Lemonade Lessons: Beyoncé’s Feminism and the Art of Visual-Album Storytelling
On April 23, 2016, pop star Beyoncé Knowles, formerly of Destiny’s Child, released her highly anticipated second “visual album” and sixth solo effort, Lemonade, on the premium cable channel HBO during its free promotion weekend and right before the album’s official release on her co-owned music distribution site Tidal. This widely discussed event premiered just two days after the sudden death of pop star Prince, who had contributed his music to the Tidal site and once declared in a speech at the Grammys: “Like books and black lives, albums still matter.”1
The music industry’s practice of pushing music singles in a digital environment had caused a severe decline in music sales—due to the liberal use of music-sharing sites and technologies. Beyoncé discussed in her HBO-based documentary film, Life Is but a Dream, the state of the music album and lamented not just its status as a lost art form but as a missed cultural event shared by a mass audience, as she had experienced with albums released by such greats as Prince, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, and Janet Jackson among others.2 Lemonade sought to revive the album as both a holistic work of art and communal event, which she mastered by shrewdly utilizing the tools of digital culture—from Instagram to YouTube to other aspects of social media—to promote and cultivate excitement around her project. The results speak for themselves: countless think pieces, op-eds, and social media memes; a successful world tour; controversy surrounding the video and Super Bowl halftime performance of her single “Formation,” which incorporates the racial politics of #BlackLivesMatter; critical acclaim in the forms of an Emmy nomination, Grammy awards, and a Peabody award; and endless debates about the validity of her feminist expressions and identity.
The multimedia narratives surrounding Lemonade make it a compelling text to introduce to the feminist classroom, both as music album and film. Based on the different themes captured in the multi-layered text of the visual album—from celebrity culture and what journalist Andi Zeisler terms “marketplace feminism” to black feminism/womanism to Beyoncé’s artistic precursors and influences—courses focused on women, media, and popular culture or black women’s histories and creativity would benefit from teaching this work.3 Indeed, courses that merely reference Beyoncé in the title tend to attract students in record numbers, and increasingly more instructors have been utilizing the pop star as what writer Roxane Gay calls a “gateway to feminism.”4 Professors Omise’eke Tinsley at the University of Texas at Austin, Kinitra Brooks at the Michigan State University, and Kevin Allred at Rutgers University are examples of instructors who have added the pop star’s name to a course title to introduce students to a wider context surrounding black women’s artistic work and histories. Whether Beyoncé is explicitly named in a course or simply discussed in one lesson, her visual album Lemonade provides significant life and classroom lessons.
The Lesson Plan
I taught Beyoncé’s hour-length Lemonade over the course of two sessions—one focused on screening the visual album while the other session focused on discussion.
Activities for Screening Lemonade
In screening Lemonade in the classroom, I created a relaxed environment of community and camaraderie for film-viewing—an element of communal reception that the pop star herself encouraged through social media—in which I invited students to contribute to a lemon-themed potluck in class: it included pitchers of lemonade, lemon tea, lemon-flavored cupcakes, lemon-pepper garlic wings, and assorted fruit. Food and lemonade served to expand on the themes from Lemonade—including the “grandmother” wisdom passed down through a matrilineal heritage, the Yoruba orisha Oshun hailed in the film (whose altar is often flowing with food and sweet water), and black Southern culture that frames the visual album. Other variations on a potluck could include inviting students to contribute a dish or beverage based on a recipe from one’s grandmother (much like the “recipe” of lemonade introduced in the visual album, as described in Beyoncé’s voice-over). Lastly, before watching the film, I also provided students with an introduction to the pop artist and themes that she explores before we began our collective viewing.
Given Beyoncé’s use of social media, encouraging students to communicate via Twitter with the hashtag #Lemonade while watching Lemonade was another way I engaged their immediate reactions during the screening. Students could then have the option to “storify” their tweets in a post-screening assignment. Storify is a website that creates a narrative around specific tweets and hashtags from Twitter.
An assignment that I gave students immediately after screening Lemonade—during the remainder of the session—involved poetry. Highlighting the poetic work of Warsan Shire, who wrote the screenplay, I invited students to compose a haiku or free verse in response to Beyoncé’s Lemonade. We then mapped out the themes that emerged from their poems, which shaped the focus for the next session.
In preparation for the longer post-screening discussion session, I gave students reading assignments on Lemonade and prepared questions for discussion.
Gaunt, Kyra. “Beyoncé’s Lemonade Is Smashing.” TED Fellows, May 12, 2016.
Harris, Tamara Winfrey. “Beyoncé Is Fighting the Patriarchy through Pop Culture.” BitchMedia, May 10, 2016.
hooks, bell. “Moving beyond Pain.” bell hooks Institute, May 9, 2016.
Shackleford, Ashleigh. “Bittersweet Like Me: When the Lemonade Ain’t Made for Fat Black Women and Femmes.” Wear Your Voice, April 27, 2016.
