We’re thinking about the Face right now, of course, because of Queen B’s electricity-stealing show at the super bowl. But the question of Beyoncé’s Face, and what it might tell us about her and our relationship to her, goes back further, into a physical history that’s worth remembering at this moment of Bey’s transcendence.
As archivists of Beyoncé, we’re probably not the most qualified. Even so, there are a few things we’ve noticed. For instance, this early moment. The video for “Say My Name” features the Face more than the Hips—and the face is doing precisely what we want to talk about. Again and again, it strikes a fierce expression and then slips into amusement just as the camera cuts away.
The thing about this video is that it doesn’t quite work. The fierceness is forced, and when the hips show up they’re not doing anything terribly special. She’s a little stiff and stompy, bless her heart. She is beautiful, but she is not the embodiment of “natural” physical genius she now appears to be. And this reminds us of a key fact about Beyoncé, one that interests us. What we see when we compare “Call My Name” to, for example, “Single Ladies,” is not the “natural” gifts of a performer, but rather someone who has, with both her hips and her face, practiced.
If you have not watched “Single Ladies” recently, it’s worth pausing to do so, because Kanye was right when he said it changed everything. It is perfect: Fosse’s wrists and the dancehall hips seamlessly blended choreographically to call attention to these two key body parts and their functioning in the marital (hands) and sexual (hips) economy of romance (a student once wrote an essay aligning this video with Harriet Jacobs and the slave narrative’s ambivalent relation to marriage: the video has things to say about that embodied history, too). The dancing is also self-consciously performed, which is to say: practiced, and staged as something that has been practiced. Whereas many music videos take place in some sort of “real” setting, crafting the musical-like illusion that dancing emerges spontaneously from the performer’s ability and emotion, “Single Ladies” is a recital, complete with leotards and a studio space. The camera’s attention, almost throughout, is on the three women’s bodies together and the way their movement fills the space and claims it. We’re all here to watch the show. But we also–and this is key–are invited to learn the moves.
And the end, the key final moment of the video, is the Face. Here we see her most astounding accomplishment of practice, a masterclass of facial control. Watch the last ten seconds: the zoom in from the three dancers to Beyoncé’s face, hand beside it; her smoldering and dominating invitation of a stare; her panting breath; the stir of her mechanical fingers; the collapse of her powerful gaze into her equally alluring, almost giggling girlish smile; her bashful look away.
Why end the video featuring the Beyoncé behind the curtain, this “real” Beyoncé after the show, with her alter ego Sasha Fierce’s power shifted, if not let go? Over the years, this is the moment of the video that we’ve puzzled over the most. It too is clearly a performance—one she repeats frequently in the super bowl show—though a performance of spontaneity and exposure.
This performed self-revelation seems to have a lot to do with how Beyoncé has learned to carry her own power: as a successful performer, as a tremendously beautiful woman, as a woman at all. And perhaps this is why women respond to her with our own collective fierceness. Maybe this is the trick we want to know. Beyoncé’s Face—not just as a beautiful physical thing she has, but as a specific series of expressions she has practiced how to make—returns us to our favorite question, the question of having it all. What does it mean to be a woman, standing alone, on a masculinized stage (the super bowl here literalizing a display of a male physical privilege that’s generally true about the world) and to seize a male power of prowess as a woman, with all the deeply socialized contradictions in doing so?
For a long time the Face troubled us, with its seeming disavowal of the self-worth it had just been singing about. But today we’re looking at it differently. Being a powerful woman, hips and hands, makes you fierce. It also makes you laugh. It’s something you practice. You get better at it, or worse, or you do something else. The Face, with both its power and its pleased surprise at its own power, seems to point towards both the absurdity and the sheer joyfulness possible in the strange compromises women practice how to make, always and again, never fully reconciled, never perfected—but often, and at best together, with our own fierce, silly hips, on a dance floor.