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Beyoncé course debuts this fall at University of Waterloo

06/12/2015 03:02 EDT | Updated 06/12/2016 05:59 EDT
About 11 minutes into Beyoncé's performance 2014 MTV Video Music Awards, she rolled across the stage alone on moving sidewalk, backlit by a giant array of lights spelling out the word "FEMINIST" while part of her hit, Flawless played.

Her unequivocal statement had feminists cheering. Arguably the most influential woman in entertainment was telling the world that being a feminist was great, that it wasn't a dirty word.  "There it was, the most powerful, and certainly the most highly polished pop-culture message of my lifetime," wrote Rebecca Traister for The New Republic.

Now, that performance and Beyoncé's cultural influence —  some might even say domination —  are the subjects of an unusual new course called Gender and Performance at the University of Waterloo. 

"I had to take up the work of this performer who is astute, an astute businesswoman, who is articulating a kind of feminism that is fascinating and very much of the 21st century and is definitely a mainstream feminism," said Naila Keleta-Mae, a professor at Waterloo who will teach the course this fall. "I was really interested in thinking about her work more critically."

"This is not an ode to Beyoncé, where we sit back and watch her videos and think about fully how amazing she is. What we have to think about is her influence and her impact, and what is the messaging that she is articulating, not only through words, but also through images," said Keleta-Mae. 

The undergraduate course will be offered by the university's drama and speech communication department, and has no prerequisite, so anyone can sign up. It will focus on the impact of Beyoncé's eponymous 2013 album, Beyoncé. But students shouldn't expect the course to be a hit parade or that the performer won't come under critical scrutiny.

In the track Flawless, Beyoncé included a portion of Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TEDx talk titled, "We should all be feminists." 

"We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, 'You can have ambition, but not too much. You can aim to be successful, but not too successful, otherwise you will threaten the man,'" said Ngozi Adichie during her talk. Those words were playing as Beyoncé slid across the stage at the VMAs. 

"That was the first time that Beyoncé had explicitly taken up this feminism in this particular way," said Keleta-Mae of the track. But that doesn't mean the track is without problems, according Kaleta-Mae, who notes the chorus has the singer repeating "Bow down bitches, bow, bow down bitches." 

"It's this maddening juxtaposition between, we should all be feminists and we should all be equal, simultaneously this hierarchical call that she is better than everyone else and we should bow down and supplicate to Queen Beyoncé ," said Keleta-Mae. 

And the feminist theme doesn't cancel out other problematic messages on the same album, she says.  For example Jay-Z's line, "Eat the cake, Anna Mae" in Drunk in Love references a scene from the Tina Turner biopic, where abusive husband Ike shoves cake in her face in a diner. 

"That song has millions of views on Vevo and is performed and known and folks know all of the lyrics off by heart," said Kalete-Mae.  "And it has this incredibly violent and problematic and difficult moment."

Registration is now open for Waterloo students and the class will begin in September. 

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