Study Guide

Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It) Meaning

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"Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere."- Mae West

In the famously patriarchal Shakespeare play The Taming of the Shrew, the main character Kate gets "tamed": she is converted from being angry and independent to being a "good girl" and professing her obedience to her husband. In Beyoncé's I Am…Sasha Fierce, the so-called "good girl" singer seems to make a move in the other direction, unveiling her "bad girl" alter-ego to the world and singing about getting rid of the obligations placed on her by men. Beyoncé literally splits her album—and her personality—in two, and "Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)" is the signature song for the bad-girl side of the cut.

We might like to think that these days, our values are a little bit different than in the days when it was basically fine to refer to a woman as a "shrew." But the fact that Beyoncé unveils a bad-girl character instead of getting "tamed" doesn't really explain why one of the defining dance songs of our millennium is playing with a stereotype that dates back to at least the 1500s, if not Biblical times. Is Beyoncé resisting the idea that there are only two types of women by embracing both, or is she reinforcing it by splitting her personality in two?

When it comes to being stereotyped, Beyoncé herself has always basically been a good girl. Since her debut as a young star in the 90s band Destiny's Child, she has been charting the territory to becoming a household name, and she is known for her focus, discipline, and generally prim and proper behavior in public. As a female superstar, her body and sexuality are constantly evaluated, and she is definitely not prim and proper on stage. But in all the fame and high fashion, her diva personality seems immune to criticism. The Independent called her "a 21st-century role model," and many other news outlets have harped on the "good girl" thing. Whether or not Beyoncé approves, people are obsessed with how perfect she seems.

It's true that unlike other stars, Beyoncé is never seen stumbling out of bars, having extramarital affairs, or even tripping over her words in public. We know she doesn't do drugs, and we're not even sure if she jaywalks. Our theory is that Sasha Fierce is what it takes for Beyoncé to face the camera-toting, critical eyes of the pop culture paparazzi while maintaining an almost impeccable reputation.

Beyoncé knows as well as anyone that women in the spotlight have a pretty hard standard to live up to, what feminists of the women's movement first labeled a sexual double standard. What the sexual double standard means is that there are basically a whole different set of rules for women than for men when it comes to appearances, body image, and sex. For example: to avoid serious media mockery (think Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears), Beyoncé has to be sexy without seeming "slutty." She has to be beautiful without being seen as too skinny or too fat (or seeming like she's trying too hard). She has to keep being fun and upbeat without appearing to be too much of a party girl. And she can't get caught up in any boy drama—she's married, after all.

Enter Sasha Fierce. According to Beyoncé: "I have someone else that takes over when it's time for me to work and when I'm on stage, this alter ego that I've created that kind of protects me and who I really am." Beyoncé was a shy kid and a self-professed late bloomer, and she says the stiletto-wearing superhero we see on stage has always been a part of her performance persona. According to her official website, Sasha Fierce "is the fun, more sensual, more aggressive, more outspoken side and more glamorous side that comes out when I'm working and when I'm on the stage…she's the party girl, she's Bootylicious. She is but I'm not." Basically, Sasha Fierce is the risk-taker, and also the attention-getter – she's the front woman for the ongoing Beyoncé show.

When she unleashed Sasha Fierce, the singer started wearing a metal glove to represent her superpowers. Further exploring her bad girl side, Beyoncé took Lady Gaga on a single girls' joyride in Gaga's overnight hit video for "Telephone," released in April 2010. The pair poison their ex-boyfriends and drive off in an SUV labeled "Pussy Wagon" (a shout-out to Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill films).

And at the end of the day, most of us are aware that "the real Beyoncé" isn't a lesbian man-killer à la "Telephone," or even the bar-hopping single girl in "Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)." As Beyoncé says herself, Sasha Fierce is the woman she has always been performing—with Sasha Fierce, she says, "I decided to give my fans what they really want, and what they are used to."

Beyoncé's no pop culture critic, but she is aware of what she's dealing with. And it seems like the message couldn't be clearer: that the "bad girl" alter-ego is a way for Beyoncé to keep up her super-sexy public image without being subject to criticism, or giving up too much of her own private identity. Her true self stays "good"—and her performance gets down and dirty. Given what she's up against as a young, black woman in a competitive and high-pressure industry, it seems like the Queen B has a pretty fierce strategy.

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