There are almost innumerous issues, concerns, praises and interpretations of Beyoncé’s controversial Formation video and super bowl halftime show performance. The week before the super bowl, I didn’t even know she was performing or that had just released her first song/video in over a year.
Sunday, February 7 I began playing the game Last Man or Last Man in America to Know Who Won the Super Bowl. A friendly game of “outrunning the knowledge” of learning who won the super bowl. There are no prizes and everyone plays with the conjecture that the other players will be truthful when they “die”… or just lose the game. It’s for those who don’t really care about football, but still want to have some fun. So when I logged onto facebook the next day, I was pretty sure I was safe since most of my friends are not big football fans. But I follow a lot of news sources and activist pages, and they weren’t talking about who won the super bowl. Every article and post was about Beyoncé’s amazing (or offensive, depending on who you asked) halftime show, which inevitably led to discussions about her Formation video. I had to be careful, walking on eggshells to make sure I didn’t accidentally learn who won the super bowl, but I had to know what all the commotion was about. I read a quick summary of the performance and music video, then moved on to watching them.
Initially I was mesmerized by the obvious symbolism of police brutality, racial injustice and celebration of Black beauty. But I started to notice a few things only a quarter of the way in. I heard Big Freedia’s voice, it’s an unmistakeable presence when you hear it, and I waited, watching each frame to see where she was hiding. Big Freedia, who is known as New Orleans Royalty, was not featured in a single shot of a music video that is supposed to be about New Orleans and Blackness. This brings me to the first issue I noticed on my own:
Trans women of color are almost completely invisible and exploited immensely in pop culture. They shape so much of what we see and hear when we watch pop and hip hop artists perform, but are ignored by wider society even though they suffer from extreme violence due to their gender and color.
This exploitation is not news. You may have even participated in it in the 80s along with artists like Madonna. Vogueing is fun, but what isn’t fun is the misappropriation of the performance by white performers at the expense of culture invented as a means of expressing queer Blackness. There is a wonderful documentary (currently still on Netflix) about the Ballrooms of New York called Paris Is Burning.
I highly recommend this documentary and it has been one of my favorites for a while.
Big Freedia’s absence from the video is almost poetic. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought it was a satirical observation concerning the invisibility of trans WoC (Women of Color) in mainstream society and media. But it was not. It was just another example for the history books.
The second blindingly problematic thing I noticed in the video was the contrast of light skinned black women and young girls to darker black women and young girls. One image that keeps coming to mind is the scene with Bey sitting on an old, tattered red couch wearing a historically southern, New Orleans-style white lace dress. She is surrounded by other black women in similar clothing. Only the darker women with more “negro” features (such as hairstyle and facial features) seem to be dawning more servant-like dresses, covering more skin and presented as less elegant than Bey.
The shot directly following that scene is of her daughter Blue, who is light-skinned like her mother. She poses with confidence, hands on her hips and a grin on her face. She is pretty darn adorable, of course. On each side of Blue is two other young black girls, and there seems to be a running theme here. They are both noticeably darker than her, and wearing undoubtedly servant-like dresses, while Blue dawns a dress so dissimilar and more upper-crust that the only similarity to the other dresses is that it is white.
This was so striking to me on the first watch that, again, I thought it was satirical observation on colorism in the media. And again, it was not.
A few seconds later, following an 80s or 90s style themed dance scene, is an almost random shot of a young black boy in full American Indian headdress and regalia. At first this was confusing to me, but then I remembered that some Louisiana Creole people can be a mix of American Indian, African American, French, European or Spanish heritage. So let’s chalk it up to that. But keep in mind that just a week or two earlier, Bey was caught misappropriating Indian clothing, culture and dance in Coldplay’s Hymn for the Weekend video. So she seems to either have little to no insight about stealing from another culture (misappropriation) or just has no problem with being alarmingly offensive to Indians. I don’t know, and that specific video’s issue is not the point of this post. (To learn more about appropriation and misappropriation right now here is an article dealing with Native American regalia appropriation).
