Josephine Baker and Beyoncé Knowles: Feminist Divas Fighting for Sexual Equality

by Emma Anderson on April 28, 2015

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“We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are. Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.” – “We Should All Be Feminists” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, featured in “Flawless” by Beyoncé Knowles

There she was – twerking on stage wearing nothing but a skirt of phallic shaped bananas. Josephine Baker, the banana dance girl. In Josephine Baker’s performances, it is clear how her 1920s jazz dancing style (along with musical characteristics) translate into a present day hip-hop style. Eighty years later, Beyoncé Knowles took the stage performing a tribute to Baker’s iconic banana dance. Generations apart, Josephine Baker and Beyoncé Knowles represent African American, feminist divas who use music and dance to validate women’s right to sexual expression.

Josephine Baker is recognized as the first female black superstar. Her career gained traction in America when she got the role as a chorus girl in Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake’s extremely popular Broadway production, Shuffle Along. However, she was frequently regarded as too small to be a chorus girl, so she moved to France at age nineteen to further explore her career.[1] The French loved La Josephine. Baker was the banana dance girl – the exotic, rhythmic, sexual, ebony goddess that mesmerized French audiences.

The banana dance, formally titled La Folie du Jour, was an immediate hit when Baker performed it for the first time in France. People flocked to the theaters to watch Baker “Shaking, shimmying, writhing like a snake, [and] contorting her torso.”[2] Baker used the bananas to represent “Phalluses [being] stimulated by female agency.” This was a very strong statement about her role as a successful female artist. She was embodying sexual, savage Africanisms that French audiences could not get enough of, while simultaneously emancipating herself from the control of the social system.

Knowles was also able to capture the imaginations of the French just like Baker. Knowles racked in over ten million dollars in 2014 from two nights of performing her “On the Run” tour with her husband, Jay-Z Carter at the French Capital. Her presence is so welcomed in France, that the couple has actually considered moving to Paris. As African American women, both Baker and Knowles found comfort in a foreign French land that was both accepting and in awe of these flawless sexual superstars.

Beyoncé Knowles embodies the dance style and passion of Josephine Baker regularly. In a 2006 interview, Knowles expressed how Baker influenced her as a performer. When performing:

I wanted to be more like Josephine Baker because she didn’t—she seemed like she was just possessed and it seemed like she just danced from her heart, and everything was so free. … This record sounds like a woman possessed.

The controversy that both Baker and Knowles have faced is whether being openly sexual and nearly naked on stage uplifts women’s rights or perpetuates women as sexual toys for men. Baker and Knowles manage to flaunt their pride in the female body with grace. The idea that female performers only express sexuality to please men overlooks sexual liberation as a major aspect of gender equality.

Through music, both Baker and Knowles found a feminist voice to liberate women’s right to sexual expression, along with sexual choice. In Baker’s, “Don’t Touch My Tomatoes,” she scolds a man who only wants to feel her up and has no sexual imagination. She sings “Mister, take advice from me/The more you look is the less you’ll see.” Baker empowers women to say no to pushy men who, in the long run, do not care about pleasing women as much as touching their “tomatoes.” All the while, she maintains a South American influenced, upbeat jazz tone, which appeals and entertains audiences. A great way Baker got audiences to listen to this social message was to mask it within a palatable song, so the message was engrained in the listeners’ minds before analyzing the true message. Knowles does this frequently. In Knowles 2013 song, “Partition,” she sample the lines “Men think that feminists hate sex, but it’s a very stimulating and natural activity that women love” from the French version of The Big Lebowski. She makes the point to include this phrase because it addresses a common misconception that feminist do not see sexuality as an aspect of equality.

Josephine Baker and Beyoncé Knowles have addressed a plethora of social, political and economic problems, through their music, dance, and lifestyle. As seen through their work, influential icons have the ability to start a much-needed conversation on the state of diversity and equality in our world.

  • [1] Dalton, C.C. and Henry Louis Gates. “Josephine Baker and Paul Colin.” Critical Inquiry. The University of Chicago Press, 1998.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jonathon Roberts April 30, 2015 at 11:20 pm

It is interesting to know that both of these artists have and had such a large amount of popularity in France. I was really interested in the fact that Baker was recognized in America, but her move to France would bring her an immense amount of popularity. I decided to watch a documentary, and it talked about how France became her adopted home country. Baker even learned the language. She was an extremely respected artist and considered one of the best in France.

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Brooke Eichenlaub April 30, 2015 at 8:08 pm

Wow, this was a really interesting article. I’ve never thought about how well Baker fits into the feminist context of today. I had no idea how far she took her sexuality; it seems like she was incredibly progressive for her time. I think it’s really interesting how many times European countries accept our more progressive members way before we do, and then later we regard these people as super stars. Great article!

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