Spanos, Brittany. “How Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ Reclaims Rock’s Black Female Legacy.” Rolling Stone, April 26, 2016.
Ward, Jesmyn. “Rewriting Your Life: Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ and the Art of Storytelling.” Comple, May 3, 2016.
- What musical legacies does Beyoncé attempt to restore through Lemonade? Identify up to three music genres that are remixed in the film and/or on the visual album and discuss how they represent black culture/black women’s music cultures.
- The main theme of Lemonade concerns Beyoncé overcoming the pain of being cheated on by her husband; however, the visual album encompasses wider concerns, including the mothers of the Black Lives Matter movement (shown holding portraits of their slain sons). What are the common threads linking her pain with the pain of other black women? How does the inclusion of a collective black womanhood complicate Beyoncé’s personal narrative?
- Feminist critic bell hooks suggests that Beyoncé does not “move beyond pain.” Do you agree? Why or why not? Also, should Beyoncé have left her unfaithful partner? As a self-identified feminist, do her actions reinforce or betray her politics?
- When it comes to capturing black womanhood, who is visually represented in Lemonade, and who is left out of the picture? What does this tell us about black women’s visibility politics and the ways in which Beyoncé portrays and simultaneously erases aspects of black womanhood?
- Given the full independence provided by the $50 million Pepsi endorsement deal Beyoncé received to perform at the Super Bowl in 2013 and to maintain full creative control over her subsequent albums, discuss whether her visual album Lemonade is an example of superficial “marketplace feminism”—as Andi Zeisler argues—or if it reflects a deeper political project of black feminism/womanism that might empower women who are not yet on her level.
Assignments for Homework or a Larger Project
I gave students an assignment to work on a comparative paper, in which Beyoncé’s Lemonade is compared to a similar work, which may include one of the following:
- Jay Z’s 4:44 (which is often interpreted as a response to Lemonade)
- Nina Simone’s Silk and Soul (featured in Lemonade)
- Pipilotti Rist’s Ever Is Over All (an artistic inspiration for Lemonade)
- Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (a cinematic inspiration for Lemonade)
- Ibeyi’s “Oya” (a music-video inspiration for Lemonade)
- Gloria Rolando’s Oggun: Forever Present (a video primer on the orishas in Santeria and Yoruba)
An alternative assignment would be to have students research the numerous articles and think pieces on Beyoncé’s Lemonade and compile a list of ten to twenty sources for an annotated bibliography or a literature review.
In summary, Beyoncé’s Lemonade stimulates class discussions and assignments as a highly visible pop project striving to create deeper conversations on the meanings of blackness, womanhood, and feminism. In asking students to engage in comparative reviews and research, they will discover for themselves that Beyoncé is an artist learning from other art forms and honing her talents and artistry while also engaging in complex feminist themes. She rightly boasts, “You know you that bitch when you cause all these conversations,” on her single “Formation,” and the countless online articles attest to this. Beyoncé’s current status makes her difficult to ignore, and students usually have an opinion about her; few are ever neutral or indifferent. Such emotions make for an engaged classroom filled with students eager to apply intellectualism and critical-thinking skills to a subject matter they previously did not think to take seriously. This is especially permissible in women’s and gender studies classrooms, where the cultural work of women of color can occupy central space. Finally, popular culture is a frame of reference from which we can draw in our pedagogy and on which we can build a foundation to address issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality. Given the ways that Beyoncé herself is willing to learn intellectually—from sampling Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “We Should All Be Feminists” TED Talk to working with the poet Warsan Shire—academic feminists can certainly return the favor and recognize her intellectual and artistic endeavors.5
Cooper, Brittney. “The Beyoncé Wars: Should She Get to Be a Feminist?” Salon, December 17 2013.
Harris-Perry, Melissa. “The Politicization of Beyoncé.” Elle, November 8, 2018.
Hobson, Janell. “Beyoncé’s Fierce Feminism.” Ms. Magazine, Spring 2013, 42-45.
---. 2017. Celebrity Feminism: More Than a Gateway.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 42, no. 4 (2017): 999-1007.
Trier-Bieniek, Adrienne, ed. The Beyoncé Effect: Essays on Sexuality, Race, and Feminism. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2016.
Zeisler, Andi. “Empowertise Me!” BitchMedia, May 4, 2016.
1 Pop music artist Prince delivered this statement at the fifty-seventh annual Grammy Awards Show on February 8, 2015, right before presenting the award for Album of the Year.
2 Life Is but a Dream is an autobiographical television film executive-produced and directed by Beyoncé Knowles, which premiered on the HBO premium cable network on February 16, 2013.
3 “Marketplace feminism” is a term Andi Zeisler uses in her book, We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to Covergirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement (New York: PublicAffairs, 2016).
4 Roxane Gay, “Emma Watson? Jennifer Lawrence? These Aren’t the Feminists You’re Looking For,” Guardian, October 10, 2014.
5 Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, We Should All Be Feminists (New York: Random House, 2014).