Beyoncé's fists-up feminism is the climax of a revolutionary year for women in pop

From Pretty Hurts to Flawless, Beyoncé has turned her extraordinary voice into a powerful tool for expressing hurt and fury at sexism and the cult of beauty in the music business. Why aren't men making music this good?

When the biggest pop star in the world (and there’s a good case for giving Beyoncé that title) turns out a whole album fully formed with no trails or teasers, the world pays attention. When she uses that attention to make a declaration like ‘Pretty Hurts’, you know she’s not just any old pop star: Beyoncé has come out with a fists-up feminism that brings the fight to the very industry she belongs to. “Perfection is the disease of a nation”, she calls out, all the power and control of that perfect voice turned to the expressing hurt and fury at the cult of beauty.

In the video, she’s a contestant in a pageant, timorous at the compere’s questions, necking diet pills backstage. Promo videos normally tell us a fiction about the glorious centrality of the star. In Britney’s tawdry ‘Work Bitch’, Spears is Queen Domme, cracking a whip over a crew of bound and writhing female dancers; the video for Lily Allen’s wry ‘Hard Out Here’ is a satire of its genre, and opens with a campy rejection of plastic surgery, but she’s still the girl in the middle while her black dancers twerk sarcastically.

The shocking thing about the ‘Pretty Hurts’ video is that it shows Beyoncé as just another competitor and vulnerable like the rest – which after all, is what she is. Hanging onto your place in popular culture is a dicey business. The possibility of someone a bit younger, a bit prettier and a bit more naked stealing up behind you is constant. I fell in love with Beyoncé whipping her hair in a wind tunnel for ‘Crazy in Love’ and staring me down while shaking her thighs in ‘Telephone’: seeing her drop the performance of power to show exactly how cruel prettiness can be is heartbreaking, but it’s also a triumphant shattering of the lie.

Beyoncé in the video for ‘Pretty Hurts’

It’s been a good year for feminists on the dancefloor: Janelle Monae and Erykah Badu’s irresistibly squelchy ‘Q.U.E.E.N.’ hit in April, a side-eying list of challenges to take women on their on their own terms. ‘Hey brother can you save my soul from the devil . . . Hey sister am I good enough for your heaven? Will your your God accept me in my black and white?’ By the time Badu demands of us ‘Electric ladies will you sleep? Or will you preach?’ you’ve danced yourself into knowing exactly which is the right answer.

In fact, there’s been preaching going on all over while Miley’s tongue and Thicke’s dick have been causing distraction. Neko Case, who’s never been shy about claiming her feminism, brought out the track ‘Man’, which gallops through the most comprehensive trashing of gender you’ll hear this year, her swoony, smoky, womanly voice sternly declaring: ‘I’m a man/It’s what you raised me to be/I’m not an identity crisis/This was planned.’

With Haim bossing classic rock, it feels like something’s up: maybe men just aren’t good at music anymore. Heck, even Katy Perry took time out from being a saucer-eyed boy toy to make ‘Roar’, an empowerment anthem that she gets through without once reminding us how much men like to look at her bottom.

But none of these pull off what Beyoncé does in ‘Flawless’ when she pulls in Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (whose brilliant novel Americanah came out this year) to give a speech on all the ways ‘we teach girls to shrink themselves’.

‘Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes,’ concludes Adichie. It’s hard to think of a better definition than that, or a better place to put it than near the climax of the biggest pop album this year.

Beyoncé in "Pretty Hurts".

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt