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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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.