When photos of Beyonce at the 2014 Grammys hit the internet my jaw unhinged like that of a python preparing to swallow a goat. Why was one of the most talented, successful artists of her generation dressed like the understudy in a Vegas revue? What was a powerful, self-professed independent woman doing in a gimcrack ensemble of nude tights and doilies?
Despite my shock and awe, I paused to wonder what questions I’m entitled to ask. Is it any of my damn business what a famous female wears? Am I a humourless feminist with booty envy? Does reacting make me part of the problem, e.g. judging women based on their appearance? Maybe. But it’s a chance I’ll take. Because this isn’t about fabric choice, it’s about dignity, equality and representation.
Break down “representation” and you get “re-presentation”. Every public appearance is an opportunity for an artist, male or female, to re-present him or herself. What they wear and how they behave tells us how they wish to be seen; in a basic sense, what they represent.
Beyonce’s brand of feminism is a couple of waves beyond my comfort zone (the whole Mrs Carter thing is regressive at best) but her stance on the politics of womanhood is mostly laudable. She talks a good talk, praising female strength, autonomy and self-reliance in hits like ‘Survivor’, ‘Irreplaceable’, and ‘Run The World (Girls)’. Better still, she comes across as happy in life and love, healthy, confident, and very much in control of her career and image.
This makes the ice-dancing-stripper outfit all the more baffling and inexcusable. Beyonce has the opportunity to represent positive things like creativity, independence, business acumen, and a loving marriage. So why play front-bottom peek-a-boo? She’s sold 25 million albums as a solo artist and was the first woman in 25 years to headline Glastonbury. Her most recent album (released online, unannounced) shot to the top of the Billboard charts, selling over one million copies in a fortnight. Bey could turn up to award shows in a muumuu and still have to fight her way through photographers.
Rocking up at the Grammys in an un-dress is an artistic and political statement, whether she likes it or not. By using her body to draw the attention that her talent deserves, Beyonce undersells her artistic gifts and reinforces the trope that women are primarily decorative. To use an old-fashioned feminist term, she presents herself as Object rather than Subject. In a society where women enjoyed the same social, financial, and sexual status as men looks wouldn’t matter. But we don’t, so they do.
We are all judged on our self-representation. If Jay-Z walked the red carpet in a cut-out Lycra bodysuit you bet we’d gawk. But he wore a sophisticated tux and the attention was rightly focused on his music, not his package. If women want to be treated with the same respect we have to present ourselves as artists, not eye-candy.