Queen Bey 101 is now in session.
Students at Rutgers University are now earning college credit in “Feminist Perspectives: Politicizing Beyoncé,” a new class taught summer semester in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies.
In the first class period on Wednesday, doctoral student Kevin Allred led all the single ladies (and a few men, too) in an academic ode to Sasha Fierce, focusing on how she has used her celebrity status and lyrics to illustrate issues regarding gender, sexuality, and female empowerment.
Allred admits to being an avid Beyoncé fan, but hopes this class will be more than just a superficial survey of her wildly successful career. His students will supplement their Beyoncé study with readings by prominent black feminists, including Octavia Butler and bell hooks.
“I want my students to become more conscious of pop culture and what they’re consuming every day,” Allred says. “I hope people begin to appreciate what Beyoncé is doing in terms of feminism and what she represents for race and gender.”
Most students admit to signing up for the class out of curiosity, but a surprising few claim to be studying the Queen of R&B for academic purposes.
“I took this class because I’m a huge fan of Beyoncé, and she has a great influence on culture and on black society as whole, but I also want to learn more about her role in feminism,” said sophomore Jason Gaines, a communication and human resources major.
Instructor Kevin Allred began teaching his women’s studies class titled “Politicizing Beyone” at Rutgers University on Wednesday. The subject of his academic musing is on the right.
Rutgers may be the first to study Beyoncé from an academic perspective, but it certainly isn’t the only college using celebrities to teach about sociology and pop culture.
On Tuesday, students at Skidmore College in upstate New York began studying “The Sociology of Miley Cyrus,” a crash course in the history of someone the same age as they are.
In a career of less than a decade, Miss Miley has already proved herself “a useful primary document” for discussions of sex and power in media, teacher Carolyn Chernoff says.
These days, the course load is increasingly likely to include music and other pop culture. Georgetown University decoded Jay Z in a sociology class, the University of South Carolina did the same for Lady Gaga, and New York University brought in Questlove for a Classic Albums course in which he considered the works of the Beastie Boys and Prince in the manner of long-loved works of literature.
“Those classes use popular culture as the Trojan horse to sneak in education on other topics,” says Syracuse University media professor Robert Thompson.
“If an academic were to responsibly look at Miley Cyrus and Beyoncé, he or she could scratch the surface of all kinds of really important things with who we are as a culture,” he says.
Academic analysis of celebrities is what separates popular publications like Entertainment Weekly from ponderous ones such as American Quarterly, the Journal of the American Studies Association. And it’s vital to finding pop culture’s place in our larger culture.
“Sociologists have long talked about peeling back the layers to see what’s behind our social phenomena,” says Rik Scarce, chair of Skidmore’s sociology department, who had “no hesitation” in approving the Cyrus course.
“Miley Cyrus is a delivery device for themes of American life,” he adds. “When you say, ‘Miley Cyrus? Who cares about her?’ you shut down the very purpose of sociology.”