Over the course of Beyoncé, Beyoncé Knowles asserts and affirms her sexuality in much more explicit terms than her listeners and fans may have anticipated, not that it wasn’t welcomed and celebrated. Songs like “Blow” and “Rocket” offer a more sex-positive, empowering narrative than anything in her back catalog. Many people would also lump “Partition” into this category, but I think there is something much more complicated going on in Beyoncé’s performance of overt black female sexuality contained in the video for “Partition,” and the aftermath of that failed performance in its companion piece on the visual album, “Jealous.”
Visually, these two songs are linked through their shared in-video world – both start at the same dinner table with Beyoncé seated across from what we can assume to be a male presence. This presence happens too also be us – the audience – since the camera is positioned at the opposite end of the table, aligning our gaze with Beyoncé’s dinner companion. Both videos begin in the exact same manner, with two drastically different outcomes; but both play with the dynamics of the black female body being on display in public versus private spaces with startlingly complex results. The songs are also linked sonically through a similar synthy bass drum that drives the action and the lyric.
“Partition” begins with a superb display of Beyoncé’s own power and status when she drops her napkin for no other reason than to force the white maid to pick it up for her – a complete reversal of the more stereotypical woman-of-color-maid-in-white-household trope that has held strong historically and culturally. However, even this grand wielding of power does nothing to turn the head of her companion. At this point, the narrative of the video switches to a fantasy in Beyoncé’s head of what would make her “the kind of girl you like,” at least enough to warrant attention at the dinner table. That her idea of what should draw attention to her is extremely sexual is no surprise seeing as how black women’s bodies have been stereotyped as always available. bell hooks writes on how black women’s sexuality always enters the room before the black woman herself does and Beyoncé also illustrates and pokes fun at this idea in her “Kitty Kat” video, where the first thing to appear on screen is a giant black pussy(cat). The cat totally eclipses a tiny version of Beyoncé, who continues to be overshadowed throughout by the image of the gigantic cat she tries to keep on a leash.
The first lyric to each verse of “Partition” implores the driver to roll up the partition so that Beyoncé has privacy. Of course, this can be applied to the culture of celebrity Beyoncé lives in which does not allow most celebrities the slightest bit of privacy, but I think it also speaks to the role of the black female body in U.S. culture as always already being on display – going back all the way to Sarah Baartman and the fetishization of black female body parts. While the things that are going to happen in the back of the limo are sexually explicit, it is important that Beyoncé WANTS them to remain private behind a partition. But it raises the question, is the black female body allowed privacy at all? Clearly, the visuals expose more skin than any other Beyoncé video (including the overtly sexual and sex-positive “Blow” and “Rocket”). But again, we are positioned as the viewer and thus, we all become complicit in the fetishization of the black female body that Beyoncé is performing here. If we watch the video through to its end, we are the same people gazing on as the black female body is denigrated, and that is of course the point of this performance. (Think Beyoncé as performance art more than just Beyoncé the entertainer.)
There are other clues indicating that Beyoncé is not performing this role for her own pleasure – or more complexly, that even if she is deriving pleasure from her role, it is also rife with problematic racist and heterosexist assumptions. As the striptease portion of the video begins, we only catch pieces of Beyoncé’s body, along with other disembodied legs that couldn’t anatomically be her own. So the black female body is being cut apart and partitioned itself. At another point in her dancing, a cheetah print is superimposed over skin, alluding to the animalistic stereotypes of black sexuality. At the same time, Beyoncé is dancing between what could either be stripper poles or bars on a cage or jail cell. The double meanings here all collude with the lyrics: “I just wanna be the girl you like / The girl you like is right here WITH me” (emphasis mine). She is not saying she IS the girl the viewer likes, but rather the girl you/we like is a role that she’s forced to play because black female sexuality has been cut into many parts/stereotypes. She is not incorporating that “girl you like” into her identity; rather she is putting it on like a costume because she knows that is the role she will be forced to play in order to be seen as having her own subjectivity.
In Sister Citizen, Melissa Harris-Perry describes the struggle black women face in modern society as akin to standing in a crooked room. She says, “When they confront race and gender stereotypes, black women are standing in a crooked room, and they have to figure out which was is up. Bombarded with warped images of their humanity, some black women tilt and bend themselves to fit the distortion.” After all, she adds, “It can be hard to stand straight in a crooked room.” “Partition” is Beyoncé performing the attempt to orient herself in the crooked room, albeit to no avail. At the end of the video, after the elaborate striptease fantasy in order to get her companion’s attention, and despite the provocative (lack of) clothing she has on, they still pay no attention to her. She then takes one more sip of tea and we switch to the linked second possibility, which emphasizes changing the crooked room she stands in versus changing herself.
