Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Female Self-Actualization as Performance in the “Little Girls Going Hard on ‘Single Ladies’” Video

The recently posted YouTube video featuring five young girls performing a provocative dance routine to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” has generated scads of criticism in online communities of all types. Besides tsk-tsking at the girls’ scanty outfits, their sexualized dance moves, and the obvious moral bankruptcy of their parents, columnists have repeatedly pointed out that this video is great fodder for sexual predators of children. On a more personal level, blogging mommies around the world have taken this opportunity to assure readers that they would never allow their little girls to wear these kinds of outfits or to perform these types of dance moves. As a mother of a seven-year-old daughter who, although she has never taken a dance class in her life and despite the protestations of her feminist mother, has been known to “dress up” in just a scarf draped provocatively around her body and perform what many would consider inappropriate moves in our family room to pop songs on the stereo, I have to say that most of the online postings concerning this video seem to me a bit self-righteous and overly moralistic. Many who are discussing this video elide the very real issues that it raises about how our culture teaches young girls that not only female sexuality but also female self-actualization as a whole is merely a performance as well as a commodity available for purchase by men.

Certainly, the outfits that the girls in the video are wearing are outrageous, and, of course, their moves are inappropriate for seven-, eight-, and nine-year-olds. But it goes much deeper than simply pronouncing the girls’ parents irresponsible and scaring up hoards of web-based pedophiles. We must examine what this video shows us regarding the lessons that we teach our girls about what it means to be a woman in our culture.

And I think that it makes sense to start with an interrogation of the song chosen for this routine, Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.” Although the title of the song insinuates that the song might celebrate the freedom of single living or the bonds between single women, the narrator of the 12-stanza song addresses other women in only two stanzas, and even at that, only to encourage “all the single ladies” to “put your hands up.” The rest of the lyrics are directed at the narrator’s ex-boyfriend and provide a details regarding the attention that the narrator seeks and secures from other men in the club: “I got gloss on my lips, a man on my hips / Got me tighter in my Dereon jeans / Acting up, drink in my cup / I can care less what you think.” The song goes on to admonish the ex-boyfriend for his apparent unwillingness to enter into a committed relationship, with the repetition of the line, “If you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it.” Not only do the lyrics thus posit women as objects instead of people and reiterate the stereotype of women as always out to entrap men in marriage, but they also portray the typical “ladies’ night out” not as a celebration of womanhood or an opportunity to forge bonds between women but instead as a performance of female sexuality for male observers, both real and imagined. Indeed, the song insinuates that women in clubs move their bodies in certain ways on the dance floor in order to attract men and thus prove their value as commodities. Women in bars do not seek the pleasure of dancing, drinking, flirting or even sex on the basis of its own merit but instead perform pleasure in these various ways in order to increase their value among men.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this song—and various other popular songs like it—is that it masquerades as a celebration of female self-actualization. The narrator is going out on the town after a break-up; she will not let a man keep her down. She seems independent and self-confident in lines like, “I’m doing my own little thing” and “I need no permission, did I mention.” In reality, though, the speaker’s activities at the bar both conceal and reveal her overarching need for male attention and approval. She goes on to emphasize that many men are noticing her and that therefore her ex-boyfriend should have realized her value before their break-up: “Decided to dip and now you wanna trip / Cause another brother noticed me.” She therefore merely performs confidence, self-expression, and happiness in order to prove her value to her ex.

This interpretation of the song is significant in the context of the video for a few reasons. First of all, it compounds the ways in which these little girls are, in fact, performing an adult version of sexuality that they cannot possibly understand. As psychologist Leonard Sax points out in his compelling analysis of the video, “Underage girls dancing in lingerie, . . . are sexually objectifying themselves, putting their bodies on display for the entertainment and titillation of others. That kind of activity teaches girls that sexuality is a commodity which girls provide to boys” (par. 8). Surely, the choice of song for this routine reiterates to both the girls dancing and viewers of the performance that women’s bodies are up for grabs on the market of exchange between men. But, in that it positions female self-actualization as performance as well, it also undermines the ways in which these girls’ routine might be said to represent a meaningful expression of their love of dance or their understanding of themselves as talented dancers or, more generally, valuable human beings. Indeed, the lyrics of the song suggest that the girls must perform in this way with the end goal that men “like it” enough to “put a ring on it.”

Finally, the lyrics of “Single Ladies” are relevant here because of the defense that the five girls’ parents have proffered up against the attacks of the mainstream media and blogosphere. On television’s Inside Edition, two of the parents protested that critics of the video are taking the girls’ performance out of context, that the dance routine was actually developed using the moves performed to “Single Ladies” by the animated characters of Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel. This assertion simply proves my point, that the harmful antifeminist ideology that undergirds both this video and the song itself is widespread and—the response to this particularly inflammatory video aside—widely accepted among even the most “progressive” of parents. My daughter watched The Squeakquel at her dad’s house several months ago; it never occurred to me at the time to wonder about the underlying messages that a seemingly harmless dance sequence in the movie might send to young girls.

This problem affects not just the five girls who performed “Single Ladies” in the video, but all of our young daughters. And the responsibility for combating a dominant ideology that posits female sexuality as commodity and female self-actualization as performance rests not just with these five sets of parents, but with all of us.

Works Cited

Sax, Leonard. “Underage Girls Dancing Onstage in Lingerie.” [Weblog Entry.] Sax on Sex. Psychology Today. 16 May 2010. (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sax-sex/201005/underage-girls-dancing-onstage-in-lingerie). 16 May 2010.


  1. The song's misogynistic undertones are apparently not lost on the Christian right. I saw this on a billboard on the way to Tennessee a couple of weeks ago:
    If he loved you that much he'd put a ring on it.
    This ad was sponsored by www.justwait.com. And I feel that it proves my point that this song is much more about containing female sexuality--and self-actualization--than it is about expressing these.

  2. Nice blog Andrea! I really hate that song though very repetitive an annoying! - Nick your lil bro!