Sanctifying the Senses: Thoughts on Beyoncé as Liberative Praxis

Cartoon character Spongebob Square Pants demonstrates America's devotion to singer Beyoncé

By Alexis S. Wells

If accepting imperfections and eschewing insecurities are a female rite of passage, then in her self-titled visual album, Beyoncé establishes herself as one of pop culture’s preeminent guides. Since its surprise release through iTunes, the collection of fourteen songs and seventeen videos has inspired a firestorm of conversation on topics ranging from the revolutionary potential of her audiovisual format, to the ethics of a sound bite sampled from the space shuttle Challenger. From academics, to bloggers, to NASA, everyone seems to be talking about Beyoncé. A compilation of fans’ most provocative responses, aptly titled “The Best of the Internet’s Reaction to Beyoncé’s New Album,” includes one fan’s screen shot as he deletes the Bible from his iPhone, with the caption “I need room for Beyoncé’s new album,” as another fan meditates on “How it feel(s) to know God is a Black woman.”

The singer’s ability to elicit such responses with the release of an album signals her orbit in an elite stratosphere of entertainers, elevated to the level of idols: Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, Cher . . .  Yet, in a self-conscious departure from the singer’s otherworldly persona, Beyoncé, a visual album of fourteen songs and seventeen videos, endeavors to reinterpret the Beyoncé brand through a critique of the perfectionist threads of American culture that demand personified ideals in the form of celebrities and deify the manufactured images of the entertainment industry. As she declares in the second installment of her YouTube commentaries about the album, “finding the beauty in imperfection” is the album’s primary mantra. Throughout the series, she describes the album’s aim to be “in the moment” and embrace “mistakes” during the creative process.  The YouTube series includes titles such as “Imperfection,” “Liberation,” and “Honesty,” which reflect the self-help vocabularies of the American spiritual psyche and hint at the album’s didactic undercurrents. Although some fans may idolize her, Beyoncé is unashamed of her clay feet; through a collection of sounds and images, the singer invites her audience, particularly her female members, to immerse themselves in her “truth,” which resides in her experiences and the pleasures of the sense world.

The album opens with “Pretty Hurts,” a commentary on the seemingly endless gamut of self-alteration associated with female beauty and the magnified world of celebrity, here represented through the equally perfection-oriented, fantasy-creating world of competitive beauty pageants.  The song’s lyrics introduce the critique that governs the album: “Pretty Hurts/ Shine a light on whatever’s worst/ Perfection is a disease of a nation/ Pretty Hurts/ Shine a light on whatever’s worst/ Trying to fix something but you can’t fix what you can’t see/ It’s the soul that needs surgery.” The video begins with a voyeuristic, behind-the-scenes view of the rituals surrounding beauty pageants, yet concludes with a melodic repetition of the question “Are you happy with yourself?” while Beyoncé, playing a fallen beauty queen, smashes a large collection of pageant trophies. As the final note sounds, she appears short-haired and replies to the reflexive question regarding her happiness with a simple “yes,” as the scene cuts to a homemade video of a very young Beyoncé accepting an award, presumably at a beauty pageant. Clearly, this critique is personal. From this point, the singer unleashes a barrage of sights and sounds that declare her independence from self-consciousness and insecurity, or at the very least, her refusal to allow such sentiments to confine her self-expression. Provocative odes to sexual pleasure, such as “Blow” and “Rocket,” intermingle with the erotic, carnivalesque imagery of “Haunted” and brazen, burlesque carnality of “Partition,” to evoke the multi-sensory sensuality the album espouses. The explicit eroticism of Beyoncé is an intentional departure from the coquettishness of her previous albums and constitutes the singer’s emancipation from the stifling confines of her role model designation. In the final episode of the YouTube commentary, she admits lacking the confidence to perform overtly sexual songs, such as “Rocket.” Yet, the well-placed footage of one producer opining that Beyoncé “set some women free,” following a stirring, improvisational performance of the song, gestures towards the album’s liberative praxis.

"Beyonce Sells Out NYC Concert In 22 Seconds." Photo by Flickr user "," August 11, 2011. Available via Flickr.
“Beyonce Sells Out NYC Concert In 22 Seconds.” Photo by Flickr user “,” August 11, 2011. Available via Flickr.

