Why Beyoncé’s Feminist Performance Won the VMAs

Beyoncé brought feminism to the VMAs last night. Actually, she literally brought the word “feminist,” and ended up giving one of the most memorable, game-changing VMA performances of all time.

Before receiving the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award for her incredible career, Bey put on an almost 20-minute performance that completely shut down the house (and any outstanding “Is she really a feminist?” queries). It was a statement that spoke not only to the fearlessness of the performer, but a shift in the music industry itself.

Think about it: Last year’s most-discussed (and most-baffling) VMAs performance featured Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus grinding and twerking and licking. It raised questions about the VMAs history of objectifying women and about how far the show would go to create controversy. This year, Beyoncé’s performance, was far more assured with far fewer gimmicks. It was accompanied by a message of empowerment, proving how much could change in a year (the world saw this change and responded almost immediately). There were no crazy outfit changes, or any question as to who was boss of the stage. The medley of songs from her latest album was pure Beyoncé—powerful, smart, unapologetically sexy, and determined to get her message (or, actually, several messages) across.

All things considered, Mrs. Carter is a pretty private mega celebrity, but she does address rumors and public drama via her music. When she dropped her self-titled album last year, it was lyrically and visually, in part, a response to criticism about her “lack” of feminism. In the album, Beyoncé showed us that a feminist can enjoy sex, respect her husband, lovingly mother her child, and still be a professional lady-boss who supports equality of the genders. In arguably the most powerful image from her performance last night, Beyoncé stands silhouetted by the label “FEMINIST” behind her (just in case anyone still needed clarification).

The image came two-thirds of the way into her performance, when a voice-over reciting the TED talk of author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie momentarily halted the action.

“We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings the way that boys are. We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls ‘You can have ambition, but not too much.’ You should aim to be successful, but not too successful, otherwise you will threaten the man,” said the voice-over, accompanied by words from the talk on a large screen. And then: “Feminist. The person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.” Boom.

A wind-blown Bey standing triumphantly before one powerful word. Cue this:

It was a moment we won’t soon forget. 

The question of her feminism—and the definition of feminism— wasn’t the only thing Beyoncé addressed. In case you missed the remixed version of ***Flawless (feat. Nicki Minaj) a couple weeks ago, she included the most important line for you last night: “Sometimes sh*t go down when there’s a billion dollars on an elevator,” which addressed that now-infamous elevator fight between her husband and sister. She also put divorce rumors to rest when she accepted her award from Jay-Z (“My beloved, I love you”). Simply put, Bey doesn’t need to release public statements. She addresses things when she wants to address them.

As empowering and entertaining as the performance was, the real magic of Bey was her conviction. You never question for a second whether she’s feeling what she’s singing. Last night’s performance somehow felt extra emotional, possibly because her daughter was in the audience and then (adorably, sweetly) on stage. Bey shed a tear more than once, and when the song Blue started, I was a mess. And if you missed one of the best moments of the night—Blue Ivy doing ‘Flawless’ hands while watching mom on stage—Vine preserved the precious moment for posterity.

The reaction to Beyoncé’s epic performance was also felt hard on Twitter. As Buzzfeed put it, “the Internet just died. . .” Really, people were gasping for breath, they were so moved by the whole thing:

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