LesBiSwirl: The Uses of the Erotic in “Beyoncé”

After the firestorm last week on the internets about Beyoncé‘s new visual album and its politics, my colleague and dear friend Vicky Bond and I decided to put on our LezBi spectacles and conduct our own reading of this fine album. 

Beyoncé’s new self-titled album, BEYONCÉ, and its accompanied video collection are masterpieces for their elevation of the erotic in popular discourse. If Bey wants to identify as a feminist, that’s good enough for us. As a lesbian and a bisexual, we experience Beyoncé’s work as about corporeal desire and art and less about politics insofar as politics has no vocabulary for the erotic. More often than not politics uses sex to shame. Especially as queer women, we’re over that hump. Pleasure and celebration don’t have a damn thing to do with shame. Beyoncé asserts the same goes for womanhood. Girls, we don’t have anything to be ashamed of! But we do have plenty to flaunt. Beyoncé reminds us of just how much.

We find our inspiration, and believe Beyoncé does to, in Audre Lorde’s seminal essay,  “The Uses of the Erotic,” here quoted at length:

The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling. In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change. For women, this has meant a suppression of the erotic as a considered source of power and information within our lives.

We have been taught to suspect this resource, vilified, abused, and devalued within western society. On the one hand, the superficially erotic has been encouraged as a sign of female inferiority; on the other hand, women have been made to suffer and to feel both contemptible and suspect by virtue of its existence.

It is a short step from there to the false belief that only by the suppression of the erotic within our lives and consciousness can women be truly strong. But that strength is illusory, for it is fashioned within the context of male models of power….

“Yoncé”

Marcie Bianco: This sultry song is made exponentially hotter by the music video. I can’t get beyond the black strap dress, specifically, I find something about the gold zipper hilariously ironic because it’s completely unnecessary—and it, to me, synecdocally represents the endeavor of this album, where art is based in aesthetics and not politics. The shots of the black body, sans inclusion of head or face, in the black-strap dress render an anonymity to the image that enables fantasy—like, I can’t stop thinking about a certain person who I’d like to both put in that dress and take out of that dress…after slapping a strap or two against her ass.

Vicky Bond: Lord, those thighs! This is better than porn! Beyoncé is a showgirl. She wants to please. What makes this better than porn is that she has respect for the audience. Whenever I watch porn I always have the feeling the actors hate the people on the other side of the camera whether it’s the audience or the director and the production company. Because Beyoncé aims to please, this doesn’t feel sordid.

MB: My lezdar totally goes off on when listening to this song and watching the video, because it’s all about girls looking at each other. There are “50 girls in the club” all looking each other “up and down”—hello, Bechdel Test! There are no men in this video, and it totally passes the Bechdel Test because they’re looking at each other, they’re licking each other, and then they’re looking at us, the audience, all while Beyoncé coos, “Tell me how it’s looking babe.” YAAASSSS!

VB: But then the thing that makes this weird is that they are all black models. And the fact that they’re models means that their bodies represent a manufactured corporate capitalist ideal in terms of height, weight and skin color. Like Beyoncé’s does. A lot of these videos turn the auto-erotic engines on full-blast. I guess what I’m saying is that I think that’s probably especially true for black women.

“Partition”

MB: Since when has Beyoncé been so unabashedly sexual? I mean, clearly she’s always been sexual, but never so naughty. She is a “grown woman” indeed. I am lovin’ this video. “Partition” is all about the partition, or divide, between reality and fantasy, which is why the video portrays burlesque fantasy happening in her mind, framed between shots of “reality,” of her sitting at the breakfast table gazing at her unreachable, and untouchable, lover.

VB: What I’m loving about the whole “grown woman” theme is that by showing footage of herself as a little girl and highlighting her sass and pursuit of excellence from the very beginning Beyoncé reminds me of the sass and confidence that so many of us have as little girls that we lose as we get older. Probably like a lot of women I would be doing myself a favor if as an adult I tapped more into that aspect of myself. But the use of Jay-Z in the fantasy burlesque sequence drives me crazy! Who needs to see Jay-Z? I don’t want to see him when she’s around! But at the same time her partnered status places this display above reproach because it is literally audience appropriate. Even in the narrative, the performance is for her husband.

MB: We always perform for the people we’re with—that’s part of it: performing is as much for self-stimulation as it is for stimulation of the other/lover, which, for the record, always has the effect of turning me on even more. Who says that the person performing doesn’t get pleasure out of pleasuring someone else? I’d get very excited if a girlfriend did that for me. Like, very.

VB: Me too! But my first impulse is to do it for myself dancing naked! Like those times when a glimpse of yourself coming out the shower in the mirror catches you by surprise and you think “well, damn,” in a good way. And then really drink your image in…

MB: I always watch myself dancing when I dance to Beyoncé. Now that’s “feminism.” Also feminism: her ass on that table, which is just lush. She takes bootylicious to new heights, here. My precise reaction was, “Wait. Is that her ass?! I can’t believe that! WUUUUUUUUUUUT.” This burlesque fantasy is going to turn girls gay and make them gay-pregnant at the same time.

