Whether through a visualized text or a physical image, women have been historically exposed to a male-oriented lens that 1) restricts their agency and 2) benefits a voyeuristic male vision, rather than their reality. However, women are disrupting this scrutiny, particularly creators like Beyoncé, who defies the male gaze by reasserting bodily autonomy and reclaiming power.
Directed by Beyoncé herself, the musical film, “Black is King”, demonstrates her process of deconstructing the perceived images of Black women and her challenging the male gaze, while also reclaiming legacy and journeying towards self-actualization. Beyoncé uses scrutiny to her advantage, as she demands to be looked at and manipulates it as her source of power while reconstructing the suppressing imagery of Black women formed by a white, western masculine gaze.
One way she achieves this is through exhibiting her figure.
In this musical film and in most of her other visuals, Beyoncé’s sexuality and her somatic imagery are elements highlighted throughout her career. Her erotic sensuality is a subject that has been discussed and evaluated by feminist critics, including Emma Watson, who claims that the camera on the singer felt like a “very male, such a male voyeuristic experience of her.”
Some critics have also asserted that she is “too sexy to be a feminist.” These criticisms are undoubtedly linked to society’s over-sexualization of Black women rather than Beyoncé’s performances themselves. Firstly, white female performers who engage in similar performances are rarely labeled as “cheap,” mostly because their figures are often more petite and less curvaceous and because they do not exist against a history of oppression that simultaneously degrades and overtly sexualizes Black women. Secondly, and most importantly, Beyoncé leaves no room for that gaze to define her, as she is the director of her narrative and her illustrations.
Beyoncé paying homage to her Black feminine body is solely intended for herself and her journey of dissolving conventional images. Due to Beyonce’s audience demographic being primarily female and gay men, her sexuality empowers her fans, rather than fulfilling the heterosexual fantasies of men.
During her song, “Nile,” the singer looks straight into the camera, as if she is reflecting the gaze back onto the audience, and recites the lyrics: “got the Nile running through my body / look at my natural, I’m so exotic / darker than berry, sweeter than fruit / deeper the wounded, deeper the roots.” While crooning these lyrics, she accentuates her curvaceous torso by wearing tight clothing and by outlining her hips through hand gestures. Beyonce does not ask, but instructs her onlookers to study her frame and reclaims the concept of “exotic” by celebrating the dark melanin and natural figure she shares with her “wounded” ancestors–reclaiming her history and her sovereignty.
Noah Berlatsky debunks any critique that says otherwise by interviewing various professors who study feminist performance art that “is not staged for the male gaze,” since it “attempts to explore the relationship between that gaze, female bodies, and female fantasies.” Due to Beyonce’s audience demographic being primarily female and gay men, her sexuality empowers her fans, rather than fulfilling the heterosexual fantasies of men. Berlatsky writes, “Beyoncé’s sexuality may be commodified, but it’s commodified by her, for her own benefit. And the people primarily consuming that commodity are not men, but women—who respond both to the sexuality and her assertion of agency.”
Within “Black is King,” Beyoncé is in full control of what is presented on the screen, and through this, she centers herself within the narrative and dismisses any trace of male presence or fantasy to infiltrate her authority. Beyoncé enacts power, she challenges power, and she mobilizes power, by celebrating her black femininity and also other Black female bodies.
Throughout “My Power,” Beyoncé presents visuals that incorporate Black female performers, who all possess diverse corporealities while singing and gyrating alongside her. These images unveil shots of a pregnant mother twerking and muscular women employing their bodies as art; all directing the viewer’s gaze in a Beyoncé fashion, while chanting the lyrics: “they’ll never take my power, my power.”
Beyoncé emulates a space for Black female communal uplift that embraces the bodies of distinct women without subjecting them to a masculinist gaze while simultaneously bringing her reclamation of power to the visual’s core.
She perpetuates this effect throughout other sections of the film, such as for her song “Brown Skin Girl,” where she deflects the western perception of Black women by placing emphasis on their beauty.
She utilizes the space to commemorate the sundry shades of pigmentation that Black and Indigenous women of color are given birth to worldwide and rescripts western beauty standards by including them.
Beyoncé smoothly sings, “Cause there’s complexities / In complexion / But your skin it glows like a diamond / … I love everything about you from your nappy curls /To every single curve, your body natural / … Your skin is not only dark; it shines, and it tells your story.”
As she performs these lyrics, Beyoncé stares into the eyes of other Black women, inducing a more female gaze, one that rejects a voyeuristic male experience of Black women while uplifting and strengthening their self-worth.
Within this feminine gaze, Beyoncé draws on elements like nature as a vehicle to connect Black women reassembling their identity.
The film begins with a narration from Disney’s “The Lion King,” where Mufasa says, “you need to respect all living creatures. From the crawling ant to the leaping antelope, we are all connected in the great circle of life,” and thus institutes the theme of inclusion and respecting all those who inhabit the earth. Then later, Beyoncé softly expresses how she sees Black women “reflected in the world’s most heavenly things. We were beauty before they knew what beauty was.”
Just as Mother Nature has been overlooked and exploited by a colonial male gaze, Black women have also faced that same disregard. Nevertheless, Beyoncé’s insight allows her to see the associations between the two.
With this, Beyoncé links Black female identity with details of the natural world, and one aspect she hinges on is water.
The motif of water and fluidity is exhibited across the visual album. There are various scenes where Beyoncé is seen immersing herself in chlorine pools, dancing in rivers, sitting in front of waterfalls, standing at the head of oceans or floating on top of them, and even singing a song titled, “Water.” Beyoncé exerts the natural element as a symbol of reinventing oneself. It is stated in the movie that “water signifies life, water signifies hope, and water signifies the ability to be reborn.” Furthermore, she prompts her audience to “swim back to yourself” and “meet yourself at the shore.”
In her visuals for “Mood 4 Eva,” the camera is at a high-angle, facing down at Beyoncé’s body, as she is half-submerged in a pool and surrounded by female synchronized swimmers. She swims through and around their bodies with a bright smile, as she feels liberated by a female-oriented space. Instead of performing for a masculine gaze, she reforms the pool as a symbol of femininity, because women, especially Black women, are fluid and ever-changing, unable to be compressed into a frozen, static image.
Although most images of women, curated by men, remain one-dimensional, female artists like Beyoncé are recreating those representations in order to regain authority and control. This warrants the need for a more female gaze that authentically represents femininity.
Moreover, Beyoncé utilizes a feminine gaze to repudiate the limiting roles that masculine depictions offer her and other Black women. Instead, she “swims back to herself,” cleansing herself of what has been projected onto her body, and soaks her power back up.