/ 7 January 2016

Role model? South Africa’s obsession with Beyoncé

Role model?: Rumours that Beyoncé had plans to play Sarah Baartman have angered many locals.
Role model?: Rumours that Beyoncé had plans to play Sarah Baartman have angered many locals.

I remember watching the music video to Destiny’s Child’s Independent Women as a child, failing hopelessly to mimic the dance moves and looking on in awe as the three singers – led by Beyoncé – dominated that video.

It’s difficult to write a critical analysis of any pop sensation without feeling a little silly. Why focus so much energy and time on a woman at the top of her game, singing songs that seduce us to the dance floor or hypnotise us to zone out in our homes?

But contemporary feminism isn’t just about women in politics, business or academia – it’s also about women in entertainment. And in the case of Beyoncé, it’s not so much about the woman or the celebrity, but the reaction she inspires in South African society, which is experiencing a burgeoning feminist revival – particularly among young women.

A casual browse through the work of some of South Africa’s prominent young women writers will tell you that Beyoncé inspires and has become an icon of aspiration.

Beyoncé has become synonymous with black feminism in pop culture, but she also has her critics.

“The Beyoncéfication of black women is on the increase with unrealistic expectations that many girls and women may never achieve nor care to achieve in their lifetime,” wrote gender activist and social worker Rethabile Mashale in a column on News 24.

“Beyoncéfication being that Beyoncé is the standard upon which all black women are expected to aspire, an expectation that women need to be curvaceous yet have a petite body, sleek and well-groomed weave being a necessity [rather] than an option, and dance like warriors without breaking a sweat.”

It’s no secret that body politics have always plagued women, especially black women who are ostracised for being curvaceous. In recent years, Hollywood and fashion pages have sold the booty as a must-have item, but then it has to be the right kind of booty: firm, round (but not too round) and cellulite-free.

The issue of body norms and the Beyoncé “standard” flared again recently when the Sun newspaper in Britain claimed that the singer would play the role of Sarah Baartman – who was exhibited as a freak show attraction in Europe in the 19th century – in a biopic film.

But the historical images we see of Baartman show a woman more voluptuous than Beyoncé. Perhaps these images were exaggerated to further mock Baartman’s physique as it was in the 1800s, but these are pictures we have in our mind’s eye.

“Ignoring the fact that the Khoikhoi are alive and that Sarah’s story would have an impact on how we are portrayed, is a mistake of great magnitude,” Jean Burgess, local chief of the Ghonaqua people, the first indigenous people of South Africa, told News24. “I can only see arrogance in her attempt to tell a story that is not hers to tell.”

South Africans on social media suggested that, instead of Beyoncé, a local actress play the role. The irony is that often local talent is sidelined because of the attention given to US celebrities such as Beyoncé.

Who we identify as our feminist role models is a personal choice, yet it’s important to know that contemporary South African culture has its own female icons in the form of women such as Zaki Ibrahim or Nonku Phiri.

The rumours that Beyoncé would play Baartman are almost inconsequential at this point – the singer’s representative has already denied Beyoncé’s involvement in any Baartman film.

But the reaction to the rumours is what’s interesting. For the first time, the South African Beyhive began to move away from Queen Bey, protecting Baartman’s history and pain from Western appropriation.

It revealed that even within the contemporary, global black feminism movement, there is a power struggle. As a whole, black women are othered, but black women from the US still have more power than black women from other countries.

Beyoncé is the woman almost every other modern woman wants to be. Her success is dazzling: she’s earned 20 Grammy awards, raked in $250-million in 2015, and in 2013 and 2014 Time magazine listed her as one of the most influential women in the world.

But while we watch Beyoncé’s ballin’ lifestyle of Bentleys, palaces and jewels, a part of us knows that it’s in some way unattainable. It’s the possibility of a black woman living that charmed life that seduces us.

In one way, it’s simply reselling the American Dream to black women in countries like South Africa where the possibility of living that life shrinks, and where many of us would fight against Western standards and norms because they are a form of oppression.

As a woman from the US, Beyoncé, even as a black woman who is othered, still holds more power than black women from elsewhere.

The fight for feminism in countries like South Africa is not just about achieving equality at home, but also about challenging a global system where women from the global South are still deemed inferior to women from the global North.