Recently, Beyoncé was given much props for demanding that H&M leave her body unaltered in photos promoting their new joint effort, Mrs. Carter in H&M. This is a pretty cool thing for Beyoncé to do – beauty standards and practices are out of control and harming people, and many powerful individuals keep silent about it when they have a platform to make a statement. Not long after her demand was made, H&M made a pledge to use only healthy models, acknowledging a past problem of employing underweight women to model their product. So, this is awesome! Good job, B. She stood up against a harmful system, and maybe changed it in some small way.
But Beyoncé’s political relationship with H&M goes deeper than photoshopping. When I searched “Beyoncé H&M” to relive the thrill of seeing her make a stand, I got links to an article about Beyoncé being criticized for even associating with the company. H&M, like a ton of companies, relies on sweatshops to manufacture their clothing. H&M in particular was accused of giving their business to factories with incredibly bad conditions, including child labor, sexual coercion of workers, beatings, low and missing wages.
Sweatshops are kind of a disappearing issue. I remember when I was in elementary school, I hated Nike because their shoes and clothes were produced in sweatshops. Now, I own a pair of green 2010 Hyperdunks. Because I realized, or maybe just absorbed, that EVERYONE uses sweatshops. Nike isn’t a special evil, it’s just one of thousands of evils we come in contact with every day, and it’s just silly to make a statement about Nike in particular. It’s unclear when sweatshops became okay, but only hippies and American Apparel care about them anymore. And fuck American Apparel, right?
Well, fuck sweatshops, too. I may be a fat lazy American, but I know they’re wrong. And just because the rest of us don’t think about little kids sewing their fingers together anymore, doesn’t mean we should give Beyoncé a pass for exhibiting the same apathy.
Beyoncé is a fucking goddess. I don’t just mean she’s fierce, or fucking great at her job, or beautiful, though she’s all of those. I mean she’s in a rarefied group of celebrities that I would qualify as literal dieties. She does not get to ignore the shitty behavior of corporations overseas; corporations are her PEERS. That’s why her demand to be shown natural wasn’t laughed off, why it prompted a real change in policy. She is aware of this fact, and if she isn’t, she should be.
Beyoncé is also one half of what is probably the world’s greatest power couple. Jay-fucking-Z constitutes the other. Their joint annual income is roughly 78 million dollars.
Being incredibly talented, the two stars make a nice living off their music and other creative endeavors. The both of them are also entrepreneurs, most notably Jay-Z. However, a really, really large amount of their money comes from endorsements, ad campaigns, and partnerships. In other words, from lending their celebrity, fanbase, and money to a third party they aren’t in control of.
Jay-Z has endorsed: Reebok, Carol’s Daughter, Anheiser-Busch, Hewlett-Packard, Armand de Brignac, Duracell, Bacardi.
Beyoncé’s endorsements include: Pepsi, L’Oreal, Nintendo, Tommy Hilfiger, Vizio.
As the two of them do this for a living, they most likely have looked into who they were doing business with. To be fair, any major company you associate with has got some shady shit under its belt. To be fair, this is really a function of capitalism, and exploitation of some kind is unavoidable. But this also means that they are aware of certain practices, and giving their tacit approval. This leaves celebrities with the enviable problem of having to decide between caring about the violent squashing of labor leaders abroad and making a shitload of money.
I don’t know the breakdowns here, how much comes from royalties and touring, how much from endorsements, but even if Bey and Jay stopped making money altogether, they would be living a life so comfortable I can’t even conceive of it. Regardless the difficulties of finding a truly upstanding and moral business to work with, Beyoncé can AFFORD to lose these ties. She can afford to be picky, to piss people off, to assert her morality fiercely and in a real way.
Criticism of Beyoncé is often argued over, because of her strange societal position. She’s an extremely visible black woman, meaning she’s subject to a shitload of undeserved negative attention and judgment. This bullshit is rightly dismissed. Women should be able to wear anything they want, do anything they want. Beyoncé has earned the right and the power to really demonstrate this and drive the point home. So it may seem unfair to single her out in this, another criticism that only comes because she’s one of like three black women with influence, but she is goddamn Beyoncé. She’s the pinnacle of “sexy empowered woman who can do whatever the hell she pleases.”
If Beyoncé works with H&M, she is standing behind sweatshops. She’s choosing to ally with a company that utilizes slave labor. This is a much bigger deal than the good work she did for women’s body image issues. Like I said, that’s great, and she deserves respect for asserting her bodily integrity. Beyoncé was confronted with someone trying to tell the world how Beyoncé’s body should be, and she said “Fuck that.” But a lot of people benefit from this. Beyoncé reinforces her Sasha Fierce persona, visibly strikes a blow against a sexist industry, still gets paid just as much. Even if H&M was embarrassed, they are now reaping the benefits of doing what Beyoncé ordered. They look progressive, or they look less bad than they used to, which is more than a lot of fashion labels can say. But look closely at what happened, here. By furthering a feminist cause, Beyoncé has helped rich people make more money. She has made it more okay for first-worlders to buy sweatshop clothing. She’s affirmed a view that only the stupidest assholes argue against.
With H&M, she has the chance to address an issue that doesn’t really affect her, one that, admit it, is more important than harmful beauty standards. Addressing it would hurt her (as a rock hurts a tank), and would have little real benefit. Perhaps people would say, “EVERYONE uses sweatshops, Beyoncé.” Perhaps she would get blackballed from a few companies’ call lists. Perhaps she would be a lone voice speaking out about an issue that in 2013 seems unsolvable. But perhaps she would set a trend, like how celebrities supposedly do. Perhaps, with her obscene fame and fortune, she could fight beauty standards AND slavery. Perhaps she could make us remember sweatshops and change our buying habits.
Instead, she chooses to make millions of dollars, be a feminist hero, and maintain her agreeable relationship with corporate America. This is cowardice, complicity. She has the right and the power to do whatever she wants, and this is what she’s doing. That is not admirable.