The Paradox of Feminism and Pop Culture in Beyoncé’s Pretty Hurts

Andi Zeisler, founder of Bitch Magazine, traces the paradox of feminism’s participation within pop culture in Feminism and Pop Culture (2008). She interrogates the points of unity and contention and raises them to a level of synthesis that is represented in that paradox of feminism and pop culture: pop culture’s co-existing processes of expressing feminism and containing it—a manifestation of the negotiations between society and feminism. The institutions of pop culture and the objects of pop culture become points of scrutiny in which parallel processes of contention occur: the pop culture industry is acted upon by societal institutions (capitalism, the feminist movement) and commands power over cultural constructions of gender and feminism; the pop culture objects become “transcripts” of the resistance to the unbaiting feminism. Zeisler attributes such phenomena to pop culture, industry, and objects by first establishing the tendencies and subtleties of pop culture that allow for them to occur.

“Pop culture’s” rise from “low culture” is the realization that the culture of the masses provides both insight and influence. This dynamic relationship prompts pop culture’s role as arbiter of feminism and gender. Pop culture participates in the capitalist economy and therefore allows for the distortion of subject and object within the industry—as we buy pop culture, “we’re…sold to popular culture via its dependence on advertising” (2). Zeisler emphasizes the mutual relationship capitalism creates—we are at the mercy of pop culture as much as it is at the mercy of us. She shows the imperative for the scrutiny of pop culture by showing our self and world conception’s dependence on pop culture:

We’re also talking about the way we understand both the time and place in which we live and the way we define ourselves as individuals. When we look at our lives—both personally and collectively—we view them largely through the lens of popular culture, using songs, slogans, ad jingles, and television shows as shorthand for what happened at the time and how we experienced it. (Zeisler 4)

Because of this self-evaluation, we construct ourselves based on pop culture, but also construct pop culture by seeing where we are not. Feminism is too represented through pop culture, however pop culture’s ambivalence to feminism obscures it. Zeisler writes, “You can discern the basic construction, but the overall effect is grotesquely distorted to maximize its worst features” (14). Through the masses demand for pop culture’s expression of feminism, the pop culture industry must yield to an extent. Zeisler, thus, identifies pop culture as a “frenemy” of feminism (23). Its inclusion of feminism, while independently positive, is degraded by its capitalist intentions. Pop culture dictates instead of reflects feminism—prescribing what a woman can and cannot be within society and the stakes of rebelling against those expectations. Pop culture does so while acknowledging that these norms are not necessarily compatible with the individual. Zeisler provides the example of late nineteenth century advertisements to show pop culture’s awareness of this disconnect—male-aimed advertisements portraying women in terms of sex in contrast to female-aimed advertisements portraying women in terms of romance (24). The women see themselves as introspectively alien to their societally-received selves, deteriorating their self-worth as a woman and objectifying themselves at the demand of society.

By degrading the women’s foundation of self-construction, the industry is empowered to dictate those women’s existences. The industry occupies the role of the mediator between pop culture and women’s inclusion, and therefore delineating what that inclusion can look like. As Zeisler explains, “…pop culture was both the key to spreading [feminism’s] message and the force that did its damnedest to undermine it” (49). One way the industry does this is through an all-or-nothing approach like in the case of MTV, where few women are risen to rock-star status while the majority are “props” of sexuality in other videos (Zeisler 13). Yet, the main source of the expression vs. containment paradox of pop culture’s feminism is through the qualifying of that female inclusion. Women as target consumers of pop culture are granted the status of a target population, but that status is degraded by the moniker “teenybopper” (Zeisler 44). Pop culture recreates a new low culture for women, but women’s insistence on inclusion into pop culture results in their distorted inclusion. The Virginia Slims ad campaign in which the success of women’s liberation is marked by the creation of a “women’s” cigarette epitomizes this. The cigarette is touted as an achievement of feminism in the ad’s slogan: “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” (Zeisler 57). The disconnect between the desires of feminism and the concessions of pop culture are rationalized by a warped idea of what feminism’s success appears as: not the abolition of gendered divides, but the appeasement of both sides.

