New course considers Beyoncé and beyond

Jennifer Richardson

“This could really be about any black woman in media,” says Jennifer Richardson of her semester course, “Beyoncé: Critical Feminist Perspectives and U.S. Black Womanhood.” Photo: Joshua Clark/UIC Photo Services


Beyoncé is coming to UIC.

The uber-famous singer, songwriter and businesswoman will not be a featured performer at the UIC Pavilion. She’s the subject of a new spring semester course offered by gender and women’s studies.

“Beyoncé: Critical Feminist Perspectives and U.S. Black Womanhood” will use the artist’s music and career as a way to explore her attempt to be positioned as a feminist and queer figure, as well as larger issues involving media images and representations of African American women.

Course instructor Jennifer Richardson, research assistant professor of gender and women’s studies, says Beyoncé’s lyrics, wardrobe, media coverage and marriage to Jay Z, the hip-hop artist, producer and entrepreneur, offer plenty of material to explore critical perspectives of black womanhood.

Beyoncé Knowles

Beyoncé performs in a Central Park concert for “Good Morning America” in 2011. Photo: Asterio Tecson/Creative Commons

“She is the subject matter to an extent, but this could really be about any black woman in media, and in the world,” said Richardson, who offered first lady Michelle Obama as another example.

“We would have the same type of tools, the same kind of critical analysis of how she is represented, who she is as a person and what that means in terms of what corporate mainstream media says about black women. It’s not just about Beyoncé.”

Beyoncé’s self-titled album, released in 2013 without promotion via iTunes, broke sales records and received critical and fan acclaim for the songs and short films that explicitly address feminism, sexuality, motherhood and relationships.

Her work has been publicly scrutinized by people like singer Annie Lennox and writer bell hooks, who questioned whether Beyoncé’s image and message are truly feminist.

“What I really love about teaching critical feminism, and black feminism in particular, is that students are introduced to this dialectical space where there is not just one answer to a question like that,” Richardson said.

“There is a rich and complex story to explore and in this dynamic and critical conversation students will talk back to the discourse, to the critics, scholars and each other.”

“Everyone does not come into consciousness at the same rate or overnight, and it is an evolution, as is feminism, constantly changing.”

Students won’t simply talk about their opinions. In addition to theoretical and historical debates, they will write critical essays, read black feminist texts from hooks, Angela Davis and others, and create a musical autoethnography.

Interest in the class quickly grew by word of mouth, said Richardson, whose current book project, “Beyoncé, Olivia Pope, Michelle Obama, and Pirate Jenny: Visions of Black Womanhood, Sexuality, and Feminisms in Contemporary America,” evolved from her dissertation.

“I had already been thinking about Beyoncé and kind of this new wave of media representations of black women and really asking, ‘Is this something completely new or just slightly skewed in a way that makes us think we are seeing something new?’” she explained.

“There are very few images we see of these multidimensional, complexly rich characters of black women portrayed in media, but then Beyoncé is an actual person.”


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