There’s a phrase coined by Sigmund Freud, “the narcissism of small differences.” – “the phenomenon that it is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and ridiculing each other.” I felt challenged and enriched by reading Radical Faggot‘s piece on Beyoncé’s “Formation” video, and by responding to it I hope to add to a complex, perpetually relevant discussion, rather than detract from dialogue by attempting to destroy or ignore the points I am struggling the most with.
I didn’t type that sentence in passive-aggression, but I do want to start by saying I think this response is necessary because I feel that Rad Fag, in their piece, is minimizing and ignoring parts of Beyoncé’s work and identity in ways that are unfair and sadly ironic. It genuinely makes me sad because people dehumanize* artists all the time, and it’s ironic because it’s happening in response to a piece of work that’s specifically about the dissonance Beyoncé Knowles feels as a black woman who is struggling on-and-off-camera to be seen as a full, real (Black, female) human.
Oh, yes, you besta believe it
1. Big Freedia is not a trans woman. This leads to my disagreement with the points in general on cis, female pop stars “appropriating” queer and trans culture. It’s a sometimes ambiguous, but overwhelmingly symbiotic relationship. When Madonna or FKA twigs seemingly co-opt vogue in the middle of successful professional careers, they are already undeniably in a conversation with a large queer and trans audience who is supporting them and adopting their mannerisms, language, and iconography, too. Not to mention their collaborators, staff, and friends. Of course, not every cis-female entertainer is known to be especially beloved in the queer and trans community, but Bey is. Her using language like “slay” or sampling the voice and images of queer people is, at the very least, showing love and giving visibility to people who adore, mimic, and exalt her expression as a cis female.
Furthermore, what is the operative difference between Big Freedia (positively described by Rad Fag as “a force”) and Beyoncé? Freedia is a black, feminine, Southern entrepreneur and entertainer with hyper-sexualized (and empowerment-themed) music, corporate sponsors, and big-name producers and collaborators. Beyoncé operates at a larger scale than Freedia but if you put their actual work side-by-side they do the same thing. If Big Freedia puts out a Black Lives Matter-themed video, is she also responsible for deflecting the attention away from the racist mayor of Chicago, the people of Flint, and the police state, too? Or is Freedia not famous enough (yet)?
2. Beyoncé has a black child, a black husband, a black mother, father, sister. Beyoncé is black. No amount of money erases that, and the idea that it ever could, or that having a lot of money makes someone able to un-feel or express their blackness does not sit right with me. A little boy roughly her daughter’s age is still facing down a line of police, and her Southern family (“Momma Lousiana;”) are still suffering from Katrina – are we assuming Beyoncé has no loved ones in New Orleans? As stated earlier, this is what “Formation” and its video are explicitly in response to. Beyoncé is wearing modern “sexy” clothing like a rich pop star and she’s dressed like a classic Southern Belle and she’s wearing a “modest” dress that covers up everything and yet she still drowns. She uses the mechanics of a pop video to draw a line through time, space, and class. Which brings me to the subject of #3:
Bitch, I’m back by popular demand
3. RF‘s first point expresses sincere frustration at constantly being asked to respond to the “Formation” video. Without attempting to invalidate, I object to the implication that people are primarily talking about “Formation” because Beyoncé is popular or they’re being somehow fooled; people are talking about it because they believe it is an exceptional piece of work, first and foremost. People talk incessantly about Beyoncé because we believe she is an exceptional artist. Not always. But very often, whether she’s singing acapella in a dressing room, making a song about the joy of having a daughter or one about going down on her famous husband in a limousine.
4. There’s a JAY Z line, “Heard niggas saying they made Hov, made Hov say ‘OK, make another HOV.'” If a corporation “making” Beyoncé or any pop star was as easy and effortless as it is made to seem, every pop star would be Beyoncé, you know? But they’re not. Taylor Swift isn’t, Britney Spears wasn’t, even Rihanna isn’t. Justin Timberlake, her closest pop peer, clearly pales in esteem as well. Outside of the pop landscape, I, and we, truly believe that Beyoncé is a uniquely powerful creator – she’s a once-in-a-lifetime creative genius and “Formation” carries any To Pimp A Butterfly, “Missippi Goddam” I could name. Beyoncé is in conversation with bell hooks, not to be talked down to, is to be celebrated and studied alongside Hurston, Brooks, & Angelou.
5. I am an anarchist. I believe that capitalism fucks up this world in a bad way. I do not idolize Bill Gates (or Steve Jobs or Beyoncé) as capitalists. We have political differences; Beyoncé believes that participating in capitalism in the way she does, at the scale she does, results in a net benefit enough to keep doing it. So does my mom. To treat an ideological difference as a chance to minimize someone’s struggles is not any less destructive when someone has a lot of money.
Slay trick, or you get eliminated
6. I also believe that no matter where you are in this system, you are going to suffer, consciously or unconsciously. I do not believe that Beyoncé or any rich artist is happier than I am just because they are “successful.” In fact, most celebrities, most rich people, will tell you all the time about the tolls being rich and famous takes on them. A lot of large scale art is explicitly about that. JAY Z’s most recent album Magna Carta Holy Grail is about that; in fact, all JAY Z is about that. Bey and JAY’s On the Run tour was about that. That “Formation” projects superhuman confidence, and that because of our current condition this confidence is both what endears Yoncé and her peers to their audience and enrages onlookers is one of the central tragedies of the piece. Making explicit the parallels to and, roots in, black, queer, & class struggles (with a swag rap cadence) is one of the deft, masterful things about the work. And then she gave it to the biggest audience on Earth.
*7. I used the word “dehumanizing” earlier: “Beyoncé is a logo. Beyoncé is a commodity. Beyoncé is a production. Beyoncé is a distraction. Beyoncé is a ruse. Beyoncé does not actually exist.” I stand by my use of the word.
I encourage you, if you are reading this piece, to read Radical Faggot‘s piece, multiple times. It is full of important information and your eyes and mind will do a better job of processing its value than I ever could as I am writing in “opposition” to it. I am grateful for it.
Always stay gracious