On "Formation" and taking back what's yours

A huge white feminist pastime is to criticize Beyoncé, questioning her feminism. The argument is that Beyoncé talks too much about her husband, dances too sexually, too often references her sex life. Once, fed up after months of garbage think-pieces and fiery debate in the media (read: on white Twitter) on the validity of her feminism, Beyoncé stood on stage under the word “FEMINIST” in giant pink letters, followed by the literal dictionary definition of the word feminist. If that wasn’t clear enough, she sampled Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi’s voice reading said dictionary definition. What people asked from Beyoncé when they demanded clearer feminism was that she comply with the hegemonic, white-controlled and -decided “feminism,” and what she gave them was loud, and black, and hers. It is not “feminist” as in girl power, it’s “slay” as in screw you.

“Formation” is a black anthem, the video a masterpiece of art as activism. Trampling through subjects many artists fear to even broach, the message in “Formation” is unmistakable, unignorable. Here, there is no room for debate. In this black activism, Beyoncé has left no part of herself behind.

The video is woman centric-throughout, and certainly also family-centric. Early in the video, we get to see Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s beautiful daughter, Blue Ivy, giggling among other children. Beyoncé is shown sitting for a sort of Southern Gothic family portrait with several other women. The feminists, or at least the ones with the think-pieces, I’m sure, breathe a sigh of relief. There will be no scary Jay-Z ruining this video. Beyoncé has put her sex away for now, for activism.

Three minutes into the video, on a plantation style wrap around porch, surrounded by a reclaimed black gentry, Beyoncé takes the foreground, her eyes obscured by a wide brimmed black hat but undoubtedly betraying a smirk, and croons, “When he f*** me good I take his ass to Red Lobster. If he hit it right, I might take him on a flight on my chopper.” She raises two manicured, heavily jeweled middle fingers to the notion that she can’t be a radical black feminist and also rejoice in her own sexual pleasure.

The video’s sex-positivity is a small fraction of the momentous, intersectional work done in the “Formation” video. The video opens with the voice of the late Messy Mya, New Orleans comedian, asking, “What happened at the New Wil’ins?” With this, “Formation” is immediately drawing lines—someone is doing the asking, and someone is being asked. The video starts here, with the government negligence that devastated New Orleans, and sweeps history, centering queer and gender non-conforming voices, queering the American South, Beyoncé holding cops—the only white people in the video—in the palm of her hands. Beyoncé and her child and her people take over the indulgent homes that are landmarks of the South’s fundamental hostility toward them. She shakes it. She twirls. With her own body, she drowns a cop car.


She calls her “ladies”—all black women—to get in formation with her. And this is what black feminism is. When Beyoncé says “slay,” she means that all the black folks in the video look fly as hell, obviously. But she also means that she is putting her body and her art into the spaces that have intentionally betrayed her—the southern plantation, the hung portraits, the floodwaters of the Ninth Ward. She stands atop a New Orleans cop car, her fist in the air, and then she sinks below the surface of the water with it. What the white queer folks who relentlessly appropriate black culture don’t understand about the word “slay” is that sometimes, this is what slaying looks like. Beyoncé is unbelievably wealthy and privileged, but she understands that for her people this is a slay-or-be-slain world. Literally.

A lot of the time, Beyoncé is for everybody. Her music about feminism, love, and partying is for all women, and really for anyone. Her music about heartbreak is for the heartbroken. But what Beyoncé has done with “Formation” is momentous because in its rejoicing it is, unmistakably, by and for black people—especially for black femmes.

Beyoncé, whose holy name is so often invoked by the wrong mouths, who has been mishandled and misappropriated and misunderstood, makes this one thing clear. Black artists like Beyoncé know well enough that just because a work is for black people does not mean only black people will hold it in their arms. And so, just before the video ends, we see the words “stop shooting us” scrawled in graffiti. And once again, there is a line drawn: someone doing the telling, and someone being told.

Madison E. Johnson '18 is a history and literature concentrator living in Pforzheimer House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.


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