Theory Teacher's Blog

bell hooks and the Question of Beyonce’s Feminism; or Ways to Be Awesome

Yesterday, the ubiquitous “Book of Faces” (FB) and other social media were all atwitter over something the well-known author and theorist bell hooks said at a three-day event about race, gender, and body-image hosted by The New School in New York — everyone’s favorite pop star diva Beyoncé a terrorist? A terrorist?!?! Bloggers from wannabe-hipster gossip sites such as Gawker to fashion magazines such as Elle to feminist sites such as Jezebel immediately jumped on the bandwagon, probably hoping that the provocative headline would gain for them that ever-so-ethereal cyber audience.

Before I had a chance to actually read the blog-o-story, when I first saw the headline, I wrongly assumed that bell hooks was giving Beyoncé a compliment, as I immediately thought of Beyoncé’s video: “Run the World (Girls)“:

One might think of other videos of hot feminist badaaasssery such as Beyoncé’s “Superpower” and M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls” which all present images of women kicking ass and taking names, Pam-Grier style. So, this is what I thought bell hooks was talking about, and I was all, like, “hellz yeah!!!”

But then I started to read the articles, and apparently that’s not at all what bell hooks meant (oops, my bad!) Rather, she was raising questions about Beyoncé’s style of feminism and her tactical deployment of a hyper-sexualized body as potentially damaging to the self-image of young girls (specifically in reference to Time Magazine’s featuring her in a bathing suit on the cover of their issue about the world’s 100 most influential people.)  In other words, what I think bell hooks was referring to is the very real “terror” that young girls feel when confronted with bullying  from their peers regarding the way they look. I did not finish reading any of the blog posts because they were all so shallow and mean-spirited, and they all reminded me of the SNL skit about the government Beygency that hunts down a poor schmuck for committing the party foul of admitting he didn’t love everything about Beyoncé:

Can I admit that I don’t love everything about her either? But I do think she’s pretty awesome. And I also think bell hooks is awesome. So, given that I think both women are awesome, instead of reading the blog-o-crap any further, I skipped ahead to the video of the actual conversation (the “actual” always being so often remarkably different from what bloggers and journalists say to get a rise out of their audiences), and my wife and I had a very enjoyable evening listening to four awesome women — bell hooks, Janet Mock, Shola Lynch, and Marci Blackman — discuss among themselves and with a very engaged and intelligent audience a variety of complex and personal perspectives about gender, sexuality, race, violence, body image, and “what a body can do” (as the philosopher Judith Butler famously put it, in contrast to the essentializing pigeon-holing approach of traditional philosophy that asked “what a body is.”) You can all watch it too by clicking [here] or below:

The conversation among themselves and with the audience was full of humor and mutual respect as well as serious critical thinking, concern for the well-being of others, and deep personal involvement as they worked toward imagininng an alternative to the sort of media imagery that objectifies black women’s bodies and presents impossible standards of beauty. They discussed the movie 12 Years a Slave, SNL comedy, and — most of importantly — the work of the panelists, such as the movie Free Angela and All the Political Prisoners by Shola Lynch, the memoir Redefining Realness by Janet Mock, and the novel Po’ Man’s Child by Marci Blackman as well as their personal experiences as politically active, queer, transgender, and black women. I was so impressed that I began to imagine my teaching an entire course syllabus around this one panel event. One woman in the audience was in tears sharing her own experience as well as her gratitude to the panel for the support and safe space fostered by the event. Noticeably, in contrast to the blog-o-sphere and social media, not a single person in the audience during the 50 minutes of Q&A seemed the least bit concerned by bell hooks’s comment about Beyoncé. So, considering how her image and her style of feminism was discussed and debated in complex, thoughtful ways among the four panelists and the audience, it is interesting how the safe, supportive space of the panel discussion was transformed into bitchy nonsense by social media.

