Monday, 6 February 2017

Beyonce’s Formation Music Video within Edward Said’s Orientalism Theory

Storey (2009: 167) highlights that the concept of race has been articulated through the human insist of division. He further extends that this in itself is a notion of racism because although biologically there is skin tone variety, the act of distinguishing them is placed within social and political context – having the signification mean something as opposed to just being physical difference. Gilroy (1991: xxii) argues that “race” is a virtual reality given implication only due to racism. He extends that social and political environment and ideology constructs “race” which are the sustaining components within “racialization” which have characterized capitalist development (35). This paper will explore a detailed analysis of iconic pop star Beyonce Knowles’ Formation music video using the approach of Orientalism by Edward Said.

The music video is centred on African American pride particularly the black southern side. Beyonce illustrates her history of southern identity through the cultural practice, features and issues of New Orleans. The video reflects on the images of Hurricane Katrina, Mardi Gras and the Black South. Natural hair focus, Beyonce sitting on a sinking New Orleans police car and a young African American boy dancing in front of police officers, followed by a graffiti stating “stop shooting us” are all key messages of the music video. Furthermore, typically a woman’s dancing within music videos are highly sexualised however, in Formation, the choreography focused on strong movements with Beyonce and other African American women portraying flair and confidence, reflecting black southern nightlife from parades to clubs where there are drum majors march and twerking (Robinson, 2016). She reminds the audience where she is from; her parental roots: “My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana, You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bama.” Cultural pride is represented largely within the lyrics and video – “I got hot sauce in my bag, swag,” images of women sitting in parlours fanning themselves and twirling umbrellas is all in reminiscent of the sartorial splendour of black New Orleans (Robinson, 2016). In addition to that, “Mardi Gras and second line imagery pepper the video, offering a celebration of the city that accounts for the black and indigenous cultures  that created and sustain it through their labour” (ibid).

Turner (1996: 6) argues that with the examination of popular culture and the attempt to understand it – the political aspect allows us “to examine the power relations that constitute this form of everyday life and thus reveal the configurations of interests its construction serves.” This particular popular text was chosen due its political nature in dealing with race which can be configured utilising the theory posed by Edward Said. Moreover, racial issues constitute much discussion within society and it is interesting to view it from a popular culture standpoint. From this point of view, investigation of "race" in mainstream culture would be the investigation of the distinctive courses in which it has and can be made to connote.

Said (1985: 89) asserts that “the Orient was a European invention” – whereby “Orientalism” is the relationship between the Orient and Europe particularly, the defying quality the Orient has brought towards the West via the contrast in image, idea, personality and experience. He claims “Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient” (ibid.). Basically, it is a “system of ideological fiction” (pg. 321) where power is at stake. Hegemony by the West over the Orients exists from the supposed difference between the two where “the West … is rational, developed, humane, superior and the Orient … is aberrant, underdeveloped, inferior” (pg. 300).

Storey (2009: 173) argues that within the context of Orientalism, Hollywood representations don’t have to succumb towards being historically accurate; ‘true’ or ‘false’ don’t carry much weight. However, in his Analysis of Culture (1961) Williams claims that a thorough cultural analysis can only happen if the historical context is taken into consideration. This is because in actual fact, what is integral is “the regime of truth” (Foucalt: 2002: pg. 131) that is practised, stating that Hollywood power is not a negative entity – in fact, it is productive (Storey, 2009: pg. 173). Caliendo and McIlwain (2011: 184) assert that “the theoretical framework of Orientalism derives primarily from Michel Foucalt’ discourse theory and Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony.” Storey relates this supposed theory to Foucalt’s understanding of power to Hollywood’s power claiming it doesn’t ‘repress’, ‘censor’, ‘abstract’,  ‘mask’, or ‘conceal,’ on the contrary, “it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth” (1979: 194). Similarly as to how it can be applied within a Hollywood framework, it can also follow the same application within Beyonce’s Formation. Hurricane Katrina was a highlighted topic in Beyonce’s video depicting ruins of the city after the occurrence of the disaster – her video even began with a narration asking “What happened at the New Orleans?” Hurricane Katrina, the most expensive natural disaster in American history, killed nearly 2,000 people and displaced one million (BBC News, 2016). It largely affected the city of New Orleans, in Louisiana and until today George Bush’s slow response in aiding the victims remains a wellspring of profound disdain in the city (ibid). According to Sommers et al. (2006: 6) the lack of support from the government stemmed from a racist standpoint; general population of the victims are African American deeming them unworthy of help. The media is a channel that has the power to influence and shape the public minds (Happer and Philo, 2013) and hence, the media portrayal had to depict their “regime of truth,” claiming the government had helped efficiently. The coverage for Katrina was extensive, and the media was criticized for heavily proclaiming the governmental support (Carr, 2005; Kutz, 2005). Also, many public figures consciously chose to use the word “refugee” in referring to the victims (Sommers et al., 2006). Jackson and Sharpton (2005) argue that this is act is racially biased because it avoided the primarily African American victims and implied they were less than full citizens. 

