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.

Photo: Getty
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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.