Although fans hail Beyoncé’s “Formation” as a black feminist anthem, critics such as Alicia Wallace believe the song is laced with capitalist endorsements and images that overshadow its call to solidarity. In “Close-Up: Beyoncé: Media and Cultural Icon: A Critical View of Beyoncé’s ‘Formation,'” Wallace argues that “Formation” is not a genuine celebration of black culture and experience but instead exploits the community’s struggles for economic gain. Capitalism and racism exploit minorities for their labor or property and keeps them from improving economically so they can continue to provide cheap labor (Koepke 193). Considering the exploitative nature of capitalism, can “Formation” still be an empowering song, despite its capitalist references? This piece reflects on Wallace’s anti-capitalist critique of “Formation” and then explores the potential for the song as an encouragement for women’s economic independence.
Wallace’s main critique of “Formation” is that Beyoncé uses images of black tragedy for popular consumption. She diverges from the Beyhive’s—Beyoncé’s dedicated fan base—praise as she claims:
The song itself continues to center Beyoncé, alluding to haters, paparazzi, and designer clothing. She ultimately places her stamp of approval on the same capitalist system that has oppressed generations of the same black people to song is said to empower.
Wallace cites the setting of the video—New Orleans post-Hurricane Katrina—as insensitive to those who experienced the widespread devastation of the natural disaster. The song’s lyrics do not seem to connect with the chosen visual accompaniment and provide no critical commentary on the U.S. government’s mishandling of the crisis, besides that of the opening line, “What happened after New Orleans?” Continually, Wallace examines the reference to Red Lobster and wonders why “in a song celebrating blackness, Beyoncé—known to be a media mogul and shrewd businesswoman—would boost profits of a white-owned business” (193). The line, “you might just be a black Bill Gates in the making,” receives Wallace’s most ardent critique. Although presented as a supposed compliment, Wallace views the phrase as a subliminal message that “for someone to be rising to the top, they must be aspiring to whiteness” (194). Can “Formation” be a black feminist anthem with these capitalist endorsements?
The culmination of “Formation,” “always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper” seems steeped in an endorsement of capitalism, or at the very least, materiality. Wallace deems this a shallow attempt at empowerment:
The time has come to rise together and demand that systems change. Regular income is not revenge. That is not what reparations look like, and the suggestions that money is enough is at odds with the reputed ‘radicalism’ of ‘Formation.’
Regular income is not necessarily a radical form of resistance, but there is value in everyday acts of resistance that nevertheless empower women. In other words, it seems unfair to tell a single black mother, for example, that her day to day occupation does not qualify as radically feminist. When viewed as a call to women’s economic independence, perhaps the song, and the line referencing “your paper,” can remain an anthem of female empowerment. Although Beyoncé achieved her wealth and success by working in a capitalist framework, it is just as critical to acknowledge Beyoncé’s role model status as a hardworking, financially successful black woman. Perhaps Wallace needs to revisit Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s definition of “feminist” that Beyoncé features on her song “Flawless,”: “the person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.” Beyoncé works strategically to gain, and in some cases, surpass, economic equality with her male counterparts, and with that consideration, “Formation” retains its potential to encourage women’s economic empowerment.
- Knowles, Beyoncé. Lemonade. Tidal. 23 April 2016.
- Koepke, Deanna Jacobsen. “Race, Class, Poverty, and Capitalism.” Race, Gender & Class, vol. 14, no. 3/4, 2007, pp. 189-205.
- Wallace, Alicia. “A Critical View of Beyonce’s ‘Formation.’” Black Camera, vol. 9, no. 1, 2017, pp. 189–196.