Beyoncé's new video for "Why Don't You Love Me" debuted last week, with a nod to 1950s homemaker style — and interesting commentary on ideas of womanhood, past and present.
Over at Feministing, Ann cast an appraising eye over Beyoncé and Sade's retro styling in recent videos. However, Ann's observations confused me a bit:
But given that these are two women of color are playing roles commonly associated with upper-middle-class white women (Betty Draper being the most recent reference point), I wondered: What makes me call this "retro"? I know there were certainly upper-middle-class women of color in the '50s and '60s, but this image of the happy-but-secretly-unhappy housewife is stereotypically white. By virtue of race, Beyonce and Sade are twisting that stereotype. (Granted, Beyonce is a more pin-up than straightforward homemaker — but hey, that's transgressive, too, as pin-up girls were almost all white.)
It is occasions like this that remind me how complete and total segregation was, and how white washed history can be. If these images are associated solely with whiteness, it's because the history of women of color has been systematically erased, deemed unworthy of inclusion in the general framework of "the way we were." There were upper middle class black women in the 50s and 60s, even entire enclaves like Striver's Row in Harlem. However, one did not have to be upper class, or even upper middle class, to be a housewife. (Just as one did not have to be black to work as a domestic for a wealthier family.)
The archives of Jet magazine tell this story better than I can. In addition to its news and entertainment reporting, Jet published an entire Modern Living section, which was more or less dedicated to housewives in search of the latest and greatest fashions and appliances.
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On occasion, they would refer to "career women" with the idea that for their audience, this was not the norm.
And, there were black pin-up models. They just didn't receive the Bettie Page style adoration that came with nostalgic views of the white 1950s and 1960s:
But I digress, back to the music video.
The gender attitudes and norms on display in Beyoncé's music videos are always fascinating and worthy of a deeper analysis. Last year, in a Racialicious post called "Rethinking Beyoncé: Video Gender Studies," I said:
Generally, her singles are about attracting male attention (for the first time, in a relationship, or post break up), deeming that she does not need male attention because she has money (which, by extension, represents freedom), or props up the idea of a woman's role in the relationship as being subordinate to a man's. For every ‘Survivor," (which has lyrics that are not gendered) there are faux empowerment anthems like "Independent Women," "Single Ladies," "Bills, Bills, Bills," which focus on cash flow being central to a relationship or to a woman's independence.
Many of her collaborations follow the same script, like her vocals on "I Got That" with rapper Amil, which has a chorus of "don't need you 'cause the rent is due/ you can be outta here baby/ because I got it." Beyoncé's presentation makes this sound like empowerment – telling someone else where to get off is always fun and she laces her honeyed vocals with a heavy dose of swagger. But underneath the lyrics, the fact remains that the woman Beyoncé portrays always defines herself against a man, and any empowerment she receives is from severing herself from one man into the arms of another (See: "Irreplaceable") or attracting more male attention.
This same dynamic is present in Beyoncé's latest single.
The lyrics are full of swagger:
I got beauty, I got class
I got style, and I got ass
And you don't even care to care
I even put money in the bank account
Don't have to ask no one to help me out
You don't even notice that [...]
I got beauty, I got heart
Keep my head in them books, I'm sharp
But you don't care to know I'm smart
Now, now now now now now now
I got moves in your bedroom
Keep you happy with the nasty things I do
But you don't seem to be in tune
Why don't you love me?
Tell me, baby, why don't you love me
When I make me so damn easy to love?
Once again, Beyoncé's lyrics define her positive attributes in the context of why she should be desirable to some fool that doesn't appreciate her. The video, however, is a lot more interesting since, with Beyoncé playing the role of "B.B. Homemaker," it is openly mocking a lot of the ideals and tenets of womanhood.
From Beyoncé strutting around doing erotic housework calisthenics to her mockingly dusting off her Grammy awards, the four minute video is both an homage and a satirical take on the June Cleaver archetype. Bey does an especially interesting rendition of the pulled together woman coming undone.
As the video ends, with Beyoncé on the floor in despair (even as her last line is defiant), it is striking how little things have changed in terms of perception. While B.B. Homemaker may be a throw back to times long past, the attitudes and mindset are still au courant.
Beyoncé, Sade and the meaning of "retro" [Feministing]
Jet Magazine Archives [Google Books]
Rethinking Beyoncé: Video Gender Studies [Racialicious]
Why Don't You Love Me [MetroLyrics]
Strivers' Row: a glimpse of genteel old Harlem [Ephemeral New York]