Cultural Commentator

Look At This Pussy Founder Unpacks Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’

Cultural Commentator

Look At This Pussy Founder Unpacks Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’

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Look At This Pussy

The most remarkable thing about Lemonade is not what it reveals about Beyoncé’s marriage. Reading a woman’s creative output as merely a reflection on the state of her marriage is reductive, to say the least. The piece is personal and may indeed reveal biographical facts, but art’s job is to take liberties—consuming it as a scavenger hunt to find the real “Becky” is simply missing the point.

And as a work of art, whether fantastical or biographical or something in between, Lemonade endeavors to refine a uniquely female aesthetic of power and empowerment, and is largely successful. Rather than using “hot chick with a gun who kills dudes” as shorthand for female power, Beyoncé and her collaborators make valiant strides away from the hetero-masculine standard of power towards a new kind of political expression.

The film is deeply political, cyclical and rhythmic, full of poetry, yonic imagery, magic, curses, prophecy and female alliance. It critiques masculinity, but its conclusion is not misandry. Lemonade is ultimately a story about salvation through heterosexual love via self-acceptance and compassion, but its impact is much greater.

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It’s important to note that the film may read as naively second-wave, or even as essentialist, but claims of Lemonade’s essentialism are countered by its intersectionality. This is, triumphantly, a celebration of black womanhood and a testimonial about its particular challenges. This is a vigorous feminism for women of color.

There’s a tension with the white female body as the apparent extramarital beloved of Beyoncé’s partner, but this tension is largely processed internally in an effort to detail the particular brand of self-loathing taught to black women, rather than as an essentializing action towards white women: in the prologue to “Denial,” she describes bathing in bleach in an attempt to purify herself; in “Apathy” she goads, “He better call Becky with the good hair,” while dressed as Nefertiti.

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Lemonade doesn’t necessarily do the work of calling gender into question. There are nods to queer culture, but mostly in regards to romantic love, rather than to gender expression. “Accountability” does take on the social construction of gender. The young girls inside the bucolic plantation home learn what it means to become a woman: trying on lipstick and seeing that men will disappoint you. “Am I talking about your husband or your father?” The boys, in contrast, are outdoors, flexing their muscles in front of the camera, performing aggression and masculinity. Violence is gospel in “Daddy Lessons,” featuring lines like, “With his right hand on his rifle/he swore it on the Bible.”

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Gender lines, here, are not blurred much: men are men in the Lemonade universe and women are magic. It’s important to discredit essentialist notions that women are inherently different from men. At the same time, whether culturally or biologically influenced, the experience is different. How do we honor difference, but work toward equality? It’s challenging, and probably futile to attempt to speak for womankind—work gesturing towards the universal inevitably fails.

In “Sick Woman Theory,” artist and writer Johanna Hedva compellingly argues for an expansion of the word “woman” to include anyone who has been historically marginalized, disenfranchised and robbed of their ability to participate politically:

“[“Woman”] represents the un-cared for, the secondary, the oppressed, the non-, the un-, the less-than…. The Sick Woman is an identity and body that can belong to anyone denied the privileged existence… The Sick Woman is all of the “dysfunctional,” “dangerous” and “in danger,” “badly behaved,” “crazy,” “incurable,” “traumatized,” “disordered,” […] and altogether “dysfunctional” bodies belonging to women, people of color, poor, ill, neuro-atypical, differently abled, queer, trans, and genderfluid people, who have been historically pathologized, hospitalized, institutionalized, brutalized, rendered “unmanageable,” and therefore made culturally illegitimate and politically invisible.”

This definition of “woman” expands to legitimize alternate modes of perception and expression that have been stigmatized and relegated, liberating “woman” away from a biological definition towards a political one.

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It is using this logic that Lemonade’s unabashed celebration of “female” qualities can be digested: empathy, martyrdom, suffering, embodiment, pleasure, motherhood, sacrifice. This is expressed visually as a progression into claustrophobic, yonic environments punctuated cyclically by spoken word poetry.

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“Denial” begins with a familiar visual trope of “female empowerment:” a woman wielding a phallus called “Hot Sauce,” and wreaking havoc, but this is borrowed-from-the-boys empowerment—this is not what real female empowerment looks like and this aesthetic quickly gives way to a new one.

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“Anger,” descends underground to a parking garage. “Apathy” takes place in the foyer and stairwell of a southern-style estate and eventually in a crowded bus full of women painted in sacred Nigerian Ori, who disembark in order to roam nude. Lemonade takes place in increasingly wild and claustrophobic spaces, culminating, perhaps, in “Emptiness,” a meditation on bloodletting and spiritual sexuality: “That too, is a form of worship.”

