We’re Kidding Ourselves: Self-Objectification is not Self-Empowerment

by Giselle Hengst

The line between whether representations of female sexuality in the media amount to female empowerment or objectification is a blurry one. There is a very real need for normalizing displays of women’s sexuality, yet a lot of images in the media that claim to do so heavily cater to the male pornographic gaze. This creates a paradox wherein it is easy to condemn any representation of female sexuality as a product of the male pornographic gaze. It’s easy to feel as though this oppressive conundrum has no solution. One solution supported by liberal feminists is that we should disregard the concept of the male gaze, otherwise it would be impossible to ever represent female sexuality.

However, just because we choose to participate in a dominating system doesn’t mean it ceases to be oppressive. In the words of Black feminist thinker Audre Lorde, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change” (112). Even though the line between empowerment and objectification often seems impossible to discern, we are not going to come to a place of positive representation by accident. It is a worthwhile feminist project to have these controversial and often uncomfortable conversations if we want to improve representations of women’s sexuality. 

Beyoncé’s song and music video for “Partition” is one example of a video that has received both criticism and praise for its representation of female sexuality. Some feminist scholars have argued that Beyoncé’s ethos and “Partition” are not examples of liberatory feminist politics. However, others argue that it is a feminist song and video because Beyoncé takes control of her sexuality and how it is presented. Drawing on arguments from other academics, as well as my own analysis of the song and video, I will argue in this piece that Beyoncé’s “Partition” is an example of pseudo-feminism. Beyoncé’s self-branding as a “feminist” creates the illusion that the “Partition” is liberatory. However, after taking a closer look at the song and video, it becomes clear that “Partition” caters to the male pornographic gaze and fetishizes Beyoncé and Black women. For the purpose of this short analysis, I will be focusing on the version of the song “Partition” that appears in the music video, although the album version of the track is preceded by “Yoncé.” 

The basic narrative of the song goes like this: In a dream sequence, Beyoncé and her male lover (presumably her husband, Jay-Z) are in a private limo on the way to a club. Beyoncé tells the driver to roll up the partition in order to give the couple privacy as they engage in sexual activity. In the first verse, Beyoncé sings “Oh he so horny, yeah he want to fuck / He bucked all my buttons, he ripped my blouse / He Monica Lewinski’d all on my gown.” The lyrics frame the interaction in terms of Beyoncé’s lover having the power in the interaction. “He” is the one who is “horny,” wants to “fuck,” ripped her “blouse” off, and ejaculated (“Monica Lewinski’d”) on her “gown.” The entire interaction is described with the man as the subject, while Beyoncé is the object being acted upon. The cultural reference to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal implies a power differential between Beyoncé and her lover (Cvetkovich 277). Interestingly, the “gown” in the lyrics refers to Lewinsky’s infamous blue dress with Clinton’s ejaculate on it, which “acquired a fetishitic status in the media” (Cvetkovich 273). At the same time, the viewer is presented with quick, close-up shots of Beyoncé’s breasts, legs, and lips which turns her body into a site for visual consumption. Together, the imagery conjured by the lyrics works in tandem with the visuals to reinforce the idea that the man is the true holder of power over Beyoncé, who is reduced to an “object of desire” (Hansen 168). 

The music video specifically objectifies the Black female body, most notably through the controlling image of the Jezebel, also known as the “whore” or “sexually aggressive woman (Collins 77). The sexually aggressive behavior in the video and lyrics reinforce the image of the Black woman as the Jezebel without offering any sort of meaningful challenge or complication to the stereotype. The most obvious example of this controlling image can be found in the thumbnail for the music video on YouTube (pictured above). Given the fact that the “Partition” music video currently has over 205 million views on YouTube, this specific image is significant because the viewer did not need to watch the entire video in order to have seen it. The thumbnail features Beyoncé positioned on her knees, facing downward, and wearing stilettos. The image caters to the male pornographic gaze because her body is only visible as a silhouette, reducing Beyoncé to a sex object with no face or identity. By using imagery and a narrative that directly plays into the stereotype of the Jezebel, “Partition” is yet another example of media being used as a vehicle for “effective ideological justifications” of “racial oppression” and “gender subordination” (Collins 78).

The argument that Beyoncé is offering a liberating representation of female sexuality is too simplistic. It does not account for the long history of controlling images used to subordinate Black women. Some have argued that the music video taking place in a dream sequence negates the harmful aspects of it because it shows that Beyoncé doesn’t necessarily want this sexual fantasy to be enacted in reality. However, the music video itself does exist in reality. This fantasy has not been confined to Beyoncé’s private, inner-thoughts. Instead, the fantasy has been made real through the “Partition” music video. Its lyrics and visuals are a regressive representation of female sexuality that have been seen by millions. It’s tempting to believe that “acts of self-expression or self-empowerment are distinguishable, even in theory, from acts of self-objectification,” but this is not the social context we are living in (Bauer). Convincing ourselves otherwise only means that we have taken up the “master’s tools” to try to dismantle the master’s system of oppression (Lorde 112). Until our mainstream conceptions of female sexuality exist on a wider spectrum, we are only kidding ourselves by believing that self-objectification can be recognized as a feminist strategy. 


Works Cited

Bauer, Nancy. “Lady Power.” The New York Times, 20 June 2010, https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/06/20/lady-power/. 

Beyoncé. “Beyoncé – Partition (Explicit Video).” YouTube, uploaded by Beyoncé, 25 February 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pZ12_E5R3qc. 

Collins, Patricia Hill. “Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Conscioussness, and the Politics of Empowerment.” Unwin Hyman, Inc., 1990. 

Cvetkovich, Ann. “Sexuality’s Archive: The Evidence of the Starr Report.” in Our Monica, Ourselves: The Clinton Affair and the National Interest, eds. Lauren Berlant and Lisa Duggan, New York University Press, 2001. 

Hansen, Kai Arne. “Empowered or Objectified? Personal Narrative and Audiovisual Aesthetics in Beyoncé’s Partition.” in Popular Music and Society, vol. 40, no. 2, pp. 164-180, 2017. 

Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” in Sister Outsider, The Crossing Press Feminist Series, 1984. 

One thought on “We’re Kidding Ourselves: Self-Objectification is not Self-Empowerment

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  1. Giselle,

    Wow! This is a powerful piece and a much-needed perspective. It can be tempting to use “choice feminism” as a means of reading empowerment in any and all women-penned representations of sexuality, but as you so brilliantly argue throughout this, that is too easy a solution, and one that dangerously glosses over the historical complexities of how women’s bodies (perhaps especially black women’s bodies) have been trafficked both literally and representationally. I appreciate how you acknowledge the immense difficulty of your central question here: obviously the desire for a censorship of representations of female sexuality is problematic in and of itself, yet we can’t pretend the mass-marketed versions of it we get in popular media are any better a solution than erasure.

    Your lyrical and visual analysis of “Partition” is incredibly done. Your reading of the passivity of the opening lyrics and the uncomfortable power dynamic the Monica Lewinsky allusion illustrates is apt, and services your larger argument with aplomb. It is indeed difficult to see empowerment in these textual moments and in the visuals that accompany them, not for Beyoncé and certainly not for any kind of communal womanhood. Your critique of the video’s most iconic image as seen in the YouTube thumbnail is spot-on as well, and it’s definitely significant to think about the fact that that’s the image of the song and video that exists most prominently in the minds of the general public.

    Thank you for this! It made me reevaluate some of my own perspectives, because ultimately you’re absolutely right…I was kidding myself.

    -K

    Like

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