When Beyoncé shut down the Internet with her self titled visual album last week, her already deified status seemed to cemented. It was an undeniably baller move, and the fact that her marketing team was agile enough to adapt to the new demands of music consumers is a testament to the team that Beyoncé built. But there’s one team member who I’m finding it hard to get behind, and that’s photographer Terry Richardson, who directed the music video for “XO.”
In terms of Richardson-directed fare (see: “Wrecking Ball,” or any of his fashion shoots), it’s pretty tame. In fact, the video is basically adorable–Bey frolics around Coney Island dancing, laughing, and hanging out. Her smile is completely infectious and it’s probably one of the least sexually explicit videos in the bunch. Unfortunately, as much as I like the song and the video, I’m having trouble getting past the decision to hire Richardson.
Richardson is a bad guy. At the very least, he sexually harasses the women he works with, and uses his implicit power as a successful photographer who can jumpstart careers to coerce them into sexual experiences. Our own Jamie Peck wrote about her experience modeling for Richardson, and it’s clear from that account alone that he abuses his power for sexual gain. But as we’ve seen time and time again, we ignore harassment, abuse, and rape in cases involving artists, as if they’re protected by some creative shield, deflecting responsibility for their actions. In an album that’s overwhelmingly heralded as a feminist victory–Refinery 29 called it the Feminist Album of 2013–how can we reconcile the cognitive dissonance of hiring an actual oppressor of women?
Sure, you could say that endorsement of a person’s art isn’t endorsement of the person himself, but that sounds like a cop out. In today’s world of personal branding, any creative type is his or her work, and you can’t separate Terry Richardson’s photos and videos from Terry Richardson. What’s amazing is that Richardson is not inordinately talented, but instead sells himself as a personality. When someone hires Richardson, they hire the entire brand, sexual harassment and all. It’s become part of his pseudo-artistic creep appeal.
In the days following her album release, there’s been a lot of conversation about whether or not Beyoncé qualifies as a feminist because of her representation of sexuality, wealth, materialism, and bravado. I think these conversations are inherently flawed because they don’t take issues of intersectionality into account, and are reflective of a type of feminism drawn with strict parameters and based on a limited world view. Beyoncé is a feminist icon, but I think that means we shouldn’t be afraid to criticize her. In fact, it’s vital that we are able to criticize highly visible, even deified feminists and to constantly analyze the messages within the feminist movement.
Beyoncé should not have hired Richardson. It takes away from the message of empowerment that she so effectively spreads, and endorses a man who has made his career crossing lines (running right past them, really). Richardson continues to make his living because we allow him to–musicians, magazines, record labels, and creative agencies keep hiring him. Working with Richardson was a blunder for Beyoncé, and proves that she’s not infallible–she’s a person who sometimes get things very wrong.