Enter Act II: “Jealous.” After doing her damndest in “Partition” to figure out how to get noticed, she puts on her glasses and storms away from the table. Over the course of the next video, we see Beyoncé exhibit stereotypically negative emotions like jealousy and anger over the fact that she is stood up for the dinner she cooked. These emotions also powerfully play roles in songs like “Resentment” and “Why Don’t You Love Me?;” which, taken together with “Jealous” show the audience what I call Beyoncé’s politics of resentment – seemingly negative emotions which prove perfect for politics (as of course Audre Lorde has famously shown in “The Uses of Anger” or bell hooks in “Killing Rage”), because they critique a situation or a reality instead of accepting it without question. These two songs exhibit two alternate realities or possibilities to a specific situation: either the black female body sexualizes itself, or we might say allows itself to be sexualized by society as it so often is anyway as in “Partition” (i.e. Beyoncé tilts to stand in Harris-Perry’s crooked room), or the black female body gets angry and expresses it, further playing into the angry black female stereotype also so prevalent in society. One changes the position of standing, one changes the orientation of the room. But, sadly, as Nina Simone famously sang, “Either way I lose…”
However, the point of these songs/videos is to critique rather than to hopelessly wallow in the plight of the black female body. In “Jealous,” rather than remaining the object of male affection/attention – or any affection/attention for that matter – she decides to “take it one step further” and become an active subject in search of her own pleasure/enjoyment/fun/etc. Although, going out in public proves to also warrant unwanted attention, as evidenced by the focus on the reactions of others as she walks down the sidewalk. So, where attention was asked for by being sexual in “Partition,” it was not given in private. And where she attempts to avoid attention in public, it is given in spades. A double-bind. She seems to be trapped, but that is just the position from which she puts forth her most powerful critique.
While owning up to her own jealousies, she also flips the direction of the emotion and attempts to proudly make the man jealous of her: “I love making you jealous but don’t judge me / I know I’m being hateful but that ain’t nothin.” To be forthright about these negative attributes, she attempts to reframe the power dynamic – not into a one over the other/vice versa relationship, but into a formulation that exposes power as a negative aspect of human nature overall. “I’m just jealous / I’m just human / Don’t judge me.” And if you do judge her for this, you are in effect judging the entire system that posits jealousy as a response to the need for attention, which is created by the unequal gender dynamic and the devaluing of the black female body that started us on this whole journey back at the dinner table at the outset of these videos.
What these two videos together show, is that black women have their hands tied, as always. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t. Over-sexualized; or angry, hateful, and detached. Both sides of this argument seek to dismiss any political complaint that comes from black women, any complaint about the role that black women play in the public imagination. These songs/videos can be written off as simply being about interpersonal relationships, but I think that is a huge mistake. They should be seen as raising much larger questions about how black women are perceived and treated in society.
Moreover, reducing “Partition” to a song about sex-positivity and empowerment completely erases the complicated relationship black women have had with sexuality throughout history, as well as with feminism. To read Beyoncé as just a sex-positive feminist is to erase the history of torture, assault, and trauma that black women’s bodies have been subjected to. So, for “Partition” to be just sex-positive is almost to claim Beyoncé’s own complicity in the mistreatment and intense abuse of the black female body. It is not that simple. Sex-positivity itself comes with privilege. And here, Beyoncé sheds light on that privilege. The black female body has been the site of both excruciatingly negative and painful things in U.S. history, and also the site of pleasure, resistance, and positivity. So how do we blend those contradictions? What is the black female body to do? Beyoncé herself speaks to these contradictions – and to the almost impossibility of being a black women and also seen as a human being given the racist and heterosexist society we live in: she says, “Sometimes I wanna walk in your shoes / Do the type of things that I never ever do / So I take one look in the mirror and I say to myself / Baby girl you can’t survive like this.” Knowing what she knows, she understands that a wish for power and to stand in the shoes of those that hold power would amount to nothing. But black women have had to survive in these situations for centuries. And they continue to do so. And that’s what these songs/videos illustrate. And that’s why they are complex, deep, important, necessary, and perhaps most of all, political.