But beyond the confines of that singular event and its commodification by the blog-o-sphere, the question of Beyoncé’s feminism interests me, in part because as a teacher I find her extremely useful in the classroom for drawing students into debates about feminism, challenging their stereotypes about feminists as man-hating ugly women, and pushing students to think about why they enjoy what they enjoy. For example, because this semester I was teaching the famous Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I played for my class Adichie’s lecture “We Should All Be Feminists” as well as Beyoncé’s song “Flawless” that samples a full minute from that lecture (practically one fourth of the song):

The conversation among my students last month was similar to the one brought up by bell hooks, Janet Mock, and one of the members of the audience: how do we negotiate the positive work we see Beyoncé doing for feminism and women’s empowerment and the negative commodification of her body and debilitatingly impossible standard of beauty it presents to young girls? The “Flawless” music video, it seems to me — rather than being naive or unaware of this dialectic of opposing ideas — very deliberately and self-consciously puts this dialectic in play for us to work out. The song and the video puts the question back on us, for us to imagine ways to be authentically awesome.

But what do you all think? Thoughts?

May 10, 2014 - Posted by | feminism, media, music, race

3 Comments »

  1. Really great Steve–and super funny! I giggled a lot. I hadn’t seen this video either–I got too depressed watching her dance like a vegas striper at the super-bowl and stopped paying attention. But I am impressed; I mean, most of the time, no one really cares what writers and academics say (except some of our students and friends who have generally self-selected to follow us down that path); it seems like getting a strong and beautiful feminist voice-over in the video of a pop-super star might be the best we can possibly hope for. This reminds me a little bit of those De Beer diamond adds in fashion mags about why really strong women should wear a second diamond on their left hand. But at least there was some articulate feminist critique also, pretty much from start to finish.

    Comment by Emma | May 10, 2014 | Reply

  2. Steve, very interesting. Sorry to say I haven’t really read up on this new scandal. But there is something to be said for the way Beyonce presents herself. One might even argue she is more than simply opposed to “traditional” feminism but also to black womanhood. Her blond permed hair and makeup, which mimics Eurocentric notions of beauty, blatantly proclaim where her loyalties lie (and just in case you’re not sure, it isn’t with the black community–although she is smart enough to know who generates her profits).
    I agree with Bell Hooks…I think Beyonce is a kind of terrorist (maybe also a traitor). But one with no real guts behind it (as opposed to one who blows things up). She wants to be the next Madonna, Michael Jackson, etc. Whatever image she has to create, regardless of how offensive, insulting or self effacing she’ll do it to be number one.
    OK enough Beyonce!

    Comment by RR | May 10, 2014 | Reply

  3. So rages the Beyoncé message vs Beyoncé image tension that is encapsulated in the moment I (an impressionable middle schooler at the time) showed my mom the Destiny’s Child Survivor album I wanted to buy. She seemed concerned about all the cleavage on the cover, and I’m sure she was worried about the havoc it would wreak on my body image. But it was my money and I bought it (throw them hands up at me). After listening to the album almost non-stop that summer, I think she should have personally thanked Beyoncé, Kelly, and Michelle for reinforcing a lot of the grrl power themes I was dealing with. The perpetual exposure to positive messages about independence, self-confidence in your own skin, positivity, and perseverance was a good thing for me. I wasn’t picturing Beyoncé when I was singing these songs, I was thinking that these were qualities that I had and could be proud of, too–I wasn’t thinking, “I’m never gonna look like that!”
    However, at the same time, I do think that her image is impossible for woman to replicate, and impossible images can be toxic–especially for young women. I don’t want to justify that by any means, but I wonder if Beyoncé would have the platform that she has to disseminate her grrl power messages in such a mainstream way if she didn’t conform image-wise to the entertainment industry. After all, she’s an entertainer first and foremost–not a feminist theorist. Perhaps what she does is present a transitional figure of feminism, a foil for the traditional “femiNazi” (a term I’ve always hated for more than one reason). Maybe, by being critical of her brand of feminism (and risking the Beygency’s wrath), we can strive to find a middle ground between the man-hating feminist who doesn’t shave her legs and the drunk-in-love feminist who is impossibly bootylicious–to find an image of feminism that women want to and can realistically be.

    Comment by Angela | May 10, 2014 | Reply


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