Last month, former Arkansas Governor, former Fox News host, and potential 2016 presidential candidate Mike Huckabee was on a number of day and nighttime talk shows to discuss comments he made about Beyoncé in his new book, God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy. In his book, Huckabee notes that he thinks Beyoncé is an incredible talent, but criticizes her for dancing “explicit moves best left for the privacy of her bedroom.” On The View, he said Beyoncé “doesn’t need to do songs like ‘Partition’ and ‘Drunk in Love,’” and on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, he called her “vulgar” and insinuated that her music makes young girls want to be strippers. Basically, his point has been that Beyoncé is a terrible role model for young women and girls.
But the argument that her sexual explicitness makes her a bad role model for kids falls apart on one important yet often ignored fact: Beyoncé doesn’t just sing about having sex with anybody anywhere because she feels like it. Particularly on her most recent album, Beyonce, Beyoncé sings about sex within a very specific context – monogamous, heterosexual marriage. This – the very context which Huckabee and the Right have been so apt to remind us that sex should take place in (according to them, I don’t necessarily agree). Beyoncé is a 33-year-old married mother of one. She’s been married to her husband for almost a decade and they’ve been a couple for longer. Her album is gushing with language about how in love she is with her husband and with her child. Beyoncé and Jay Z represent the quintessential example of sex done “the right way” – they exemplify the model of the traditional nuclear family championed by the rightwing. But, apparently, for Beyoncé, that isn’t good enough.
I think Huckabee’s problem with Beyoncé stems from two causes. First, Beyoncé’s open sexual expression doesn’t fit his archaic idea of how a woman should behave. Time and again, from comments telling women to dress more conservatively if they don’t want to be raped, to asinine comments on abortion, to Rush Limbaugh calling then-Georgetown student Sandra Fluke a “slut” for advocating for birth control, the rightwing has demonstrated that they are obsessed with controlling women’s sexual behavior and expression. But Beyoncé challenges the idea that women should not be sexual beings. She has owned her sexuality, she loves her body, and she encourages women to do the same and to express their sexuality on their own terms. That makes Mike Huckabee uncomfortable, despite the fact that the terms on which Beyoncé has chosen to express hers is with her husband exclusively. Apparently, he’d rather she just not sing about sex at all. (Maybe he’d like “Cater 2 U” better than “Partition.” She sings about cooking and cleaning on that one.)
But Huckabee’s issue with Beyoncé also stems from a centuries-old White American preoccupation with Black physicality, Black sexuality, and a desire to regulate both. The mainstream has long articulated a fascination with Black bodies and sexual expression, be it with Black male sexual prowess, with size, or with Black women’s bodies and sexual activity. From the slave auction blocks on which we were displayed in the nude for White buyers to inspect and examine, to our history of false accusations of rape against Black men (no, that is not a reference to Bill Cosby) which were used as a tool to discourage contact between Black men and White women, to the modern-day phenomenon of Black women and girls with curves being scrutinized at school and work for wearing some of the same clothing styles that less-curvaceous White women wear, Black physicality, Black sexuality, and their regulation have been major points of interest for the White American public throughout the nation’s history. And they remain so. It’s why artists like Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Nicki Minaj catch so much more heat from critics for their content than White artists like Katy Perry and Iggy Azalea who sell just as much sex (Iggy has been widely criticized, but for cultural appropriation, not for her sexual content). It’s why we talk about sexual explicitness in rap music but not sexual explicitness in rock music. It’s why White kids want to touch the hair of the only Black kids in their class and why Black children are routinely suspended, expelled, and disciplined for wearing natural Black hairstyles like afros, dreadlocks, and braids deemed “distracting” or “inappropriate” for a school setting, the same hairstyles that fascinate their peers. Because of Africans’ natural curves and thickness, and other dissimilarities between our bodies and those of people of European descent, because Black bodies have historically been hypersexualized and exoticized, there remains an element of foreignness attached to Black sexuality that fascinates and, because of it, Black artists – especially Black women, at the intersection of femininity and Blackness – are hyper-scrutinized for their sexual content while White ones are often let off the hook. So, Beyoncé, apparently, according to her critics, must hold herself to a sexual standard even higher than monogamous marital relations.
On Beyonce, we got to see Beyonce the grown woman: in love with herself, her family, and all the beautiful things that come with marriage. And when you’re the biggest pop star on the planet, apparently that includes sexual exploits with your husband behind the limo partition. Would I necessarily want my daughter emulating her dance moves as 10-years-old? No, I wouldn’t. And, to be honest, I wouldn’t let my 10-year-old daughter listen to her last album. But I would certainly want her to understand the context in which Beyoncé is doing what she does, and to aspire to that. And I certainly would want her to aspire to the kind of personal agency and happiness that Beyoncé has achieved. Frankly, I aspire to it.
I think Beyoncé is a great role model. She’s a businesswoman. She balances her career, motherhood, and marriage. She champions personal, especially women’s, empowerment. She and Jay Z are one of the few prominent Black examples of marriage and family values in the media. But if you don’t like Beyoncé’s music, then, as a parent, it’s your job to keep it away from your children. It’s not Beyoncé’s job as an artist to tailor her music to your standards of acceptability. It’s her job to create the art that makes her happy. And if you don’t like that, well, to the left, to the left. She’s still Queen Bey. She still runs the world.