A few days ago, when asked about the feminist debate surrounding Beyoncé’s BEYONCE, my thoughts turned to Cervantes and Don Quijote. Allow me to explain:
During my first semester of graduate school, my academic advisor did what my friends and I would later call “hablando tesis.” We use the term, which we made up, to describe the moment when you “say a mouthful,” or rather, arrive at a concise, poignant insight about something.
Returning to the class, we were studying on Don Quijote in a seminar class, and, as academics are want to do, assessing its intersectional political promise. Was this novel feminist? Was this novel racist? Was this novel sizeist?
Well, it was certainly a pain to lug around, but that’s not what “sizeist” means.
Ever the cool, calm thinker, he had some words of tesis to impart on this subject. The problem with a great work of art is that often, moved as we are by its significance and profundity and humor and audacity, we start to want it to do everything.
Es que queremos TANTO del Quijote.
We discover the postmodern novel planted smack dab in the middle of the first modern novel. And certainly, Don Quijote takes aim at the Petrarchal idealization of women and the feminine form as our eponymous hero pursues the elusive “Dulcinea,” actually the altogether unglamorous Aldonza Lorenzo.
Cervantes and Beyoncé both chased windmills of their own (relatively speaking, at least) in one genre all while churning toward greatness in another. Cervantes imagined himself as a substantive playwright whose La Numancia would foreground Iberian legacy in mythos and away from the formulaic, popular model introduced by the ever prolific Lope de Vega. Beyoncé, eager to fulfill the crossover dream of many a singer/actress/perfume mogul, set her sights on an Oscar for her roles in films like Dream Girls.
These were not exactly pipe dreams.
Beyoncé did indeed receive critical praise for her portrayal of Etta James in Cadillac Records, and I definitely had to read La Numancia and included it in a seminar paper, so Cervantes the dramatist made his way to the ever-coveted cerebral playhouse of the Southern Ivory Tower.
It’s just that those other things they did were so much more monumental.
Surely we all remember where we were and what we were doing when we discovered that Beyoncé had dropped a new album without notice. I myself had just returned from an unsatisfying experience with tapas at a purportedly Spanish restaurant (“manchegan mac and cheese”: is nothing sacred anymore?). I haplessly opened Facebook to find an overwhelming smattering of content one click away. The hype came in fragments: “visual album!” “seventeen videos!” “album only available for download at this time!” “ASS!”
This exact sound-byte nature of popular music prompted Beyoncé to make and release BEYONCE in the manner that she did: as a cohesive body of work with a corresponding visualization of the narrative and zero promotion (take that, Papa Johns/Taylor Swift pizza & cd campaign!) Much like Don Quijote takes satiric aim at the unending popular affinity for sequel upon sequel of Amadís de Gaula’s sallies as knight errant, Beyoncé expressed a general malaise for the “shit hits” approach to popstar moguldom:
“I miss that immersive experience, now people only listen to a few seconds of song on the iPods and they don’t really invest in the whole experience. It’s all about the single, and the hype. It’s so much that gets between the music and the art and the fans. I felt like, I don’t want anybody to get the message, when my record is coming out. I just want this to come out when it’s ready and from me to my fans.”
Beyoncé goes on to describe her desire to embrace imperfection and the “run and gun” approach to creating the videos that accompany her tracks. She too incorporates process into product, embedding her album with a statement on the making of albums and a critique of the materialist impatience of our time.
Most excitingly, Beyoncé intertwines female empowerment as part of her overall aural and visual masterpiece with the track “Flawless” and its excerpt of Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk “We should all be feminists.” The song, a logical extension of girl-power anthems such as “Diva” and “Run the World,” finally offers a direct declaration of feminism (as opposed to the “modern feminist” evasions of yesteryear).
And yet, the sexually explicit lyrics and ass-bearing visuals of songs like “Partition,” and “Yoncé” rubbed some the wrong way. Does a burlesque routine ripped from Crazy Horse performed for Jay Z and his cigar really constitute female empowerment? Does Pharrell’s patronizing diatribe about how Beyoncé, the Mother, just liberated all of us from some kind of sexual jail cell really ring true? (Was our discomfort with sex at a Victorian-era level, Pharrell?) What are the politics of Beyoncé’s idyllic and exploitative portrayal of Brazil in the video for “Blue”?
As NPR points out, #beyoncethinkpieces soon trended on Twitter.
Critique is art’s nagging, well-meaning parent. Critique knows what’s best, and damnit if critique isn’t always right about these things.
And who cares if we interrogate terms like “feminist” to death? Should our usage not be well-thought-out? Should pointing out the pitfalls or shortcomings of some of the visual and lyrical content in Beyoncé’s BEYONCE negate her artistic feat?
No. At the same time, I am brought back to that day in early September 2008, when I sat at a desk ill-fitted to my left-handed nature and questioned my choice of linen shorts in a quandary over seasons in the south. Nervous about how I was going to finish the gargantuan tome in front of me, the point rang true.
When something finally does a little, must it do all?
This is of course a pop album, and a megastar with huge mainstream influence who has now directly embraced the feminist label as part of her game-changer. Inevitably, it’s a flawed product of its time, belabored by tired tropes of the male gaze, the unflinching insistence on striptease as aerobic and empowering, and fetishized fun favela love.
After the publication of the first part of Don Quijote in 1605, a false second part appeared in 1614 penned by one Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda. Understandably pissed over the false imitation (and perhaps also the potential for an ever-so ironic spiral of endless sequels), Cervantes incorporated the criticism into his own second part, even letting Don Quijote and Sancho Panza confront these false fictional versions within the (real) second part of the novel.
He then puts Don Quijote to bed (this is not such a huge spoiler, he tells you in the Prologue he plans to do this) so that no more false versions can emerge.
As he lay dying, his inner circle gathers round and pleads with him to reclaim his knight errant persona. And you, the reader, having made it well past the first eight chapters that reside in the popular cultural milieu, feel pretty down in the dumps about the whole thing as well. Won’t you get up and do one more strange, entertaining, thing?
It has an end point, a limit. Our reactions, reviews, and readings do not. But we make our way through all the pages and sacrifice space on our precious mobile alarm clocks for something.
The real challenge is finding the balance between what brings you back and what sends you flying.
Whether this will be more or less challenging than mastering the Flawless dance, has yet to be determined.