As pressures are placed on the industry level of pop culture, feminism’s demanded expression within the objects of pop culture shifts as well. The objects of pop culture both exist in relation to other objects and independently. Pop culture can contain feminism by placing expression of feminism within contexts that contain them. Teen Vogue may advocate against eating disorders, the spreads of unhealthily thin models negate that advocacy efforts (Zeisler 16). This dynamic between distinct articles of Teen Vogue is paralleled within a single object too. Feminist characters are acceptable and “sympathetic” only when they are beautiful (yet, Betty Friedan’s hair appointment before a feminist protest is not feminist enough in the eyes of the media) (Zeisler 61, 75). Ads call upon women to aid the war efforts by working also demand they retain their femininity (and stress this work is for the men) (Zeisler 27, 28). Zeisler also shows objects of pop culture containing feminism through fear—demonstrating that yes, women can be liberated, but they will be punished. The 1945 film Stella includes a woman as a successful restaurant business owner, but also the mother of a murderous daughter devoid of morality (Zeisler 34). Stella contains feminism by constructing the feminist as a selfish, neglectful mother for sacrificing her child’s upbringing for her own empowerment. This shaming of “rebellion” reoccurs in the movie Splendor in the Grass (1961), where the teenage girl Deanie must suppress her sexual desires if she is not to be disgraced and shunned. The movie further contains feminism by showing that the suppression sexual desire causes Deanie’s path to insanity (Zeisler 42). Thus, pop culture takes a containment approach of no longer just containing actions, but also the thoughts themselves—it fears the raised consciousness. All in the Family’s (1971) daughter of Archie Bunker is allowed for an expression of raised consciousness, only to be undermined by her own confusion within that feminist ideology (Zeisler 77). Zeisler shows how creatively a singular object of pop culture can dictate the terms of feminism contextually, within the plot line, and within the individual characters.

Pretty Hurts, Beyoncé’s opening track and video of her self-titled visual album, delves into what societal beauty expectations do to by touching upon these three angles of context, plot, and character. The video occurs within a beauty pageant, backstage and pre-pageant training, and Beyoncé’s implied home. Through contrasts of demure natural lighting, dramatically dark and cool lighting, and hazy warm lighting, the video switches between scenes of internal anguish, extreme beautifying practices, catty competition, poised self-presentation, and denouncements of the beauty pageant and beauty’s standards. Beyoncé thus introduces a limited message of how women embody feminism—through the material.

Beyoncé expresses feminism and its duality through these distinct spaces—the pageant, the pre-pageant, and her home. The pageant creates images of contradiction. Beyoncé’s visible melancholy is replaced by her wide smile the moment the spotlight hits. Yet as much as she shines on stage, she is demoted from the focal point as the other women are risen to focus. The women appear in yellow outfits, the color of happiness, but appear forlorn in every moment before. Beyoncé plays on these tensions as she is at the mercy of an all-male panel, expressing beauty as controlled by the hegemonic men and detrimental to women. Beyoncé enacts feminism in maintaining the men as flat characters, allowing only the women to be of emotional depth. Yet, she contains feminism to be this battle of the sexes, rather than a battle against ideology.

Exactly halfway through the video, the pageant announcer asks Beyoncé “What is your aspiration in life?” Her answer, “To be happy,” comes only after painful moment of unsureness. Her desire to be happy is a feminist expression of that internal, individual desire, rather than a subservient aspiration. Her hesitance here is what contains feminism, it limits the oppression within beauty to a sort of mind-control, in which the woman is blind to the oppression until a pivotal moment of realization. Thus, Beyoncé excludes the female struggle of being cripplingly aware of that oppression while also maintaining it. It is with this new consciousness that she immediately mobilizes. Almost as if recognition elicits personal revolution, whereas the present issue of recognition but simultaneous subscription goes unacknowledged. This scene prompts the changes within the other two settings: behind-the-scenes and at home.

