And we’re just eating her alive: Beyoncé’s Feminism and the Academic Feminist Fantasy

“If I didn’t define myself for myself I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies of me and eaten alive.”

~Audre Lorde

Friday the 13th ignites superstition and thoughts of Jason Voorhees, the fictional hockey mask wearing villain that haunted the dreams of many of us during the 80s and 90s. However, on Friday, December 13, 2013, Beyoncé gave us another reason to remember that day when she dropped her surprise self-titled visual album ‘Beyoncé’. The ‘Beehive’ rushed to download the 14-song, 17-video album. I missed the initial excitement but awoke on Friday morning to Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook timelines all buzzing with praise and accolades for ‘Queen/King Bey’. Admittedly, I am not a card-carrying Beehive member and, while I do enjoy her music and appreciate her artistry, I was never in a rush to get her latest musical installment. Friday was different. After seeing so many non-Beehive members suggest that the album was one of her best and reading that Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was featured on a track where she defined feminism and SAID THE WORD feminism, I was intrigued. I downloaded the album and quickly found myself rocking with the Beehive and looking online for a ‘new member’ application. For me, the album presented a different Beyoncé – a Beyoncé that I was waiting to see. As I listened, I heard Beyoncé THE WOMAN, not just the artist. I could identify with her as a grown woman; as a woman who enjoys/embraces sexual desire/pleasure; a woman who has loved and lost and loved again; a woman who sometimes looks in the mirror and is overly critical; a woman who tries to be every woman while questioning self; a woman who is a partner and mother; and as a woman who believes I can be all these things (grown, sexual, lover, confident, insecure, wife, mother, resilient) and be a feminist – without apology.

In the midst of my sashaying around my house with “Flawless” on blast, I stopped to read the blogs and social networking sites. Reading blew my Bee-high as I was floored by the heated debates about how Beyoncé could not be, was not ALLOWED to be a feminist. Wait. What? According to critics, her feminism was nothing more than a capitalistic attempt at co-opting the identities of “authentic” feminists. Motivational speaker Rachel Décoste took to her Twitter account and declared that, “Black feminists don’t bleach their hair, get plastic surgery to whiten their nose, get fake blonde hair. @beyonce #beYAWNce #FakeFeminist”. There also was the popular opinion that feminism is defined by the clothing women wear [How dare we wear form-fitting clothing and call ourselves feminists? How dare we?!] and what we have read. [Reading bell hooks doesn’t make you a feminist; just like standing in the driveway doesn’t make you a car.]

The debate about Beyoncé’s viability as a feminist is not a new one. Earlier this year when interviewed for British Vogue magazine, