Beyonce at VMAs: Do sexuality, feminism, and motherhood mix?

Beyonce represents a lot of things these days – as a mom, artist, and business mogul. It's important to remember that for anyone, including pop-cultures icons, context is key.

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
Beyonce smiles with Jay-Z and daughter Blue Ivy after accepting the Video Vanguard Award on stage during the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards in Inglewood, California August 24.

Beyonce seemed to have brought her top game to the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday night, performing snippets from her entire “Yonce” album in a 17-minute long performance, before accepting the Video Vangaurd Award.

In the audience, her superstar husband Jay-Z sat with her daughter Blue Ivy, who danced in her dad’s lap as mom performed on stage. They later joined her on stage to accept the award.

Headlines of Blue Ivy's bopping ran alongside frame-by-frame reports of Beyonce’s show-stopping performance, as well as debates about Beyonce delivering a questionable feminist message in her piece “Flawless.”

FOX news posted a story titled “Beyonce’s VMA feminist message prompts some eye rolls” in which the writer covered online conversations surrounding her performance of “Flawless” which featured the words of Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi as part of a statement on feminism. 

According to the report, fans were divided on whether Beyonce drowned out the feminist message with a hypersexualized performance style that viewers have come to expect from the VMAs.

While I can’t entirely disagree with the reporter’s sentiment, I have to disagree with dissecting one part of the performance without looking at the broader context of both the evening and the performer and her many roles. What we may be seeing is the evolution of Beyonce, as a pop star, who's developing new facets and starting to see the world through a mother's eyes.

Would she (or could she as credibly) have brought these lyrics to an mass audience before Blue Ivy was born?

why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage
 And we don't teach boys the same?
 We raise girls to see each other as competitors
 Not for jobs or for accomplishments
 Which I think can be a good thing
 But for the attention of men

Yes, surprising as it may seem when talking about the VMAs, there is an important reminder in here for parents and kids about the value of context. 

Teens watching the show inevitably saw her performance in all its costumed, choreographed, hip-thrusting glory. What kind of context can adults lend to what teens watched?

I think context here includes remembering three things: Beyonce is a mom, Beyonce is an artist, and Beyonce is a business woman. These things are not mutually exclusive, and each role helps shape the others.

From my former teen perspective, the loud and clear message might have been much more about what it means to be sexy than how I viewed it now as a grown woman and mother. Watching the performance, I heard a lot more of Beyonce exploring through music and theatrics what it means to be powerful and vulnerable at the same time, as woman and a mother herself.

As a business woman and artist, Beyonce knows what her audience wants and how to get a reaction from fans. For that reason, costumes, dancing, suggestive movements, all play into her message delivery. 

Was I comfortable with how she's marketing her message? Not really. But Beyonce's performance did make me question what I thought about those messages of sexism, sexuality, feminism, strength, and relationships – and how it made me feel. And from the artist's perspective, sometimes the best result of your work is to spur others to think about larger ideas, bigger than one person.

And explaining to teens some of the business behind the performance is important, so they can come to their own conclusions about what messages sell, and what they buy into as consumers.

It's overly simplistic to sum up Beyonce’s performance as contradictory feminist message in a sexy pop-star package. Similarly, we can’t sum up what represents any other person or their beliefs without looking at the broader context.

However, there is value in parents talking with teens about the ideas shared and how they shape their worldview. If parents are willing to do that, they might be able to lend some valuable insight – sometimes by the way of hindsight – and context that might touch on a lot more than sequined bodysuits and shirtless backup dancers.

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