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What’s happening here? Beyonce’s “Why Don’t You Love Me?” video.

May 24, 2010

For your viewing pleasure:

I am hardly the first person to blog about this (seriously awesome) video. There’s some great posts about it here, here and here. Part of what I love about this video, and Beyonce in general, is it’s playing with a lot of familiar iconography and imagery but taking it on in a way that the average white, American viewer isn’t always used to seeing. These retro/vintage-styled scenes  that recall Bettie Page-eqsue pinup flicks, 1950s sitcom housewives and a fabulously wasted 1970s jilted woman are often images associated with white women in our cultural memories. This is not to say that such women didn’t or don’t still exist in some way in culture/iconography. But in an American pop culture that is so white-centric in its representations, these types of portrayals are often associated with white women and their stories.

LaToya (of the fantastic Racialicious blog) touches on this in her post on Jezebel about the video :

It is occasions like this that remind me how complete and total segregation was, and how white washed history can be. If these images are associated solely with whiteness, it’s because the history of women of color has been systematically erased, deemed unworthy of inclusion in the general framework of “the way we were.”

Part of what struck me as so awesome about this video when I saw it (other than the way Beyonce blatantly mocks a number of really familiar, archaic gendered images that were once so deified in American pop culture – and still are in some ways when you consider the popularity of Mad Men) is that she’s thumbing her nose at the idea that these characters and archetypes are solely available for portrayal by white women. Or, on a deeper level, that these are only situations that white women have been in.

In the past there has been a lot said about Beyonce and the maintaining of white beauty standards. I don’t think there can ever be a definitive answer on this kind of topic and I think it’s impossible to look at the video for “Why Don’t You Love Me?” and not have it problematized by this subject. But I find it pretty exciting and more than a little transgressive that she’s basically saying ‘I can portray any kind of woman – exaggerated or realistic – regardless of whether she fits into your idea of who black women are or how we live our lives.’

Maybe I am putting far too much of a reading into this video but that is the beauty of a piece of pop culture like this: it doesn’t exist in a vacuum and we can all respond to it in a variety of ways and from a variety of viewpoints. I find it especially refreshing in light of how often we’ve seen Madonna appropriate various racial and ethnic imagery/identities as if they were nothing more than the latest fashion accessory. While Madonna always seemed to do it as a way to lend her work more seeming depth or, in the case of the “Like a Prayer” video, to simply stir up controversy and get lots of attention, Beyonce seems to use it as a moment of power to explode limited notions of the variety of black female identities and representations in existence. And while Madonna always seemed so ultra-serious, labored and more than a little joyless in these moments of playing with race, Beyonce is winking at us and letting us in on the game, even when the stakes may be higher than we think. It’s a brilliant way to win the audience over and make us consider a broader set of cultural images than a lot of us may have in the past. And it doesn’t hurt that the song is catchy as hell either.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. James Jackson permalink
    June 28, 2010 7:51 pm

    You summed up many thoughts I’ve had that I couldn’t put into words about this video. I was blown away by Beyoncé when I saw it. Though, I wonder, how much is her creative vision & how much is that of her handlers?

    • June 28, 2010 10:12 pm

      I definitely think Beyonce’s handlers or, at the very least, the director of the video, have a say in what is portrayed, how it’s framed, contextualized, etc. But I have never gotten the feeling that Beyonce is a puppet the way I have with pop stars like Britney Spears. Based on interviews I’ve read with her I get a sense of a fairly Madonna-esque level of control when it comes to her career, image and presentation.

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