I tuned in to HBO on the night of February 15, 2013 for the premiere of Beyoncé’s documentary Life is But a Dream. One scene in particular stood out to me in which Beyoncé gives us a backstage pass and replay of her performance of “Run the World (Girls)” at the Billboard Music Awards in 2011. Before her revealing ensemble, hair tossing, and female troop of dancers take the stage, Beyoncé narrates her views on the unequal treatment of women in society. She states:
You know, equality is a myth, and for some reason, everyone accepts the fact that women don’t make as much money as men do. I don’t understand that. Why do we have to take a backseat? I truly believe that women should be financially independent from their men. And let’s face it, money gives men the power to run the show. It gives men the power to define value. They define what’s sexy. And men define what’s feminine. It’s ridiculous.
Yet when the scene went on and presented Beyoncé, the superstar, on stage with her all female band, and what seemed to be a hundred female dancers on stage mirroring her every move and flip of hair, I realized that she had become that figure who is now running the show. Then with scenes of her traveling first class on private jets with personal hair stylists and crowds of adorning fans standing outside the hotel she is staying at, I realized that Beyoncé is that powerful woman who has crowds of people following her every move just like her backup dancers. When her dancers were not “Beyonce-enough,” replicas of Beyoncé would appear on screens behind her during the award show. As Beyoncé is put in this powerful position, she has surpassed many of the male counterparts that she denounces as having too much control over women’s lives. But now that Beyoncé is in such a position of financially stability, celebrity, and therefore power and control, she is now defining the value for women and defining what’s sexy and feminine from her branding in L’Oreal and Pepsi ads to the sale of her own products from perfume to clothing. So does it make it okay for Beyoncé to have this power to define feminine values and what is sexy and beautiful for other women just because she is a famous woman?
In the documentary I saw Beyoncé, a woman who has been put in such a position of authority that leaves many of her female fans wondering do they or just Beyoncé run the world, now fighting to hold on to a piece of humility and let her fans know that it is okay, she is just like you. One of the ways that she seeks to illustrate this is most through her experience in separating from her manager who is also her father and then her miscarriage. As it is through adversity, pain, and heartbreak that many of us can relate to and form a bond with one another, Beyoncé seeks to relate to her female fans most in a scene revealing what she felt and experienced during her miscarriage. However, after relaying her experience, we still feel a huge distance between her as in the following scene she sits far back in a dark studio away from the camera with no close-ups while a voice-over of the song she wrote after her miscarriage plays. The camera never comes close to her face, never lets the audience see any emotions on her face. We the audience are physically put at a distance and never allowed fully in on her experience so it is hard to relate to.
Moving on, the next way Beyoncé seeks to relate to her fans is through the joy and newfound identity that she has now because she has given birth to her daughter, Blue Ivy. As she gives a view of her child (Beyoncé never really introduces her daughter or says her name) somehow we are told to feel that this is the moment that we can all relate to and a newfound connection is to be made with fans. But why? Is it because to Beyoncé, feminism and being a woman is completely revealed when you become a mother?
In the 90-minute collage of video diaries, child home videos, trees, backstage concert footage, and stage performances in full hair and make-up with perfect dance moves (scenes of her performances are more up close and intimate at times than her moments of her alone talking to her computer), there is no real narrative. Every image reveals a Beyoncé that might not be fully open but controlled, edited, and carefully constructed by her, the co-director, producer, and star of Life is But a Dream. According to Beyoncé’s February 2013 GQ interview, she has employed a visual director, Ed Burke, to record her every moment since 2005. It was before then that Beyoncé sought control of her every image after being denied footage of her that was filmed by MTV during making of her music video. Thus, what exists in the documentary is a story of a woman fighting how to balance her powerful persona with the growing public social media world of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr versus her private life. She talks of how things “use to be” in the music industry when talent was all people judged you by and people were not obsessed with the personal lives of celebrities. She references jazz singer Nina Simone when she states:
I think when Nina Simone put out music, you loved her voice … that’s what she wanted you to love. That’s what — that was her instrument… But you didn’t get brainwashed by her day-to-day life and what her child is wearing and who she’s dating and, you know, all the things that really — it’s not your business, you know? And it shouldn’t influence the way you listen to the voice and the art. But it does.
When Beyoncé presents herself as this powerful being who runs the the world, who is a Queen (such as in the promotional image for her upcoming tour The Mrs. Carter Show) and is now defining feminism and what is attractive for women (whether intentional or not) through her music, films, clothes, and branding, she might be putting herself in a position where people want to know what makes her that authority. What makes her run the world and how can we all do it as well? As Beyoncé tries to relate to her female constituents in her documentary that what makes her the woman and performer she is, is what happens offstage with her family and in her personal experiences, people want to know about it as it is what shapes her and, as she states, what makes her the powerful woman she is. Thus people want to know who is the real person behind the decisions that are made that impact others and what shapes those decisions. As women should ask that of men who are authority figures, so should we ask that of other women such as Beyoncé too. Or are we giving her too much credit and authority?