The XX Factor

A Brief History of Beyonce’s Female Empowerment Anthems

One recent evening, I found myself arguing with a couple of male friends over when and why you call someone in her twenties a girl versus a woman. The discussion began because I poked light fun at their P.C. mode of speaking-never the “girl I’m interested in,” as I’m used to hearing, but always the “woman I’m seeing.” I found myself unexpectedly on the less enlightened side of things, admitting that, despite thinking of myself as very grown-up indeed, I always pause a beat when someone calls me a woman where I’d been conditioned to hear “girl”-superficially, I worry that I’ve aged past some sort of youthful glow, but more than that, I suppose, there are lots more expectations inherent in woman that can seem intimidating in an era of semi-sanctioned adultolescence .

I bring all of this up because Beyoncé has a new single Girls (Who Run the World). It’s fine, I guess, but my feelings on it, as a longtime Beyoncé  enthusiast,  are a little something like these guys’ : disappointed, though I’m sure it’ll grow on me. It’s clearly meant to be anthemic, the latest in the line of her songs you’ll search for on your iPod on mornings when you need a little extra swagger. But mentally cataloging it there made me realize that Beyoncé’s most ubiquitous female empowerment anthems (stretching back to her Destiny’s Child days) have gone from featuring  independent women to  single ladies to the current girls running the world. Running the world is no doubt a step up from merely buying one’s own shoes and kickin’ it with Lucy Liu (and my girl Drew), but somehow that  girls in the chorus undercuts it a little. It’s a word choice that femmes up a sentiment which might otherwise scan as a tad too strident for the radio. I’ve got no problem with that-gotta sell some records! Gotta make it catchy!-but still, I’m not sure lyrical pigtails are so flattering for Beyonce. As the fine gentlemen on the  Skorpion Show put it, between the chorus and the schoolyard stomp, “You know who can have this song? Willow Smith.”

It’s true that  fierce tweens like Smith and Rye-Rye seem to be huge  these days , so maybe Beyoncé, 29, is making a craven commercial nod to capturing their brand of energy. Or maybe she’s pointing out that in the entertainment industry, it is in fact very young women, more toward the girl end of the spectrum, who rule the world (OK, that’s a big stretch, but she’s played with gender and expectations in  all kinds of  complicated and interesting ways before!). Or maybe, like me, she’s referred to as a girl so often that it doesn’t occur to her the word might ever be the slightest bit jarring.

But hey, if the music video is fabulous enough, I might decide to forget this quibble.

Photograph of Beyonce by Ronald Martinez for Getty Images.