The Spectacle Of The Self

An excerpt from I Am My Own Home, a book of essays by Isyana Artharini. The book is part of the Self-Portraits series, a collection of personal essays by women that explores their work, relationship, ideas, and lives. Available here

Whenever I read the expression, “I feel lucky and blessed to be alive in the time of Beyoncé”, I remember exactly the beginning of that time for me. It was during the summer of 2003 when Europe was ravaged by a heatwave and experiencing the hottest summer ever recorded since the 16th century. I was at one of my best friends’, Nina’s, dorm room in the suburb of Amsterdam.

We have just finished a year of internships working for different companies. It was the last days of summer before we started our 4th and final year of college, where we will be forced to think about our dissertation topics that we hope would get us graduated to eventually become an adult with a steady job. That year, I turned into an age that no longer has the word ‘teen’ in it. 

Nina’s room was our refuge from the unbearable heat of 37 degree Celsius even though it wasn’t even 10 am. Her small TV was on some nonstop music channel when we heard the blaring trumpet that was intro to Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love”. The trumpet intro would become ubiquitous for the months (and years) to come, but in that room, that day, it still sounded new and commanding and exciting.

Back then, Beyoncé wasn’t a figure of near-deity yet as she would be seen in 2016, but she was already giving the presence and assurance that she was above her peers. We didn’t know then that our mode of consuming Beyoncé would always going to be about playing catch-up, she was always giving so much of everything that we, her viewers, are almost always experiencing sensory overload. With the video showing so many things at once (her beauty, her clothes, her dance moves, her body, the fast-paced change of scenes), we were in rapt.

It wasn’t our first time watching Beyoncé’s first video as a solo artist fresh off Destiny’s Child, but it was our first time watching it together. The song was fitting for the summer — loud, chaotic, overwhelming. But it also gave us a heavy dose of energy, so much so that from our near lifeless state from being drained by the heat, we got up to dance in front of the TV. We look like a fool trying to emulate Beyoncé — we were half to two beats behind, our moves were broken, jagged, while she uses her body to create a sense of fluidity, especially when she walked in wearing satin bomber jacket with a baseball hat and bounce her butt while moving it in circles. We were witnessing, for the first time, her signature dance move.

And when she appeared wearing the orange Versace dress while dancing in front of a giant fan, licking her thumb, touching her cleavage for the video finale dance sequence, I decided I wanted to be able to move like her even though I was clueless as to how or even know whether it was possible for me to do it. 

One of the tropes in coming of age or makeover movies is when every female ugly duckling trying to be swans was taught how to walk and move enticingly in a way that combines class, mystery, and sex by a highly-refined woman — as if in those movements lies the key that tells the secrets of being a woman trying to conquer the world (or how she conquered the world’s perception of her). In watching the video, I feel that Beyoncé is that highly-refined figure teaching me how to walk or carry myself in order to own and claim my place in the world.

The next 13 years, maybe more for me than it does for Nina, Beyoncé would represent a lot of different things (nonstop hard work, intersection of feminism and race, and the machinery shaping a pop culture icon). But in that summer of extreme heat, she first got me thinking about the unlimited range of ways women bodies are able or allowed to move.