it’s refreshing to see one that holds some things back. Plus, in the course of Life Is… she shares private moments from her marriage, pregnancy, a miscarriage, and difficult relationship with her father. That’s enough for me.
Granted Mrs Carter is not a woman without contradictions. But she has brought out a heap of songs that encourage women of all ages to strive for strength and independence, challenged gender roles, and backed this up with gestures such as using all-female backing bands, and announcing she’s to be one of the hosts of Chime For Change. She puts out a strong, aspirational message, and that’s something I can get on board with, without any cynicism at all.
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