I’ve seen bell hooks speak a few times at my university, and every time, I’ve cried. For the uninitiated, hooks is the activist and author responsible for such eloquent, world-rocking works as Ain't I A Woman? and Feminism is for Everybody. However, yesterday, during her panel discussion with Janet Mock, Shola Lynch, and Marci Blackman (titled “Are You Still a Slave?”), hooks shocked everyone in the room by criticizing Beyoncè.
To be fair, I’ve also cried a lot to Beyoncè. I’ve spent more than one occasion blasting “Halo” and sobbing while I drive down the highway (make better driving decisions than I do — don’t sob while driving). I am however, not someone who believes that Beyoncè is a feminist icon. *crosses arms over face to shield self from incoming fruit*
That being said, Beyoncè’s “feminism” is a widely debated topic. It certainly became a hot-button issue for the speakers at the New School yesterday. It all started out when the conversation swiveled towards Bey’s recent Time magazine cover. Hooks then said of the profile:
"Let's take the image of this super rich, very powerful black female and let's use it in the service of imperialist, white supremacist capitalist patriarchy because she probably had very little control over that cover — that image."
Not all the speakers agreed with hooks’ statement; Janet Mock, transgender activist and the author of Redefining Realness, jumped to the side of the pop star, saying that "I would argue she chose this image, so I don't want to strip Beyoncé of choosing this image — of being her own manager."
But hooks refused to back down from her point, countering: "Then you are saying, from my deconstructive point of view, that she is colluding in the construction of herself as a slave."
After a healthy debate continued between the speakers, Mock explained that Beyoncè’s song “Partition” was actually about freedom from the patriarchy on a large scale, as the lyrics tackle the notion of sexual freedom from a female perspective (erm...). Mock also said of "Partition": “it was freeing to have Beyoncé owning her body and claiming that space."
And this is the part where hooks drops the mic:
"I see a part of Beyoncé that is in fact anti-feminist — that is a terrorist, especially in terms of the impact on young girls."
As soon as she dropped the T-word, I realized it was important to take hooks’ words with a grain of salt; she's not being literal, for starters. But hooks makes a good point about a powerful pop star's use of some very dubious imagery. In "Partition," alone, while one can certainly interpret the lyrics as an ironically staged seizure of sexual freedom, it's just as easy to see an infantilized, sexualized black woman pleasing a man. Something about the whole powerful-females-reclaiming-hypersexual-images bag reminded me of Audre Lorde's famous quote: “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house."
Hooks went on to speak about the fetishization of Beyoncè’s ultra-rich lifestyle, and how that can be a poor example for young women of color. While she used deliberately aggressive language to make her case, hooks made some hard hitting points about not only Beyoncè, but the way our culture interacts with black celebrities in general. On the surface, society's collective admiration for the Queen B is almost creepy — but hooks is saying that when we interrogate what it is we admire in Bey, we turn up some unpleasant ground.
Whether you agree with bell hooks or not, it’s important to be reminded that we must be critical of our role models.
Images courtesy of Consequence of Sound, elixher.com, and NPR, respectively.