Beyoncé's 'Flawless' Feminist Act at the Video Music Awards Leads the Way for Other Women


Beyoncé, in the midst of an epic 15 minute medley at Sunday night’s MTV Video Music awards, performed her song “Flawless” in front of a giant screen blazoned with the word “FEMINIST”. And, as in her music video, the superstar sampled author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s speech on feminism and expectations for girls.

The zeitgeist is irrefutably feminist: its name literally in bright lights.

As feminism’s star has ascended, so has the number of celebrities willing to lend their name to the movement. Feminism is no longer “the f-word”, it’s the realm of cool kids: Beyoncé, Lena DunhamAmy Poehler,Kerry Washington and Joseph Gordon-Levitt all call themselves feminists. And just this week, after years of equivocating, Taylor Swift came out as a feminist.

When one of the most popular artists in the world has been calling herself a feminist for a while, it’s easy for others like Swift to shout her feminist allegiance from the rooftops. But while Swift and others calling themselves feminists is great, being feminists every day is better.

What I’d love to see is this new crop of celebrity feminists strongly coming out in support of social justice issues: using their newfound (or quiet but long-standing) politics to create change influenced by that gender justice lens.

Beyoncé already got us started – she directly references feminism in her work and penned an article in support of equal pay, among other things. Dianna Agron of Glee fame speaks at pro-choice organizations’ events, Martha Plimpton created the pro-choice organization A is For and Kerry Washington is a frequent commentator on women’s rights and sits on the board of V-Day.

Others have more work to do. Swift told the Guardian that her previous rejection of feminism was because she didn’t really understand what the word meant. (In 2012, when a reporter asked Swift if she was a feminist she replied, “I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls”.)

She explained last week that, “what it seemed to me, the way it was phrased in culture, society, was that you hate men. And now, I think a lot of girls have had a feminist awakening because they understand what the word means”.

I’m glad that another celebrity with mass appeal – to young women, especially – is touting a movement necessary for gender justice. But the singer-songwriter calling herself a feminist for the first time in the same week that she released a video in which she twerks and crawls through the disembodied legs of women of color shows that it takes more than identifying as a feminist to understand feminism. (Perhaps as Swiftbrowses the feminist section of bookstores she could pick up something on racism and cultural appropriation. Maybe she could read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, as Beyoncé clearly has?)

If celebrities want to cement their feminist bonafides, they should educate themselves on the work that’s already been done and move forward with the intention of creating change, not just good PR. Because as exciting as it can be to see our best-known celebs talking about feminism, walking the walk is a lot more interesting.

So let Beyoncé lead the way with her hat tips to Adichie and tangible support of gender justice.

Obviously, feminism can’t hang its hat on celebrity endorsements – it’s a movement for social and political change, not a popularity contest. But successful movements need support, be it in the grassroots or in Hollywood. And there is no debating the hugely powerful cultural message sent last night as Beyoncé sang about feminism, while her husband looked on lovingly, holding their daughter.

It was, without a doubt, flawless. 

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