The song as a whole can be dissected and critiqued/praised in a number of different ways, and it is much more complicated and nuanced than my focus on this one line that I find so powerful. Some people dislike Beyoncé’s choice to chant “Bow down, bitches” in the first half of the song, in what sounds like a slur against women attempting to compete with Beyoncé. Some people praise her for sampling snippets of a Ted Talk titled “We Should All Be Feminists” by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that herald feminism and call out gendered double standards in the world (full speech can be seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hg3umXU_qWc). It is precisely this unlikely juxtaposition from which I would claim that “bitches” in Beyoncé’s lyrics does not refer to women as a whole, but an entirely different group of people (one that however, sometimes grows to include some women): the privileged classes, the white heterosexual men who run things. And no, reclaiming or redirecting a word that has been built around hate and discrimination and violence does not solve the problem, but at least it makes the problem a little more interesting and complex.
When Beyoncé addresses the songs to the “ladies” to “tell them we woke up like this,” I also think she is doing much more than just speaking to women. Throughout Beyoncé’s music and videos she has complicated the notion of strictly defined gender categories. I have talked about this in other places at more length so I won’t reiterate everything. But take as examples, the song “Freakum Dress” announcing “All my girls are so real” as Beyoncé is accompanied by drag queens and/or transgender women; her alter-ego Sasha Fierce, who is constructed by Beyoncé herself with heavy reliance on drag tropes; or the gender confusion and outcry by the public on the internet over whether the “Single Ladies” dancers were biologically female – to which I have argued the make-up and lighting intentionally confused the gender of the dancers and Beyoncé herself, mixing aspects of femininity and masculinity in the same bodies. In Beyoncé’s music and videos over the years, we can see a feminist, queer, and even posthuman formulation of bodies emerge. So when Beyoncé calls out “ladies” or “girls” as a category in any of her music, I defer to the confused categories she has created throughout her catalog in order to provide more room for people to self-define within those categories; as well as for the categories themselves to be opened up, expanded, and pushed against by those bodies that go against normative conceptions in some regard.
This reading of “ladies” and the idea of “I woke up like this” as a revolutionary call to arms are strengthened through the video for “***Flawless,” which features Beyoncé variously in what appear to be a dingy cement-walled basement and a back-alley surrounded by young, mostly androgynous people of different races. The style of the video is heavily influenced by punk rock, which itself evokes violence and anarchy. The dancing in the video is largely violent – appearing to be mostly a mosh-pit with bodies slamming into each other, both discordant and harmonious. These people are not hurting each other; they are joining together as a collective via a hard-edged dance that exhibits their politics and their resistance to the status quo. Gasoline trashcan fires burn throughout the video, evoking homeless populations – those who are turned away from society for different reasons and have to forge their own way. The celebration of these images in the video and song celebrate those who find alternate ways of defining themselves and making sense of the world around them versus following a normative path blindly.
With this background, “I woke up like this” begins to serve as a fuck you to the system. It is a refusal to play by the world’s rules and to rely on your own self-definition. The claim to have woken “up like this” is a much more forceful iteration of Lady Gaga’s trite completely overblown “Born This Way.” Some of us wake up fearing the world for various reasons – we don’t feel safe because of our gender, our skin color, our sexuality, our gender presentation or identity, so to roll out of bed saying “I woke up like this/ I’m flawless” is an emancipatory statement indeed. Other campaigns have sought to reach out to youth that felt different for whatever reason and tell them, “It gets better.” But that is a false, although well-intentioned, statement: it does not get better for everyone and in all places. And sometimes it gets worse before it gets better. To wake up just as you are, and to liberate yourself through this chant is to live and survive in the present moment, rather than defer your life to a possible future that may or may not be better than the present. It is a celebration.
“I woke up like this / I’m flawless.” Say it out loud. Scream it out loud. I hear a battle cry meeting fists in the air. I hear redemption songs in different languages. I hear the ground shake. I hear the echoes of Audre Lorde: “What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in your silence? Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am woman, because I am Black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself – a Black woman warrior poet doing my work – come to ask you, are you doing yours?” I hear June Jordan insisting “I am not wrong: Wrong is not my name / My name is my own my own my own / and I don’t know who the hell set things up like this / but I can tell you from now on my resistance / my simple and daily and nightly self-determination / may very well cost you your life.” And I woke up like this. We woke up like this. So now that we’re awake, what will/can we do?