This praxis does not, however, emanate solely from a feminist politic. In agreement with Ashon Crawley’s analysis of the controversy surrounding Beyoncé’s self-designation as a feminist, dialogues that focus exclusively upon the singer’s distance from or proximity to some imaginary nexus of feminist consciousness neglect the liberative potentialities of pleasure as its own end. On Beyoncé, pleasure is not confined to the carnal and romantic. Rather, the entire sense world offers opportunities for corporeal stimulation, hence the juxtaposition of ballads such as “No Angel” with images of Houston’s Third and Fourth Wards that highlight the interplay of the menacing and artistic in the aesthetic of working class, African American Southern cultures. Pleasure is a point of view, or to go even further, an orientation. Beyoncé’s pleasure principle resides in the same space, or rather is a part of her feminism. In the midst of her boastful appraisal of her accomplishments on “Flawless,” she samples a clip of Nigerian feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s critique of the competitive cult of femininity that evaluates women’s worth according to the criteria of the heteronormative, male gaze and inculcates diffidence in lieu of assertiveness. Through this maneuver, she reorients the listener’s interpretation of the song: the seemingly egotistical “bow down bitches” refrain now appears as a challenge to the self-effacing socialization surrounding female achievements and as a self-congratulatory affirmation to which every woman should feel entitled. She entreats women to tell “him:” “I woke up like this . . . / We’re flawless.” The ambiguous “him” at whom the declaration is directed affirms the song’s message of self-celebration as a mode of challenge to the critical eye, here represented by a gendered pronoun.

The reservations surrounding Beyoncé’s iteration of feminism are understandable. For women ensconced in Western gender discourses, sexuality is inextricably linked to social politics. The paradoxical obsession with soma, evidenced by the invention of race and socialization of gender, yet discomfort with sensuality in the history of American peoples has rendered some strains of feminism suspicious of the over-valorization of corporeal pleasures. For women raced as black, the stakes are even higher. From the first moment of encounter, the collision of West and West Central African body sensibilities with those of Europeans constructed a vortex of discourses that rendered black female sexuality a quagmire. Prior to the hegemonic acceptance of “bootylicious” bodies—which occurred through the divorce of historically “black” silhouettes from blackness (à la Jennifer Lopez)—African-descended women’s movements, contours, and postures, were labeled, maligned, and studied, by their colonizing American counterparts. Throughout most of American history, black women were the poster children for the grotesque and pornographic in popular discourse. Perhaps this is why I understand Beyoncé, and the doctrine of corporeality and pleasure that it espouses, as a site of liberative praxis: it is rooted in the epistemology of a maligned corporeality, namely black femaleness. As evidenced by the analysis in James Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation and Delores Williams’s Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, the origins of a liberative model in the histories and modalities of a particular embodiment does not foreclose upon the possibility of participation from those who do not share that embodiment. Rather, the model invites them to inhabit the sociocultural space of an alternative embodiment as a means to new understandings. In its unapologetic display of polyrhythmic movement, indulgent sensuality, and bare skin, Beyoncé challenges the raced and gendered legacies that render such displays “inappropriate,” “raunchy,” and “problematic,” even for those raced as black, and moves towards a body politic that sheds the internalized, shaming gaze of the foreign onlooker. In doing so, the album extends a pathway for others to reject the regulatory gazes that endeavor to give meaning to flesh and police modes of pleasure.

Emancipation from a dependency upon the validation of others’ gazes for self-valuation constitutes a new rite of passage, arising from the increasing weight of the two-dimensional media and digital worlds in self appraisals. Beyoncé models a liberative praxis precisely because, contrary to the polished narratives of many people’s digital avatars and social personas, it offers a commentary on her life, her contradictions, and her struggles. The visual album ascends to the level of art in its attempt to displace the narrative filter that enables our lives to cohere with our politics and our impulses to conform to our reason. She is simultaneously secure in her sexuality (“Partition”), yet jealous of her partner’s whereabouts (“Jealous”); confident in her relationship (“Drunk in Love”), yet honest about its struggles (“Mine”); celebrating motherhood (“Blue”), yet lamenting her losses (“Heaven”). Amidst this intriguing bundle of contradictions, paradoxes, and imperfections, Beyoncé suggests that incoherence is not a product of our ideological fickleness but rather the unrealistic inflexibility of self-regulating politics and doctrines. True to the eclectic spirituality of her generation, Beyoncé invites her audience to glean their truth from the corporeal and find peace in the state of constant striving toward “growth,” “love,” and “happiness.” Thus, for the seeker, Beyoncé offers an immersive, experiential interpretation of the point where the sacred intersects the sense world in the search for T/truth and the sublime.

Alexis S. Wells is a PhD candidate in American Religious Cultures at Emory University. She is currently at work on her dissertation, “Re/membering the Sacred Womb: The Sacred Cultures of Enslaved Women in Georgia, 1750–1861.”