This brings us back to Beyoncé. Because I think that it’s in the video, and the dance, that the clearest expression of this song’s meaning can be found. There are three basic sections here, not counting the ripped-from-The-Postman introduction. The first, lasting right about up to the first appearance of the pre-chorus at 2:07, has Beyoncé dressed in costumes that are primarily weird, doing dance steps that are primarily aggressive. Check out that shoulder thing she does right at the beginning: where’s the sex appeal there? I mean, it’s not altogether absent. Beyoncé remains Beyoncé — if she wanted to avoid appealing to the male prurient interest, her costuming department would have to try a little harder. But it’s pretty severely attenuated. Beyond that, a lot of the choreography in this section involves what are called “isolations,” where you move one body part while keeping the rest stationary or vise-versa. It’s my understanding from talking to people who really do know how to dance that these are kind of like magic tricks — once you have the knack of it, it’s not really all that hard. But the fact remains that to the uninitiated, these do seem magical: the mastery and control aspect of the dance, never entirely absent, is here the absolute point. Towards the end of this section, things get a little more sexual (as she crawls around on the ground), but never exclusively so.
The second section, which lasts up to about 3:33, is all about sex. Beyoncé’s ditched her Mad Max outfits for a slinky dress, she spends a lot of time on all fours, and even more shaking her pelvis. It’s nothing like as excessive as the belly dance routine from “Baby Boy” (incidentally her last major foray into the world of dancehall, from what I recall), but it’s aimed in that direction.
The final section seems to want to have it both ways. Beyoncé’s dress is if anything slinkier, and that slash across the cleavage probably required a fair amount of double sided tape. The choreography, though, has all these powerful looking stomping motions… she’s dressed sexy, but she’s not necessarily dancing sexy. It could be argued, just maybe, that this is going for the both/and interpretation I suggested for the lyrics…
Until, that is, you consider the men’s reaction. If they started dancing along, like the two male backup dancers in the first segment, that would mean one thing. If they broke ranks and ran screaming for the hills, pursued by Beyoncé’s attack hyenas, that would mean another thing. What they actually do, though, is stare in turgid fascination. And that pretty severely undercuts the notion that the women in Beyoncé’s army are meant to serve as anything other than objects for male fascination. At best, we could say that the song (and the video) suggest that women can do things like go to college, make lots of money and run a post-apocalyptic paramilitary group without losing their inherent hawtness. That is a good message, probably, as far as it goes. I’m all for shifting the standard of female attractiveness away from the June Cleaver model. But it’s understandably upsetting to people who would prefer a song where women could be awesome without being hawt. The ordering of the dance segments here doesn’t allow that. Think what it would have been like if she started dressed sexy and dancing sexy, then changed to the more confrontational choreography, and then traded in the sexy dress for something weird and arty! But that’s not what we get to actually see, and that’s not what the song is really about. Let’s not forget that all of the women in the video, bar none, are totally gorgeous. And although that has less to do with the song itself than the culture in which music videos are made, well, like I said the culture in which art is made contributes heavily to its meaning.