The Feminine Mystique of Beyoncé

Fifty years ago, Betty Friedan published the critically-acclaimed, ground-breaking book, The Feminine Mystique. The "mother" of the second wave of American feminism sought the answer to the question:

Why are women unhappy?

Friedan did not cast that wide a net: she referred to privileged white women with a husband, kids and a house in the suburbs. No trace of diversity and working class women as Michelle Bernard writes in the Washington Post blog She The People.

Fifty years later, women have more choices than ever. Significant educational and career achievement characterize this freedom. Stilettos, Easy Spirits, and flats keep chipping away at the glass ceiling: NASA's Johnson Space Center is led by astronaut Ellen Ochoa and John Kerry quipped about having high heels to fill after taking over for Hillary Clinton as head of the U.S. State Department.

So why are women still so unhappy?

Let's look to Beyoncé for answers.

Beyoncé appears to have it all: she is the CEO of an enterprise worth millions with concerts that sell out in 60 seconds flat and lucrative cosmetic contracts. This gorgeous creature is married to Jay-Z -- one of the most powerful recording artists -- has a baby, and professes being close to God. She sets trends and causes spasms in pop culture: lip synching the Star-Spangled Banner at the presidential Inauguration gets more attention than the content of Barack Obama's speech. Stopping the Superbowl -- game and million dollar advertisements -- does not prompt an investigation into New Orleans government mismanagement, incompetence, and corruption undergirding its infrastructure when the power goes out. Rather, it must be "the moment when art met God," ridiculously declared Oprah in a one-on-one interview.

This pop culture coronation culminates with the title, Mistress of the Universe and an HBO film where she bares it all.

And yet, Beyoncé seems well, unhappy in this up-close and personal documentary.


I believe the answer lies with what women have done with the freedom gained in the last 50 years. In many cases, we have broken free from our ties to men -- fathers and husbands -- but become ensnared in a tangled web of commercialism and sex.

When we expose our intimate lives on Facebook and sum up complex relationships and emotions in 140 characters, how different are we from Beyoncé who sells the idea to millions on HBO that she is being "real"? Why do we defend promiscuity and token nudity such as what's bared on another HBO show Girls, as if this were a preferred method  of expressing "choice" and power just because now "we're on top" as executive producers?

(Beyoncé's declarations of authenticity ring hollow because I personally can't get past the branding dissonance, the inner and outer mismatch caused by on one hand, emotionally peeling back the onion to show she's like us, yet on the other hand, donning bleached blonde hair -- a criticism I extend to other powerhouses of color, including Shakira, who get blonder with success).

She can afford to demystify, even caricature herself because this is part of a strategy of Beyoncé, Inc., a tightly managed machine -- manager, publicists, handlers, personal assistants, schedulers, social media managers, stylists, make-up artists, personal trainers, chefs, maids and nannies -- controlling every move, every outfit, every peep. The sole intention is to strengthen her ba-zillion dollar brand. Smart to buy into this because the result, as HBO and Oprah's fledgling cable network will attest, is a ratings boon.

As a fan, I wish Beyoncé hadn't done the documentary or all the media because in her big reveal, including little to no make up, I see and hear mixed messages: professing power while being trapped in a knot of her own doing, tightened by a powerful commercial and materialistic pop culture to which she is inextricably bound.

The more limiting and empty relationship is not the one with the men in her life, which is the soul of Friedan's feminist manifest. It's with the gawking exhibitionism of our time Beyoncé feeds with overexposure, yet over which she has little power.

Who carries the mantle of feminism?