Written by Jourdain Searles

It’s been over a year since the release of Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade, and it still brings me to tears. Upon first viewing, I had to the stop the film twice to cry. I watched Lemonade overflowing with emotion, a thought repeating in my mind: This feels like home. Several times I reached out to touch the screen, trying to transport myself into the film. I wanted to be a part of it; I wanted to be a part of this beautiful art that awakened my soul. My heart was open for Lemonade, and love only. Any opposition to that was just white noise to me.

Now, a year later, after countless thinkpieces, awards, snubs, twitter threads and arguments, my love for Lemonade has never wavered. I love Lemonade without the burden of caring whether or not everyone in the entire world understands its significance or even likes it. The truth of the matter is that Lemonade was meant to portray a specific experience—one that is unapologetically black, femme and Southern. That last descriptor, Southern, is where my heart lives. The Southern identity has never fully belonged to black people, but is as black as can be. Country music has been whitewashed through time, the portrayals of the South in media are overwhelmingly white-focused and the legacy of black cowboys has been ignored. Perhaps most criminal is the erasure of Southern black women and their legacy as pillars of black American culture.

Lemonade joins the tradition of films like The Color Purple, Daughters of the Dust, Eve’s Bayou and Mississippi Damned and more recent media like Greenleaf and Queen Sugar that have brought black women to the center of Southern stories.

Much of the conversation around Lemonade has been focused on the real life implications of the work. While I understand that given the countless personal images embedded in the film and real-life sources to the lyrics, I believe there’s deeper themes worth unpacking. Divorced from the external narrative, the music and the visuals tell a complete story that is much more than airing grievances and settling domestic disputes.

In many ways, Lemonade follows a classic narrative structure by using chapters that help us track the trajectory of the narrative. The chapters are: Intuition, Denial, Anger, Apathy, Emptiness, Accountability, Reformation, Forgiveness, Resurrection, Hope, and Redemption. The chapters are punctuated by the songs of the album, and they  further express the emotion conveyed in the imagery and poetry, adding rhythm and vocals so that you don’t just hear or see the words, you feel them.

With all its elements working together, Lemonade tells a story of a woman wrestling with who she was and who she wants to be. She wants to save her marriage, but she’s not sure if it’s worth saving. She wants to be a happier, fully-realized human being but compromising herself has become second nature. She wants to break free from an emotional prison that feeds into her inaction. Throughout this narrative, Beyoncé plays with identity and what’s most striking is the way she merges female tradition with more contemporary notions of female empowerment.

There has been much criticism of Beyoncé’s feminism. Author and noted feminist Chimamanda Adichie has said “her type of feminism is not mine, as it is the kind that, at the same time, gives quite a lot of space to the necessity of men”. This is a common criticism, but I think it ignores Beyonce’s circumstances. She has been with the same man since at least 2003, and maybe even before that. It makes sense that she would write music within that context. Furthermore, I see use in feminism that appeals to married women who found feminism after finding love and are trying to reconcile the two. Adichie’s criticism echoes many very baseline feminist critiques of Beyonce that use her femininity, sexuality and commitment to her husband as proof Beyonce isn’t “feminist enough”. While I do believe there are many things to criticize Beyoncé for, I don’t find those takes particularly useful. They tend to strike me as intellectually dishonest; moving the goalposts to keep Beyoncé out of feminist discussions.

Specifically, in regards to Lemonade, Beyoncé has been criticized for glorifying the pain of black womanhood and staying in bad relationships, which I find to be a very simplistic read of the material. I do not find Lemonade to be glorification of pain. Additionally, I do not find Beyoncé’s choice to stay with her husband, in regards to the film and in real life, to be at odds with feminism.

Sometimes we find ourselves framing certain fates as inherently oppressive simply because they align with traditional gender norms. This is a mistake simply because it creates a very narrow definition of what a feminist is. Early feminist images like women wearing pants, working and voting were radical because they were a new and direct way of challenging norms. Now, as feminism has moved forward, we have learned that what a feminist looks like is much more fluid. In 2017, it shouldn’t be controversial to posit that a housewife can be a feminist — if a woman should be able to choose her fate, choosing to stay home and take care of her home and children should be acceptable.

There is this assumption that if Beyoncé was a “real feminist” her message would be one of liberation from marriage and men and any pain that men may cause her. That imposes a very cut-and-dry image of liberation onto her. That reading of feminism to be simplistic and the sort of primer message a younger Beyoncé made when she was with Destiny’s Child. Destiny Child’s beloved discography boasted the image of the “independent woman” that can easily be translated into a Feminism Starter Kit.

Beyoncé’s journey now, navigating feminism as a wife and mother, has much more richness and complexity than it has gotten credit for. Lemonade, in many ways, chronicles the transformation of femininity as a prison to femininity as liberation. In the end, Beyoncé emerges, having communed with all the intersections that make her who she is. As she searched through her blackness, her Southern roots, family ties and her womanhood, Beyoncé finds her path.