Beyhive, start buzzing. This fall, the University of Waterloo is offering an undergraduate course focusing entirely on, that’s right, the pop culture deity herself, Queen B. It was only a matter of time, right?
Registration for the class, called Gender and Performance, will be open in July. We spoke to the mastermind behind it, Professor Naila Keleta-Mae.
I wish I were a student at Waterloo! What can students expect from your “Beyoncé” course?
They can expect to engage in feminist theory, critical race theory and performance theory. They can expect deep analysis of her 2013 BEYONCÉ and the context that surrounds it. And what makes Beyoncé as a black woman in the United States in 2015 possible.
Where did you get the inspiration to create this course?
I think the question is, how could I not think about Beyoncé? Especially given her influence on culture in the 21st century. I began to research her specifically as a person last year and from that, I pitched the course to my department and they were on board.
Why did you decide to study the album BEYONCÉ in particular?
A few reasons… Beyoncé usurped the entire music industry and all of its traditional practices when she released that album. She uploaded it to her Instagram account and made it directly accessible to her fans. There was no poster. No publicity. No interviews. No one knew the album was coming. That 30-second video clip on her Instagram account in 2013 was the only marketing that she did of that album and in three days it was No. 1 in over 104 countries on iTunes. For an industry that we’ve been hearing for the past decade is struggling to keep up with the digital era, that to me was absolutely fascinating, innovative, groundbreaking and done by a black woman in the United States of America.
The other reason, I was interested in studying that album in particular is that it was the first time Beyoncé created music that takes up the term feminism and feminist. As she does in the song “***Flawless” with her excerpt from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDx talk “We Should All Be Feminists.” Adichie is a Nigerian writer of a similar generation to Beyoncé, and so for Beyoncé to have made that African diasporic move of referencing an African writer was fascinating in her American popular culture music.
However, “***Flawless” is also a vexing and frustrating song; the chorus is “Bow down bitches,” and it’s the antithesis of what the feminist movement has purported to want to do and be in the 20th century.
So what’s your take on how Beyoncé portrays feminism? Especially the way she encourages us to worship her. Should we bow down?
I think Beyoncé has created a space in which she is a capitalist feminist. And those are two terms, historically, that haven’t gone together explicitly. She most certainly is a capitalist feminist. Her brand of feminism is individualistic. It’s about a still-hierarchical structure where we’re all meant to be in the club or party with our friends telling each other to bow down, and at the same time saying we are all feminists and we should all be equal. That’s quite the juxtaposition. Beyoncé has found a way to articulate a mainstream feminism that sits right in the middle of “Yes, we’re all in this together” and “Yes, I, as an individual, am superior to you.” In many ways she captures this moment of 21st-century life: the importance of the individual and the notion of the collective. She’s created this space where she is able to do both: be a capitalist and be a feminist. The implications of Beyoncé in this space are wide-reaching and worthy of study.
Why do you think studying feminism through a pop culture icon will be so effective?
Because students know her. They know her work inside out. They have opinions about her and what becomes important to me as a scholar and an educator is to think about and to maximize students’ capacity to analyze things critically. There needs to be a pragmatic way for us in day-to-day life to connect what we see with analysis. I’d like students to emerge from the course thinking about Beyoncé and all other artists in different ways, and wanting to apply more critical lens to the work that’s being created.
What about the diehard Beygency fans who will show up to class not wanting to hear criticism of their Queen?
It’s exciting to teach students material that they have opinions on. And it’s exciting to engage students and help students cultivate opinions on things. I often go through the process of explaining, contextualizing and encouraging them to develop their own critical analysis, their own perspectives to understand the different conversations and theories that are at work but to also think through what they think about the subject and what their own opinions are on it.