MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
617,000. That's the record-shattering number of copies of her new album that Beyonce sold last weekend. She also made a video for every song and released the whole package online without advance notice. While the sales have made headlines, so too has a debate that's begun over the messages in the album. One key question is this, is Beyonce, the sexy pop goddess, also our most famous feminist? Here's NPR's Bilal Qureshi.
BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: Hours after Beyonce unleashed new songs and videos, filmmaker Tanya Steele watched her Twitter account explode.
TANYA STEELE: When I saw black feminists on Twitter just going crazy, I thought, wow, this - wow, she must really have done something.
QURESHI: So Steele downloaded what her colleagues were calling Beyonce's feminist manifesto.
STEELE: I saw her in pornographic poses. And it just - I couldn't understand what black feminists were looking at.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YONCE/PARTITION")
BEYONCE: (Singing) Take all of me. I just wanna be the girl you like.
QURESHI: Steele says for her, it was just another tired example of a woman grinding for men. Anna Holmes founded the women's site Jezebel.
ANNA HOLMES: We don't often see women in bodysuits writhing around on cars except when, I don't know, it's Maxim magazine. So it does feel like a performance for the benefit of men.
QURESHI: But Professor Brittney Cooper, who studies black feminism, says Beyonce's videos aren't degrading. Instead, she's empowering women of color.
BRITTNEY COOPER: I think it's risque. But I think she's asking us to think about what it means for black women to be sexual on our own terms.
QURESHI: Writer Samhita Mukhopadhyay agrees.
SAMHITA MUKHOPADHYAY: The album made us feel really sexy. And that's powerful, like, that means something, whereas the rest of popular culture may not have that impact on us as young women of color.
QURESHI: Reactions to Beyonce also reveal a generational divide between feminists. Again, Anna Holmes.
HOLMES: For women who are in their 20s and early 30s, her performance of her sexuality does not feel as kind of icky as it might to someone who's a little bit older and, dare I say, a little bit more conservative like me.
QURESHI: Over her 15-year career, Beyonce has always meshed sexy images with anthems of female empowerment.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUN THE WORLD - GIRLS")
BEYONCE: (Singer) Girls. Who run the world? Girls. Who run the world? Girls. Who run the world? Girls.
QURESHI: On her new album, she takes her feminism one step further. She samples a TED talk by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLAWLESS")
CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE: 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.
QURESHI: Kim Gandy has been involved in feminist politics since the 1970s.
KIM GANDY: I am so excited that millions and millions of people around the world are going to hear a TED talk that is entitled "We Should All Be Feminists." And they're going to hear that coming from someone that they love and trust, Beyonce.
QURESHI: And that's why activists like Samhita Mukhopadhyay are excited by this moment.
MUKHOPADHYAY: The majority of women that need feminism listen to Beyonce. They don't take women's studies classes.
QURESHI: And so, Beyonce's feminism exploded out of graduate seminars and onto social media, where arguments became instant, cutting and personal. Tanya Steele wrote an essay and she found herself at war.
STEELE: Now, there are, like, these women coming into the conversation who have never read anything about feminism and they will argue you down. So I have to take a deep breath and walk them through to perhaps a different way of thinking about the images because they're like, Beyonce, she's a grown woman. She has a husband. She can do what she wants with her body. And so it's like walking them back from that. And it's - it requires work. It requires a lot of work.
QURESHI: And then yesterday, the Internet had enough: hashtag #BeyonceThinkPieces began trending, a hilarious satire of all this deep thinking. But critic Alyssa Rosenberg says the conversation around Beyonce is important.
ALYSSA ROSENBERG: It makes me feel like feminist culture is a rich place right now, even if it's a contentious one.
QURESHI: Rosenberg says that in the same year that Sheryl Sandberg published "Lean In," a rallying cry for women's progress, Beyonce's album has launched an even more diverse conversation about the boundaries of feminism today.
ROSENBERG: "Lean In" and Beyonce are exciting not because they push feminism into popular culture but because they push feminism in feminists themselves.
QURESHI: And as for Beyonce...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GROWN WOMAN")
BEYONCE: (Singing) I'm a grown woman. I can do whatever I want.
QURESHI: Bilal Qureshi, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GROWN WOMAN")
BEYONCE: (Singing) I'm a grown woman. Yeah. I can do whatever I want. They love the way I walk 'cause I walk with a vengeance.