The pageant’s backstage is swathed in dampened natural lighting expressing the banality of the pre-pageant practices, while a warmer light in shots focusing on Beyoncé allude to her bourgeoning consciousness. In the viewer’s first introductions to backstage, the shots originate on parts of the contestants’ bodies—Beyoncé’s butt, a contestant’s back as it is zipped into a suffocating dress, or another contestant’s pinched side-torso. Yet the shots immediately pull out and shift the body as an object to the body as part of the pained, somber subject of the contestant. Beyoncé there confronts the male gaze inherent in the pageant by depicting it. After establishing this self-scrutiny, scenes of the lengths the women go for beauty follow: Vaseline on teeth, Beyoncé’s emergence from a bathroom stall after purging, waxing, or pills. The pre-pageant preparation also occupies the same space within the video: judgmental weigh-ins and measurements or strict trainings, both done by the same merciless man. Beyoncé reinforces her limitation of sexism as the internal encounters or gendered encounters—excluding the way beauty standards are perpetuated by women to other women as well.

After the pivotal question over her aspirations, the scenes backstage become centered on Beyoncé’s upheaval, on her inability to reconcile her aspiration of happiness with the life she is living—her purging in the bathroom is shown directly, rather than implied as it was earlier, and her face is injected with Botox. Simultaneously, shots of a short-haired Beyoncé imply her individual rebellion of self over the desires of society. This “new her” limits feminism by still wearing makeup, although an attempt at a more “natural” look, and consolidating liberation into a change in appearance. Even as her sash is pictured abandoned, feminism is expressed through the denouncement of the material, not of the pervasive and ideological sexism.

Beyoncé’s home depicts the clearest expression that the push and pull of feminism and oppression. Always bathed in a warm natural glow, the slouched posture and pure focus on Beyoncé juxtapose her poise and disappearance from focus at the pageant or behind-the-scenes. In these glimpses of Beyoncé’s “personal life,” her identification as a beauty queen persists in what she wears, both her sash and tiara. Beyoncé complicates this by wearing calf-high socks that read “GANGSTER.” Thus, when at home, her body is the site of the conflict between who she is and who she forces herself to be. This enacted feminism of self-labeling herself as gangster is contained again by this insistence on feminism’s expression through material objects, not through action. She never confronts sexism in her actions, her answers, or her decisions, but limits it to exterior representation—showing in some ways the commodification of feminism.

Beyoncé’s home includes her symbolic trophy room. She begins seated within her trophies, depicted her body as synonymous to what those trophies represent: conformity to sexist beauty ideals. She shows her development as a feminist within her spatial occupations in relation to the trophies. She first sits in front of the trophies, separating herself from them; she then destroys them, stands victorious in front of the destruction, and finally lies amongst them. This is again Beyoncé’s tendency to express feminism through material means; she expresses feminism by devaluing the trophies or artifacts of oppression in destructing them, never alludes to the exclusionary construction of beauty that produced them.

The ending of Beyoncé’s Pretty Hurts video is where her expression of feminism is most salient. A home video of young Beyoncé Knowles winning a pageant title alludes to how pervasive these beauty ideals are, originating in youth (which she expresses in the lyrics to the song as well with “Mama said, you’re a pretty girl/What’s in your head it doesn’t matter”). Beyoncé conflates her reality and the video through that home video and her sash reading “Ms. 3rd Ward” which is the district of Houston she grew up in. This background shows how she expresses this feminism in the video and its occupation of opening track, but contains feminism because she still participates in the pop culture realm. Along with her preoccupation of material expressions of feminism, Pretty Hurts becomes an expression of her internal feminism, not the external feminism that can enact societal change.

Works Cited

  1. Pretty Hurts. Dir. Melina Matsoukas. Perf. Beyoncé Knowles. Parkwood Entertainment, 2013. Web.
  2. Zeisler, Andi. Feminism and Pop Culture. Seal Press, 2008. Print.