One thing that I have always admired about Beyoncé Knowles is that she interviews rarely, saving her words and invaluable voice for thoughtful and insightful sit-downs where there is the most to gain from a vulnerability typically reserved for her music. To me, this careful control of her own narrative is a loud and unapologetic declaration of an autonomy over her own story, and a commitment to standing bravely in her own truth. Furthermore, it demonstrates a pronounced yet understated cognizance of her own power as a pop culture icon. That is to say that Beyoncé has demonstrated a responsibility for not letting her fans down by handing out flippant and shallow two-cent opinions every time they are asked of her. Admittedly, this is a true luxury in the age of Twitter fingers, where we watch our faves rise and fall from grace at least once a week, by way of poorly thought out, poorly timed, and poorly executed posts. Beyoncé truly leads by example in this way, and countless others, reminding a generation of women (and men) to be more introspective, and that they control their stories, too.
So this week, true to her nature, the queen graced the cover of Vogue’s September issue. In doing so, it’s clear that Bey managed to once again stay flawlessly true to her values (for perfect example, by choosing to be photographed by Tyler Mitchell, a 23 year old that she described in the interview as “brilliant”, and the first ever African-American cover photographer in the magazine’s 120+ year history) and she used her voice to start some very important conversations. This penchant for letting us in so rarely – but so honestly when she does – means that when Beyoncé speaks, we listen. Consequently, when she used this opportunity to speak on topics like pregnancy and body acceptance, I and many others were so happy that she did – because it wouldn’t be ignored.
Beyoncé dropped several bombshells in this interview, and if you use Twitter, Instagram, or otherwise engage with the media in any capacity, you probably already know. For example, she revealed the difficulty and trauma associated with her pregnancy with the twins – explaining her very difficult battle with toxemia and a strict month of bed rest, followed ultimately by an emergency c-section. She also revealed that by the time she was ready to give birth, she weighed 218 lbs, and that she now embraces the “FUPA” left behind (if you don’t know what a FUPA is, first of all, must be nice! Second of all, Google it). These are the types of vulnerabilities she shares with us in interviews like this – body insecurity, illness – and they are the kind that remind us that even the queen is human. If Beyoncé can have a FUPA (though I’m still skeptical…) we all can, damn it. Bey went on to discuss ancestry, her current tour, and her legacy.
This interview was one that connected Bey to her fans and the world at large in a visceral way. It is inevitable that anyone who read the article would take something important from it, all dependent upon their own circumstances. What struck a chord for me personally, were Beyoncé’s words about gender stereotypes and teaching her son to be sensitive. With this, Beyoncé began what I hope will be an open and ongoing discussion about toxic masculinity. Here’s what she had to say about raising her son, Sir:
“I want him to know that he can be strong and brave but that he can also be sensitive and kind. I want my son to have a high emotional IQ where he is free to be caring, truthful, and honest. It’s everything a woman wants in a man, and yet we don’t teach it to our boys. I hope to teach my son not to fall victim to what the internet says he should be or how he should love. I want to create better representations for him so he is allowed to reach his full potential as a man, and to teach him that the real magic he possesses in the world is the power to affirm his own existence.” – Beyonce, Vogue (August 2018).
The ensuing discussions on social media, while not all constructive or pretty, were necessary. I saw people unpacking the concept of toxic masculinity left and right. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, toxic masculinity can be described as the norms of “acceptable” masculinity which are harmful to women, society at large and men themselves. It is both an academic and activist-rooted term, and refers to the way in which men are socialized to believe that things like violence, misogyny and a low emotional IQ are all inherent to performing masculinity, or simply, to being a man.
Of course, feminists know that this is simply untrue, and when you see us say things like “men are trash” this is typically what we mean. It’s not necessarily individual men who are trash, but rather, toxic masculinity. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of cisgendered men and even women continually subscribe to it with blind loyalty, keeping the cycle going as they police each other and pass on the same values to their children. How many times this week have you seen a man police another man for exhibiting any sort of sensitivity? How many times have you seen male aggression normalized or brushed off? When you tell somebody to “be a man” because they are not performing masculinity the way you were socialized to believe it should be performed, are you considering the long-term effects? Are you considering the repercussions to men’s health like depression, stress, body image issues and substance abuse? Think about the ways in which men ultimately become unable to be good partners because they never learned how to communicate or understand their own emotions, always burying them because the only “masculine” way to express themselves was through either denial or rage. For the ones who decide to be better, think about how hard it is to undo all of that toxic socializing that began as far back as childhood.
For Black men specifically, the constraints are even more rigid and the stakes are much higher. Black men are expected to be the epitome of masculinity and perform it perfectly, day in and day out, with no room for error. Toxic masculinity in these communities is inherently homophobic, misogynistic and ableist (to name a few problems). For examples of what happens when black men do not perform masculinity by toxically masculine standards, just look to how people react to someone like Young Thug, who is known to wear dresses and skirts. Go look at the things they say. For examples of the misogyny, think about how normalized the degradation of women in our male artist’s music can be. For ableism, think about how unacceptable it is within these communities to admit to or seek help for things like depression and anxiety (despite them being an absolute epidemic across almost all demographics). I would argue that this desire to perform masculinity so exactly comes from centuries of learning to survive in barely survivable contexts and despite overwhelming oppression (think colonization…slavery…jim crow… and even the more institutionalized/socialized ways the world keeps black men on their guard today). They have had no choice but to be “tough”, to completely unrealistic standards. It is also intrinsically tied to stereotypes they have been told about themselves for just as long, and perhaps began to believe. Regardless, it is an insidious teaching, and it is dangerous. For Beyoncé to openly reject these norms and stereotypes and speak for a brighter future, where men – including her black son – can be better, and women can support them, is extremely brave. Black men (and men more broadly) don’t just need to survive. They need to thrive.
After Beyoncé told Vogue she refused to raise her son within the constraints of toxic masculinity, I saw conversations open up. I saw men acknowledging the ways they’ve been complicit in toxic masculinity and how they can improve, and I saw women admitting to their own complicity and offering words of encouragement. So what is my point? Let’s do better. Let’s break the cycle of toxic masculinity and raise, be, or love happier and healthier boys and men. I say do something today to resist and destroy toxic masculinity. For yourself, those around you, and for society at large. If not for those reasons, then do it because Beyoncé said so.