Beyonce strode out onto the Video Music Awards stage under the banner of feminism—literally. Behind the silhouetted star loomed, in huge white letters, the word “Feminist”, which, as a sampled Chichimanda Ngozi Adichie talk contends, means “the person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. And, as usually happens when Beyonce exercises her powers, the feminist internet sat up and took notice.
There is nothing healthy about the scrutiny Beyoncé’s feminism has garnered; not the warm appreciation and critical analysis she has elicited from some quarters, but the haggling over whether Beyoncé is a feminist and what that means for feminism.
On one hand, the scrutiny demands a superhuman level of feminist legitimacy performance. Supporting the broadly conceived social and political goals of feminism is not enough—she must as an individual attest to the purity of Beyonce the feminist through all of her creative, marital, quotidian choices.It is a cruel burden to lay on anyone—especially a black women vocally championing a social movement forged in alliance with white supremacy. On the other, the anxious search for the next celebrity spokeswoman is one of the grimmest spectacles in the grim mutation of a radical social movement into a cyclical rebranding exercise. The overweening amount of time and resources spent proving that feminism can be fun and sexy, often at the expense of more substantive principles; the desperate wooing of young (upper middle class) women, as if all that mattered was adoption of the label—none of these commodifications are quite as naked as the eagerness to turn a celebrity’s life and choices into a product marked “feminism.”
But the conservative culture commentariat’s take on Beyonce The Feminist raised neither of these objections to third party attempts to harness and narrate the mega-star’s assumption of the feminist mantle. Rather, they dived with abandon down the What Beyonce Says About Feminism rabbit hole, and found, by most accounts, a mess of damning inconsistencies. The fact that feminists and critics met Beyonce’s VMA performance with delight or at least critical engagement, while condemning Sofia Vergara’s rotating pedestal gag at the Emmys, drew the most ire.
If the measure of the artistic and emancipatory merit of women’s work is how much ass they show and how gleefully they show it, or how many times and how explicitly they reference sex in their performances, then yes, Knowles-Carter’s and Vergara’s performance should stand or swing by the same rope. But a quick look at other criteria illuminates instructive differences.
Beyonce is a dancer and singer, a performing artist in two mediums that, since the courtly love troubadours at the very least, have taken romantic and sexual passion as a chief subject. Moreover, even within the heavily eroticized form, Beyoncé’s opera has been dedicated to exploring and voicing in first person the sexual experience of a woman at a specific nexus of contexts—Black, female, Houstonite, lovesick, submissive, vengeful, ferocious. Her artistic choices have at least sometimes been problematic from a feminist perspective, but her eroticized performance persona is entirely appropriate to her work, and functions within its parameters to form a luminous whole.
Vergara is a comedian. And while her medium is not so steeped in the vagaries of sex, there is certainly a long and venerable comedy of the erotic. Of course, some of the brightest stars of this theater have rendered performances as ideologically indeterminate, as conflicted and contradictory as any of Beyoncé’s. Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story, Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night, Nora Ephron musing on the difference between men and women, among many others, offer up a vision of sexual love and female personhood that is at times disturbing and at others openly misogynistic. In all cases, though, the comedian participates as an agent in a tense gendered dance, or spins the state in which she finds herself with a personal and judgmental eye. The comedy of erotics, like the dance of erotics, will always be open to feminist criticism, but it provides a space in which women’s experiences of love, sex, and gender become as creatively important, regarded, and fruitful as men’s have traditionally been held.
In the Emmy bit, Vergara is neither an equal participant nor a commentator. Note that this holds no matter whose idea the gag was or how much control she had over the scene. Although an analysis of the power of female performers relative to their (usually male) producers and recording industry CEOs would be interesting, the issue at hand is not actor-behind the scenes but actor-producing-work. And the Emmys sketch was not structured around how Vergara engages the desires of others, or her own desire, or how she feels about or deals with the joys and frustrations of a publicly erotic body. None of that provided material for the joke—the joke was her body. Literally, the way the joke worked was thus: a man said, people like to look at Sofia Vergara. Ha ha ha. To further demonstrate his point, he put her on a cake stand, or the nearest equivalent. The internal logic of the jest required no insight, or participation from Vergara. She functioned as a prop.
AJ Delgado pointed out that Vergara was wearing a tasteful dress and, in general stays away from explicitly sexual humor; thus, she implies, her joke was less offensive and more feminist than Beyonce’s show. But the random declaration of a woman’s desirability in an unrelated context is not less offensive than a dancer’s deliberate inhabitance of an erotic theater, and the fact that a woman’s breasts and ass will be made a public spectacle when she wears a formal dress is much more troubling than a dancer’s display of her body in movements of disciplined sensuality. Beyonce’s bodily display was the stuff of her work; Vergara’s was presented in contradistinction to it. We say we care about story, about talent, about comedy, went the subtext, but really, we’re all here for the show. Ha ha ha.
None of this necessarily means that the joke was unfunny, or that Vergara herself is a sexist. It only means the context and structure of the two stars’ respective performances were different, and evaluations of their merits must reach a little higher than “is showing off your body good or bad?”
It was a very easy joke to make, after all; women’s bodies are already hilarious—subject to exposure, cartoonishly sexual, other—simply as desirable flesh. A little more hilarity at the expense of the sexual female body came courtesy of Mollie Hemingway at The Federalist. Hemingway noted that the main differences between the two actors seemed to be that Vergara “wasn’t splaying her legs with all the subtlety of a stampeding herd of rhinoceroses.” The disdainful hyperbole of the image is telling. Whatever the correct critical responses to Beyonce and Vergara’s respective performances, there is no obvious reason to equate them. Doing so requires a violent and degrading reduction of female performers to their degree of exposure—to their hilarious bodies and shamefully splayed legs. And for two women who have so generously exposed their considerable talents to the world, it is an unjust reduction indeed.