The point of this post is to demonstrate that even though I noticed two very striking issues with the video almost immediately, I still had not completely deconstructed this seemingly laudatory event. It took more digging, reading and listening to really understand how murky these sorts of songs and videos can be.
The blog Rad Fag whose author, a self-described “multiethnic, mixed-class, queer man who is dedicated to combining arts and radical education to inspire community-committed action”, summed up a great deal of what people were missing in 22 well-made points. Some of which I had already noticed, most of which I had not. I specifically liked his almost-too-obvious-to-forget reminder that “Hurricane Katrina is not a sexy backdrop”. He’s completely right. There are many images of New Orleans still under water, frozen in time, that have been sexualized. On her own, Bey is a very sexy person, but she has been specifically dressed and posed as sexily as possible for these images. It makes you wonder if they, the producers of this video, even considered how these images might make an entire country feel, since so many of Katrina’s victims have been permanently displaced all over the US (the images from the provided link bring me to another topic: Poverty Porn- which I will write about, and link to in the future). And Big Freedia experienced her own Katrina horror story.
The commodification of Black culture continues with the corporatization of the Black Lives Matter movement. According to Rad Fag, “celebration and distraction are not the same thing. Taking time to step back from our difficult realities to rejoice, heal and love together is crucial. Investing in corporate fantasies and confusing them with our movements is detrimental”. Meaning, Bey’s “brand” has exploited current Black struggles under the guise of celebration with no regard to how it will affect the climate of race politics.
This is what uninformed white people will cite when they criticize BLM. That and the one time they were inconvenienced into a frenzy while protests in Austin flooded onto the already congested highway i35. People complained for days about how “detrimental” to the cause this demonstration was, and proclaimed the movement to be “racist” and “stupid”. Although those “criticisms” are dim at best, they are repeated and believed because they are part of the only narrative many white folks have seen or experienced.
I think this quote by Martin Luther King is especially appropriate during a time when groups of so-called “progressives” or “allies” label Black Lives Matter’s civil disobedience as “racist” or “unproductive”. Those same people will justify their unappreciated and unwarranted opinions by attempting to cite MLK as someone who would agree with them:
“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
While there are so many criticisms and ways to deconstruct this story. There are also a few things to remember before you completely dismiss it as another stunt by another pop star: Beyoncé is still a black woman, she has been her entire life. She might be part of a “brand”, but there is a person behind all those choreographed performances and pre-written songs, and that person has their own thoughts and feelings. I doubt she is a brainless puppet completely controlled by white-owned music labels and media. Despite the complications and headaches her performance and video have caused, I truly believe she is trying to celebrate her Blackness and empower other black women. Most people (including celebrities) do not obsess over problematic things, picking them apart until the raw message is revealed. That is their privilege. Beyoncé has the money, fame and support that gives her the ability to not be affected by this commotion in the same way poorer women of color will be.
I don’t believe it was her intent to perpetuate that New Orleans “Negro” and “Creole” are of different statuses based on colorism. Even though they are. And I do believe that her backup dancers likely meant to show solidarity with the BLM movement and Mario Woods in the halftime show even though it was at the last moment protesters were able to hand them this sign.
I also believe it is important to allow black performers to talk about Blackness as beautiful without being constantly criticized as racist or having an agenda. If you google image search “beautiful woman”, how many pages do you have to scroll through before you reach a WoC? What about a dark WoC? Treating every attempt by WoC to proclaim that they are also beautiful as an attack on everything that is whiteness, is not only wrong, but has harsh consequences. It leaves young women and girls of color believing that they are ugly, have undesirable traits (skin color, hair texture, facial features, thigh thickness, etc.) and cause extreme self-esteem issues. I struggled with this until I was 20 years old. I kept my hair chemically relaxed, paying $200 every 6 months to have dangerous chemicals burn my scalp in order to literally and figuratively hide my roots. But that is for another post. For now, I am still mulling the whole narrative in my head, trying to both enjoy the video and continue to deconstruct both its intentions and its consequences.