Yesterday, we ran a wonderful piece by Ashley McGuire on Beyoncé’’s Soulful Feminism. Ashley looked at Beyoncé’s superbowl performance and saw a strong woman who is beautiful, sexy, incredibly successful, and–perhaps most interesting of all–traditionally minded when it comes to sex, relationships, and family. Just recently, she slammed the idea of surrogates, saying “I respect mothers and women so much. To be able to experience bringing a child into this world, if you’re lucky and fortunate enough to experience that, I would never ever take that for granted.” And, on top of her defense of motherhood, she is an incredibly hard worker. What’s not to like?
Some of our readers, however, took issue with Ashley’s analysis. There were two criticisms. First, readers seem to think that a woman who dresses provocatively cannot serve as a traditional role model for women. A second criticism I heard, and which is suggested in the comments, is that a sexy woman inspires lascivious thoughts in men, so women need to take that into account and dress appropriately. This is a complaint I’ve heard before, especially from middle-aged conservative men, so it might be good to address the issue head on.
These criticisms beg two types of questions. First, can a woman be sexy and still hold traditional values? Can a woman be sexy and, to be more explicit, also be conservative? Second, should women be responsible for controlling natural male urges? One problem with these criticisms is that they fail to make important distinctions, which I will try to make below.
To the first point, I think the answer is an obvious yes. I know many traditionally minded women who do not dress like nuns. And thank goodness. What a grim world that would be. These women, and there are many others out there, do an excellent job of harnessing their sexuality in a classy way. And here is where distinctions matter: being sexy in a classy way is different than being sexy in a nonclassy way. I don’t even think that the latter counts as being sexy–it’s just trashy.
Of course, traditional and nontraditional women can be classy or trashy. Sexiness is not a matter of politics–rather, it is a matter of taste. For instance, here is tip from one of my closest friends, who is liberal, on how to dress classily at a fancy event: Rather than opting for a dress that shows off a lot of cleavage, opt for a dress with a plunging back line. Both dresses will reveal the same amount of skin, but the one with the plunging back line is sexier. That’s because what makes a sexy woman sexy is that it leaves something to the imagination.
On this front, I think Beyoncé falls into the sexy, not trashy, category. My favorite point from Ashley’s post was about Beyoncé’s womanly legs: “Many criticize Beyoncé for her skimpy attire, and this is fair. But I would suggest that she is soulful. She typically reveals her thunder thighs rather than her breasts, and her legs are something to behold when she dances.”
On to the second point, about whether women are responsible for male urges. What strikes me about this line of reasoning is that it is employed by Islamists and defenders of the burqa. If women are responsible for natural male urges, then we should cover female beauty and sexuality up–which is exactly what the Islamist societies of Saudi Arabia and Iran have done. As I have written elsewhere, this attitude to female beauty and sexuality is rooted in fear–fear of the physical feelings and emotions that female sexuality inspire in men. Yes, those feelings and emotions are strong and powerful, but the mark of a civilized person is the ability to control those urges. The way men sexually respond to Beyoncé is not Beyoncé’s problem–it’s their, the men’s, problem.
Of course, there is a line between healthy expressions of female sexuality and unhealthy expressions of it.The role of cultural criticism is to tease out such distinctions. I would argue that someone like Beyoncé, who celebrates motherhood and a womanly conception of beauty, falls into the former category. The latter category belongs to porn stars, Carrie Bradshaw, Eve Ensler, Naomi Wolf, and the like.
Female beauty is a wonderful thing–and healthy expressions of it, in women like Beyoncé, should be celebrated.