Althusser (1971) claims a  problematic contains “the  assumptions,  motivations, underlying  ideas,  etc.,  from  which  a  text  is  made.” Storey (2009: 72) further explains a text structure is derived from just as much by what is absent (what is not said) as by what is present (what is said). Althusser argues that to fully understand a text, it requires awareness of text content and also the suppositions which inform it (it may not be evident in the text itself in a straightforward, obvious manner but exist only in the text’s problematic). Storey (2009: 72) mentions that as an Althusserian critical practice, it is important to deconstruct the text to disclose the problematic; the act of doing so is what Althusser calls a ‘symptomatic reading’.

Beyonce through this practice created her own “regime of truth” within Orientalism where she discusses the fall of New Orleans. This would seem contradictory to the Orientalism theory where only the West had the power to create reality. Caliendo and McIlwain (2011: 185) draw attention to Said’s ignorance on hegemonic power that exists within the Western discourse itself. Clearly, Beyonce is a true testament to his lack of exploration within non-white cultures. “Earned all this money but they will never the country out of me” is a continuous verse in her video claiming that despite all her success she still stays true to her roots. The chorus which states “I see it, I want it, I stunt, yellow-bone it, I dream it, I work hard, I grind until I own it” and “I go off, I go hard, Get what’s mine, I’m a star, Cause I slay” visibly portrays her power within obtaining what she wants. Through her hegemonic status, she has the power to illustrate key messages to send out messages to her fans and maybe even indirectly towards the governmental scrutiny. She was also strategic by intentionally releasing it during the Black History Month, particularly on African American racial victims’ birthday; Trayvon Martin’s and Sandra Bland’s to further instil her message (NPR, 2016).
Beyonce even touched on police brutality towards the African American community. Her video conjured images of a young boy dancing in front of police officers as well as hands being held up before seeing the words, “Stop shooting us.” Storey (2009) highlights a plot within Said’s Orientalism approach where there “whites, who because of the supposed power of their racial heredity impose themselves on the jungle and its inhabitants”. This is exemplary towards the police force’s unethical conduct of racial violence towards the African American community. She garnered the use of a pop platform as a powerful paradigm to bring about the necessary attention towards racism and marginalized groups, telling an important story about the black South (Robinson, 2016).
Kim and Chung (2005: 73) point out that despite Said’s primary focus on Europe’s relations with the Middle East and South Asia, the “political ideologies” and “cultural imageries” indirectly have hegemonic dichotomies that assist in deciphering the interplay of Orientalism dynamic in America – Orientalism has a notion of white power to justify its dominance. In Said’s view, many white men colonialists equated the colour of their skin with a “superior ontological status” and the power to rule the rest of the world (Jouhki, 2006: 32). Also, Hill (2000) highlights that attractiveness is culturally constructed, influenced by racial aesthetics. Charles White in ‘An account of the regular gradation in man and in different animals and vegetables’ (1795: 168) wrote that the white Europeans are the most distinguished from bring a “brute creation” and hence, considered the most attractive race of them all. In the American community straight, blonde hair is considered to be the ideal look, which is contradictory towards the natural African American features (Clayson and Klassen, 1989: 200). Weitz (2001) says that many women dye their blonde due to the perception that being blonde is more attractive. However, in Formation, Beyonce opposes this, proudly accentuating typical African American features such as afro hair and large nostrils; “I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros, I like my Negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.” Beyonce’s daughter is seen flaunting her natural hair along with a couple other young African American girls. She also conjures images of African American men with the afro hair, holding basketballs. Within this context she challenges the supposed norm of what is considered attractive. 

