Beyoncé’s anthemic “***Flawless” begins with the aggressive, in-your-face prelude titled “Bow Down.” Upon the release of “Bow Down” earlier in 2013, Beyonce was criticized and called a hypocrite for telling “bitches” to “bow down” because of the strong message of female empowerment in her music. With “Bow Down,” critics alleged that she was belittling her fellow women.
It isn’t surprising that the media and general public reacted to the lyrics of “Bow Down” in the way they did (especially since it’s Beyoncé), but such a reaction is shallow and, well, overly dramatic. While the full song, “***Flawless,” makes things more clear, it is still foolish to label Beyoncé a hypocrite over one angry song. As she described when BEYONCÉ was released, “Bow Down” was the result of frustration, she went into the studio and let out her angst towards her haters, and loved it so much she decided to drop it for free online.
It is important to acknowledge that Beyoncé is an artist – and not everything an artist does should be taken literally. Sometimes, artists choose to embody a character or persona different from their own as a means of artistic and emotional expression. What Beyoncé did on “Bow Down” is no different. No one criticizes an actress for playing a part that is “out of character”; and so no one should criticize Beyoncé for doing the same on a song. After all, it is art, and entertainment.
However, combined with what follows “Bow Down” on “***Flawless,” perhaps Beyoncé has a deeper meaning. The two main lyrics of “Bow Down” are actually quite crucial:
I know when you were little girls
You dreamt of being in my world,
Don’t forget it, don’t forget it
Respect that, bow down bitches
I took some time to live my life,
But don’t think I’m just his little wife
Don’t get it twisted, get it twisted
This my shit, bow down bitches
Following these aggressive assertions, Beyoncé inserts a monologue by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian author and feminist. Adichie says “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, ‘you can have ambition, but not too much, you should aim to be successful, but not too successful, because otherwise you will threaten the man.'” With the first lyric about little girls dreaming of being in her world, Beyoncé is challenging that very notion. She is talking about how women look up to her, not a man, as an image of success. By saying they dream of being in “her world” and should “bow down,” she is putting herself in a King-like position, a larger than life position, a “man’s” position. She asserts her indifference of any threat that her stance may pose to men. She is by no means “shrinking” or “making herself smaller” as women have been taught; she is instead empowering herself a strong, proud and successful woman who stands tall. One must wonder, would it have been a problem if a man sang this song, replacing “bitches” with a word to reference men? Doubt it. Adichie also says, “We raise girls to see each other as competitors – not for jobs or accomplishments, which I think would be a good thing – but for the attention of men.” Well, with that same line from “Bow Down,” Beyoncé is acknowledging other women as her competitors for accomplishments; not for “the attention of men.” By doing so, she’s empowering women to do something that would otherwise be considered “too masculine.”
However, that’s not all. With the line about her being more than just “his little wife,” Beyoncé again supports Adichie’s ideas: “Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important.” With “Bow Down,” Beyoncé addresses this too. She says that she is more than a wife, she is successful in her own right and that she demands respect for her own accomplishments with or without any man attached to her. It is a simple lyric that holds a powerful message reinforced by the words of a respected feminist author.
Following this feminist interlude, “***Flawless” begins. Here, Beyoncé flips from telling “girls” to bow down, to telling “ladies” that they’re “flawless” with the empowering chant “I woke up like this! Flawless!” that was instantly inserted into pop culture. From a shallow point of view, “***Flawless” may appear to be just another “girl power” song about being beautiful. However, her message is a bit deeper than that.
The message behind “***Flawless” is, in fact, to embrace imperfection. The first clue is her choice to include clips from her childhood appearance on Star Search. Her group (Girls Tyme) lost, receiving 3 stars out of 4. The title of the song is “***Flawless” – featuring those same three stars. Why? She is saying that it was okay to be imperfect, because it made her better. Even then, she knew she couldn’t wallow in pity. Rather, she had to feel flawless to become flawless.
That’s why the song exists, as a reminder that in the face of imperfection or failure, she’s flawless. And, she’s here to remind you that you’re flawless, too. “I woke up like this, flawless” — who on Earth wakes up literally looking flawless? No one! Not even Beyoncé. It is obviously figurative. Embracing your imperfections, loving who you are, as you are, the way you wake up – that confidence yields flawlessness.
The final lines of Adichie’s monologue are, “We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are. Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.” Fitting, then, that Beyoncé enlisted Nicki Minaj for the song’s remix.
On the remix, Beyoncé not only addresses her own flawed personal life (the elevator incident: “Of course sometimes shit goes down when there’s a billion dollars on an elevator.”) but she also adds these lyrics: “I wake up looking this good, and I wouldn’t change it if I could. You can say what you want, I’m the shit. I want everyone to feel like this.” This clearly outlines her intentions with “***Flawless.”
With the addition of Nicki Minaj and her controversial deliberately shocking and sexual lyrics, she challenges that very notion of men and women being equal. The things Nicki says that are considered “shocking” probably wouldn’t be so if they came from a man. Nicki’s own brand of feminism is challenging the norms of what a woman should or shouldn’t say. Beyoncé clearly embodies that as well on the original track, specifically “Bow Down,” and the remix.
“***Flawless” is key to understanding the BEYONCÉ album as a whole. It provides the framework for a lot of the content on the album and its theme of embracing imperfection. What seems to be just another female empowerment anthem is actually all that and more. Not all feminists agree, and that’s fine… they don’t have to. In Beyoncé’s eyes, her picture of feminism is flawless.
See the photo above of her standing proud in front of a screen that reads “FEMINIST” at this year’s MTV VMAs. Any questions?