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In “Loss”, Beyoncé walks through a darkened, red hallway that is set on fire. This has a bit of a “Cool guys walk away from explosions” impact, but it reads as distinctly yonic, distinctly menstrual, metaphorical: the body and the spirit are each purified in blood and reborn in fire.

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These images and words are in stark contrast with recent depictions of female empowerment, most notably, Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money,” released in 2015, which utilizes “female empowerment” by placing Rihanna and her crew in typically masculine roles.

They gain power on a violent metric by kidnapping the wife of “The Accountant,” who ripped them off. Yes, it’s exciting to see badass women kick bad asses; yes, it’s refreshing to see women, especially women of color seamlessly inhabit a milieu reserved for men; yes, it’s satisfying to see a symbol of white entitlement and capitalism—a woman who is decidedly not “working for the money”—brought down to size, but ultimately, “Bitch Better Have My Money,” does nothing to challenge ethical norms as depicted in media, and is unsuccessful in defining a new aesthetic for female empowerment.

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Lemonade opens with an unbridled expression of rage, “Jealous or crazy/ I’d rather be crazy,” and plays into familiar tropes, but the protagonist quickly evolves past this response and proposes several nuanced, mature, empathic counterarguments to her own initial outburst of emotion. Exploring the rage is important; moving past it is the objective. In Lemonade the focus moves from ego outward to the community, the self becomes joined with others, pain is processed in a Delphic all-female safespace of support. The job of a new feminist aesthetic is not to ape back male tropes just to prove we can hang, but rather to change the conversation entirely.

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In “Accountability,” there’s brief, pastoral relief and suddenly, jarringly, the point of view shifts to a claustrophobic encounter with a young man, talking about his role models. “Accountability” touches on family dysfunction and domestic abuse as conditions of trauma, of poverty, and of the insidious cultural messaging that alienates black men and consequently harms black women. This critique is caustic, but ultimately empathic towards men.

“Resurrection” eloquently develops the sentiment of “Accountability,” honoring black women who’ve lost sons and fathers, including the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown. The recent attention to #BlackLivesMatter is only part of the story: the cyclical nature of grief suggests that this kind of profound pain is passed through generations, honored by survival and never forgotten.

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The empathy extended to men struggling to find themselves in a system built to work against them becomes personal in “Reformation.” There’s been a reconciliation, but it’s fragile. In bridal white, from a Venus in repose position on a football field, the quintessential site of performative, violent masculinity in American culture, Beyoncé unpacks what might be the greatest heartbreak in Lemonade, “Why do you deny yourself heaven? Why do you consider yourself undeserving? Why are you afraid of love? You think it’s not possible for someone like you. But you are the love of my life.”

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It’s her pride that’s on the line, and a typical story of female empowerment might end with a burned down car, but Beyoncé has landed somewhere else. She’s been betrayed, but she’s most deeply heartbroken that her partner feels unlovable; the most defiant thing she can do is to prove him wrong—to love him anyway.

If she is indeed talking to Jay Z, it’s hard to forget his verse in “New Day” from Watch the Throne dedicated to his imaginary child: “My dad left me and I promise never repeat him.” If Lemonade is a #BlackLivesMatter story, there’s an understanding here that Beyoncé’s partner had everything working against him. He learned to be a man in a system that rips families apart. If she leaves, who wins?

In “All Night Long,” a triumphant love song, she sings “Trade your broken wings for mine. My love was stronger than your pride.” Lemonade ends with radical acceptance: sometimes the people we love need a little extra; sometimes they hurt us and we love them anyway because we both need it. There’s enough pain in the world and love is never the wrong choice.

Lemonade makes a commendable effort towards telling a woman’s story with a woman’s aesthetic. The aesthetic isn’t revolutionary, but it compellingly conflates femininity without resorting to the glorification of violence or the objectification of other women. The album tackles what it feels like to be a woman—specifically a woman of color—and the result is non-linear, evocative and deeply felt. It’s an internal story about finding personal power and acceptance, rather than an external one about seizing it.  

In reading Lemonade through the lens of “Sick Woman Theory,” there is space for empathy, love, acceptance, inclusion and shamanism to become revolutionary in their own right. This film is controversial and enticing, memorable certainly, but this is not the story of Beyoncé becoming Jay Z’s 100th problem. Rather it’s a profound examination of devotion and of imperfect, fulfilling love, which concludes that ultimately, it’s the effort that counts.

Keep Reading: Why Isn’t Jay Z Getting as Much Shit as ‘Becky With the Good Hair?’