The Beyonce Effect: Essays on Sexuality, Race, and Feminism
Adrienne Trier-Bieniek, editor
McFarland & Co, 2016
Smarter and more incisive critics than I have taken up the task of analyzing Beyonce, the icon sitting at the confluence of race, gender and sexuality, capitalism, entertainment, pop culture, and political critique. What makes Beyonce so compelling isn’t just her image, music, performance, or artistry but the fact she is able to make of herself an intersectional crux around and through which we all can better understand sexuality, race, gender, and power.
“When the pop star aligns with the streets and then takes that same sentiment onto the world stage and to her million-dollar mansion Beyonce reconfigures the raced and classed meanings of her own black female body in her eroticized self-image.”–Janell Hobson, ‘Feminists Debate Beyonce’
So discovering The Beyonce Effect was a boon. This collection of thirteen essays covers a lot of ground dealing with the pop star and nearly all of it is well worth the read. Primarily, this collection succeeds because the writers place the onus of critique not on Beyonce herself as something to be analyzed but as someone who implicates them. For example, Janell Hobson’s opening essay states bluntly she wants explore “our queasiness over her sexiness and her embrace of wealth and capitalism.” (emphasis mine)
The essays of The Beyonce Effect deal primarily with Beyonce’s work up to and around her self-titled album typically referred to as The Visual Album. The Visual Album places Beyonce as “an intersectional icon” according to Marla Kohlman because “she has not transcended race, gender, or sexuality; she has purposefully made them an intrinsic element of her audience’s engagement with her.” Again, the heft of the critique is on how Beyonce’s nuanced, deliberate control of her own image as Noel Siqi Duan writes in her contribution ‘Policing Beyonce’s Body’ “reverse the panoptic vision of the male gaze–you, the viewer are self-conscious in her presence, and she is commanding your attention.”
These essays ground us articulating the wonder and pleasure springing from Beyonce’s work. For example, when Kohlman writes “continuing to embrace obsolete notions of respectability is the same as actively teaching young black women not to be proactive agents in the process of developing individual sexual identities, and relegating them to have sex, and sexuality, defined for them,” we are suddenly in a place allowing us to more completely enjoy and feel the substance of, say, the greatest album of the twenty-teens, Lemonade.
Editor Adrienne Trier-Bieniek has assemble some superb writers each able to stay academically rigorous without being dry or tedious. This is the kind of writing lovers of popular culture crave, one that digs into not just image but also lyrics, performance, and even musicality. Perhaps the best and most timely essay in the collection is Sonita Moss’s ‘Beyonce and Blue: Black Motherhood and the Binds of Racialized Sexism.’ Given the furor over the Instagram announcement by Beyonce of her pregnancy with twins, we are entering a wholly new stage of iconography.