VB: Girls who watch this with each other are going to look at her body and then look at their own and want to reach out and touch each other. As an adolescent, I never wanted to have sex with Madonna and I adored her. But I can’t imagine not watching Beyoncé in the “Rockets” video and not wanting to touch her and rub on her body. The word is increasingly hitting the streets about female sexual fluidity. Girls watching this get the memo that the bodies of girls are exciting. Not just in a competitive bitchy pathetic “look how perfect she is, I want to be her,” or “I hate her” way but in a “I want her ‘cause her body looks like it feels good” way.

MB:  I never wanted to make out with Madonna, but enjoyed watching Britney do it…. OK, that chaise is a total vibrator…specifically, the Minna Ola.

VB: Girl, yes!

MB: She just flossed her ass with that rope! END SCENE!

“Rocket”

MB: “Let me sit this aaasssssss on you.” Yes please. Instead of the playful, coy Beyoncé of Destiny’s Child, she’s is unapologetically sensual, vulnerable, and this is beautiful. (This song and video contrast nicely to “Blow,” which is sensual in a bubbly, fun way.) Clearly, girl has totally read Audre Lorde’s “The Uses of the Erotic.” The erotic is power, and like power you can’t really define or locate it. It is fluid; it undulates and flows—hence the water imagery and the entire trope of “waterfalls” in the video: “Swimming in my love, your love…. Rock it til the water falls.”

VB: Isn’t that how climaxing feels. Like water rushing, or a wave that has finally crashed on shore.  I know it’s all very From Here to Eternity corny but Virginia Woolf also wrote The Waves

MB: There’s such a perfect balance in this video between the song’s rhythm and the camera work, the rolling and slo-mo shots return to the water imagery. Beyoncé creates a landscape with her body; the camera narrates the curves of her body, as she caresses herself and writhes in bed, as if it is following the lyrics of the song: “Don’t take your eyes off it. / Watch it.”

VB: I’m with you. But what exactly are we watching here? The free association montage of sexual images has a Jungian quality to it. But instead of the work being the collective unconscious like Jung describes all of the videos together seem like a download of images from the golden age of MTV, ranging from the 1980s girls in bikinis (white ones for the hair bands and black ones for the rappers) to Michael Jackson inspiring a legion to follow him as he strutted through a parking lot in “Bad” to Madonna hurrying through a seedy hotel hallway clutching her lapel and her biting her nails all come-hither as she did in “Justify My Love.”

MB: Although the power drill, and odd, gritty and masculine imagery, is a bit unfortunate, as is the title of the song itself, I think.

VB: Though so much of this work is about female sexual pleasure the source of that pleasure is so phallus-based. The lyrics more than the images play to an antiquated and wrong Freudian idea that the penis doing the old in-out-in-out is enough to get a mature woman off. At the same time, there’s a strong thread here about giving and receiving oral sex, especially in “Blow.”

MB: So are you suggesting that “Blow” could be read as more homoerotic? Or is it a tepid take on any and every song by artists like Trina and Lil Kim?

VB: Yes, I do think that it can be homoerotic and is all the more subversive frankly for someone like Beyoncé because last time I heard people got horny when they snort blow. I’m into the ’70s and ’80s party girl reference made all the more palpable by the roller rink context. On the other hand, I don’t find the likes of Trina and Lil Kim sexy. So because I’m using my own desire as a yardstick they register as less edgy to me because I don’t want them. But I want Beyoncé. Mainly because she loves herself so damn much. And inspires me to want to love myself that much more.

MB: Self-love is powerful. It is so necessary. You can’t love someone else until you love yourself, that’s for sure.

VB: Amen!

Marcie Bianco, Queer Public(s) Intellectual, PhD, is a columnist and contributing writer at AfterEllen and Lambda Literary, as well as an adjunct associate professor at John Jay College at Hunter College. She has also contributed to Curve Magazine, Feministing, Feministe, Velvetpark, and The L Stop, and makes frequent appearances on Huffington Post Live. Her current projects include a scholarly manuscript about the anti-humanist, materialist ethics of English Renaissance Drama; an essay regarding the “satirical aesthetics” of HBO’s GIRLS; and a memoir about lesbian academic affairs. Tumble4Her at marciebiancoqpi.tumblr.com, and follow her on The Twitter at @MBHauteWriter

Lecturer in English at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Victoria Bond is the co-author of the award winning novel for children Zora and Me, recently named a World Book Night 2014 Selection. Winner of the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent and nominated for The Mystery Writers of America Edgar award, Victoria also blogs at waytogobitch.com.  Follow her on Twitter @waytogobitch.

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