Monday, March 31, 2014

Survivor's Flawed Feminism

File:Destiny's Child – Survivor.jpg

On the face of it, Survivor by Destiny's Child is a powerful statement of feminism. The songs encourage women to take control of their lives, to seek success and happiness on their own terms instead of letting men dictate everything for them. You're probably familiar with Independent Women Part I (the one from Charlie's Angels), and that song is pretty representative of the whole album, with its themes of gender equality and, er, independence.

This independence manifests itself in many different ways over the course of Survivor. Songs like Dance With Me and Apple Pie à la Mode find the girls asserting their sexuality, making the first move instead of waiting for a man to initiate something. Survivor is presumably levied at LaTavia and LeToya, the two founding members of DC who left the band after the release of previous album The Writing's on the Wall; its lyrics make it clear that Beyoncé et al can do perfectly well without them ("Thought I wouldn't sell without you? Sold 9 million!"), and it could just as easily be aimed at an evil ex-boyfriend without whom you're better off anyway.

The record also reserves plenty of bile for the girls who, in DC's eyes, are letting the side down. Fancy is pure character assassination, targeted at someone who dared to ride Beyoncé's coattails ("You're always trying to steal my shine!") instead of carving out her own personality ("Where's your self-esteem? Find your own identity!"). This unnamed unfortunate - quite possibly one of the ex-Destiny's Children mentioned above - is not an independent woman, and so she is unworthy of B's friendship.

Then there's Nasty Girl, which rips into 'easy' girls who don't wear very many clothes:

And this is where the problems begin. Slut-shaming isn't a great line for self-proclaimed feminists to take; it would almost be forgivable if it were some buttoned-up, presumably asexual schoolmistress who was wagging the finger at girls who dress provocatively, but this song comes straight after Bootylicious, for Christ's sake. We know that Beyoncé and Co. are no strangers to gettin' jiggy wit' it, so why do they suddenly decide to turn on the lady with the plunging cleavage? Is it supposed to be a joke?

Okay, so perhaps this contradiction can be explained away. Just because Beyoncé claims to 'shake her jelly at every chance' doesn't mean that she's giving it away; in fact, the line that's repeated ad nauseum in Bootylicious is "I don't think you're ready for this jelly", suggesting that prospective sexual partners have to earn a roll in the hay with Beyoncé and her legendary curves.

But Nasty Girl isn't the only source of non-feminist expression to be found on Survivor. Let's take a look at My Heart Still Beats, Beyoncé's big solo showstopper moment:

"As long as you love me, reach for me, and need me...because you're half of me, my heart still beats."

Are these really the words of an independent person? It's one thing to be in love with a man, but it's quite another to say that he's 'half' of you, to claim that he's your sole reason for living. 

But the biggest hypocrisy is saved 'til last. After spending the best part of an hour proclaiming that their success is of their own making, insisting that they don't need no man, the DC girls blow it in the last two tracks by attributing all of their good fortune to The Man Upstairs. Here's Outro (DC-3) Thank You, the album's closing track:

Let's see how many times He gets the credit:
  1. "Michelle, my belle...I truly believe the Lord sent you to me and Kelly...with a voice that beautiful, you was heaven-sent."

  2. "Lord, thank you for your vision that we see down here on Earth. Thank you for your precious gifts.."

  3. "Michelle...ain't it funny? God always knows what He is doing, and he showed me some of that when you came into me and B's life."

  4. "God is so awesome, and I thank him for answering my prayers as a child...God just has his way of sending precious treasures, and I found mine."

  5. "Only God knew that this union was meant to be, only God knew all the things we couldn't see. But if we pray together, we'll stay together."
And all of this is preceded by the Gospel Medley, in which the three ladies sing: "Thank you Lord, hallelujah! You've been so good to me. Thank you Lord, hallelujah! I'm grateful for my blessings."

After all the great strides that Survivor makes for feminism - after all the positive messages about how women don't need men to make the most of their lives - we are told that DC's international stardom was brought about by...a man. Not just a man, but The Big Man. You might argue that God isn't really a man, that they're just thanking a formless cosmic deity and that His male personification is just a funny little irony, but my argument stands: they're abdicating all responsibility for their success and completely undermining their previous points about independence and self-made riches.

So what gives? Are Beyoncé, Kelly and Michelle just hypocrites?

Not necessarily. I think the key to this one lies in Independent Women Part II (the lesser-known reprise of of the Charlie's Angels song):

The important line comes just after the 2 minute mark: "If you're independent, I congratulate you. If you ain't in love, I congratulate you."

Let's take a closer look at that. We know from other songs on this album - the aforementioned My Heart Still Beats, the stunning Brown Eyes, et cetera - that Survivor's protagonist is very much in love, so why this suggestion that being in love is a bad thing?

It's quite simple: the main character of Survivor isn't the feminist that she wants to be. She looks up to independent women, but as much as she'd like to be one, she isn't. She feels that being in love with a man makes her a traitor to her own gender, but that doesn't change the fact that she is in love. There's even a song on the album called Dangerously in Love, suggesting that Beyoncé (or whoever) sees love as a risk, a sacrifice.

Perfect Man is another interesting one. It comes hot on the heels of Sexy Daddy and several other songs about being confident and, as mentioned earlier, making the first move. But Perfect Man is different - it's sung by a girl who wishes she had initiated something, because her strategy of waiting around and hoping for the best didn't work out. The message is pretty much spelled out in the final verse:

"All you ladies listening: if you ever have the chance to run into your definition of that perfect man, don't be blinded...and miss the chance that might be your last. Make him understand that he's your perfect man."

It's a song tinged with regret; once again, this woman is painfully aware of what a proper independent woman would have done, and again, it's an ideal that she just couldn't live up to. Even Nasty Girl could be an expression of this person's discomfort with overt sexuality; she wants to be like those bootylicious women who own their curves and get all the boys in a tizzy, but she's just not that comfortable in her own skin and so she lashes out at the women who are by suggesting that they're kinda slutty.

So, to sum up: Survivor isn't an album about being a feminist, it's an album about trying to be a feminist. The protagonist does it pretty well, with her positive attitude and her (mostly) proactive approach to relationships, but some things - her lack of sexual confidence, her commitment to her man, and her unwavering belief in God - prevent her from being the utterly independent woman that she aspires to be.

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