By Cat Gordon
On March 19th, the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies continued the Women’s History Month festivities with Dr. Lex Lancaster’s presentation, “Race, Gender, and Lemonade: Beyoncé’s Reformation of Art and History.”
Before the program, Dr. Lisa Johnson—the Center’s director—introduced the newest members of Iota Iota Iota, the National Women's and Gender Studies Honor Society, and named Dr. Esther Godfrey its new advisor. The criteria for induction into this society is having a declared minor or interest in women’s and gender studies and at least sophomore standing, six credit hours of WGST, and a 3.0 grade point average.
The inductees are as follows: Erica Burton, Althea Bonaparte, Mckayla Malaythong, Hailey Davis, Caroline Graham, Jaycee McDonald, Kirsten Horvath, Sara Iraheta, Destinee Johnson, and Jessica McMaster.
Dr. Lancaster began their talk by introducing themself. They teach Queer Abstraction, Visual Culture, and Art History 301—all from a feminist lens.
Before delving into analysis of Queen Bey’s contributions to art history, Dr. Lancaster played the music video for the song “Hold Up” and asked us to look at Beyoncé’s “appropriation” of culture.
This, in context with today’s connotation of the phrase “cultural appropriation,” brings about some cognitive dissonance. The audience is meant to ask themselves: How can Beyoncé be a feminist inspiration if she appropriates culture?
On the surface level, this appears both counterintuitive and impossible. However, as the video went on and Dr. Lancaster pointed out the intricate details, it became abundantly clear that Bey’s appropriation of African diasporic icons is respectful, informed, and productive.
First, she depicts the Yoruba water goddess Oshun, not only to normalize female sexuality and anger, but also to pay homage to her black heritage. The whole album, says Dr. Lancaster, is Beyoncé’s “love letter to the African American community.”
And they’re right. Her portrayal does not mock the Yoruba people, and it does not exist simply for aesthetic purposes. It shows a presence of thought and holds both depth and purpose. Real purpose.
See, there are two uses of the verb “appropriate.” Oddly enough, one means to take and the other means to give or devote to something. Beyoncé takes imagery of Oshun and “gives” it to the purpose of creating art and inspiring change.
“She can effectively alter the images she appropriates,” explains Dr. Lancaster. “Art actively makes and shapes the culture is seems to merely represent.”
They also brought up Beyoncé’s inspiration for the car smashing in the “Hold Up” music video: Ever is Over All by Pipilotti Rist.
There are similarities in both artists’ intentions. For example, both women aim to bring gender inequality and double standards into the spotlight. But Beyoncé takes it a step further by bringing racial injustice into the narrative as well.
In her video, Rist, a white woman, dresses like The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy and proceeds to smash car windows with a poppy flower. There is this juxtaposition of the “sweetness” expected of women and girls, and the reality of their anger.
A cop, also a white woman, passes by Rist and cheers her on. While it is fair to say that this response is unrealistic, it is even more unlikely if an African American woman is the one damaging vehicles.
Beyoncé’s video shows her destroying a camera rather than interacting with a law enforcement officer, which shows the intersection of two different systems of oppression.
In our society, women’s anger is often diminished or laughed at, and any anger coming from an African American person is unfairly classified as militant or threatening.
Every song on the album is an example of Beyoncé’s resistance. Of how she made something out of nothing, lemons into “grandmother’s alchemy.” Dr. Lancaster’s assessment is that Bey “refuses to accept any singular representation of Blackness,” and they support this claim by citing the music video for “Apeshit.”
The video takes place in The Louvre Museum in Paris, France. Beyoncé, Jay Z, and several backup dancers are surrounded by various pieces of art—many of which illustrate subjugation of the female body.
In stark contrast to the Eurocentric art, however, Beyoncé’s dancers—dressed in leotards to show their diverse skin tones—beautifully fill the space with black bodies. This represents the fact that in our Euro-Normative world, more and more marginalized people are claiming their rightful emotional space. The focus is now on them, and the future takes precedent over the past.
Dr. Lancaster brought up some criticism Beyoncé faced for the video. Some view it as nothing more than an excessive display of her wealth. Others think that the video portrays black bodies as decorative.
Dr. Lancaster acknowledges that pop culture cannot always be a trusted instrument of change, but they believe Beyoncé’s art is deeper than it seems when taken at face value.