Despite this, there is a contradictory factor within her music video as she is blonde while all the other women are brunettes, celebrating their black hair. Why is Beyonce blonde despite having chosen African American women with only black hair to star in her Formation music video? According to a research conducted by Advertising Age (2013) Beyonce as a blonde made for a more popular advertisement. Beyonce featured in two advertisements for fashion company Hennes & Mauritz (H&M); in one of it she is blonde and in the other she is a brunette. Although both ads feature the same song and similar dance choreography, the ad where is a blonde scored significantly higher with the targeted audience (ibid). Specifically 16% of consumers mentioned the singer by name in the former ad compared to only 7% of consumers referencing the singer by name in the latter ad (ibid, 2). In her efforts to suppress racism, Beyonce still needs to adhere to her role as an entertainer, prioritising what her fans want from her as it affects her success. In this case, a blonde Beyonce may actually pave a more successful career pathway compared to a brunette Beyonce. Despite the efforts to form an independent standpoint away from Orientalism features, Beyonce failed to do so in every single aspect in her music video. References towards Orientalism are still prevalent. For example, in the lyrics “You just might be a black Bill Gates in the making, cause I slay, I just might be a black Bill gates in the making” refers to a white counterpart, succumbing to white supremacy as a symbol of success. Gramsci (2009: 75) exercises the ‘hegemony’ term as a reference to the way dominant groups in society win the consent of the inferior groups in society. Beyonce’s reference towards a white counterpart (Bill Gates) illustrates the indirect representation of how a dominant group has gained approval from its inferior group. While Storey (2009: 11) on the other hand mentions that hegemony theory presents an opportunity to “locate the struggle between resistance and incorporation as taking place within and across individual popular texts and practices.” A large identification of resistance can be seen within the Formation music video framework however, this particular Bill Gates reference and the blond hair can signify the incorporation side of Storey’s theory, proving white supremacy and hence, Orientalism still exists on some level within the American society.
Mohanty (1989: 31) brings to attention that projects that focus on difference whether it may be of gender, class, race or other cultural context pertain a homologous relationship between one another. Applied within Orientalism, race and gender play a role in hegemonic power; white males being the most superior. Lewis (1996) points out on the off chance that we take the classifications of race, class and gender as neither restricting persecutions nor as analogies for each other, referring to Kaplan’s point of “reciprocally constituting each other through a kind of narrative invocation, a set of associative terms in a chain of meaning” we can truly understand the interplay between these features and comprehend the signification. Furthermore, Yeğenoğlu (1998: 4) explain that within post-structuralism the entity of the word “man” being synonymous towards the human race is socially constructed by hegemonic qualities of European white male within Orientalism. Beyonce takes on a feminist value in her Formation music video with African American women power entitlement and strength which oppose all these predicament featured by Orientalism. The women are seen embracing the splendour of the community (fanning themselves, twirling umbrellas in the parlour) and having strong choreography movements such as their clenched fists in the air. In fact, largely Beyonce’s lyrics consist of the chorus; “Okay ladies, now let’s get in Formation.” Furthermore, the intersection theory suggests that the multiple elements of social stratification including race and gender can mount towards multiple disadvantages for some groups of people (Macionis, 2005: 305). African American women face a “double disadvantage” within society due to being secondary in terms of race and gender (ibid). This theory is typically placed within an economical, job scope context. Despite this disadvantage Beyonce doesn’t fall prey to its drawback; “I might get your song played on the radio station,” and “I just might be a black Bill Gates in the making,” connote her power and ability to be at a position of wealth and influence. In fact, her song ends with “Always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper” when analysed connotes the defeat against Orientalism. Through her hard work, she shows that it is possible for an African American woman to conquer the supposed hegemony they face and rise above it to hold their own power.

Bennett (1986: 20) asserts that 'the people' alludes neither to everybody nor to a solitary gathering inside society however towards an assortment of social gatherings which, despite the fact that varying from each other in different regards (their class position or the specific issues in which they are most quickly drawn in), are recognized from the economically, politically and culturally different groups and are henceforth possibly fit for coming together – of being sorted out into 'the people versus the power bloc' – if their different battles are associated. Based on this theory, it could be possible that many people within the layers of the African American society could relate to Beyonce’s Formation video as a medium of ‘the people versus the power bloc’ due to their past, coming together, directly making her video a popular text in relation to the Orientalism theory posed by Edward Said.

The struggle for political African American modernity is that it “did wonderfully elevate the slave and prepare him for citizenship with the one exception that it legally denied human rights to the slave (1878).” This struggle prevails within today’s community although with the many efforts on various platforms such as the popular text presented by Beyonce helps to curb this issue. Gaines (1996) theorises that “the violent denial of black political and economic enfranchisement facilitates the Formation of cultural politics.” From the discussion it can be seen that pop icon, Beyonce has the ability to oppose many of the qualities grounded within Edward Said’s Orientalism theory, as seen in her Formation video. It encapsulates the ability of the African American community to have a higher hierarchy position within society within economical ground and having a voice.
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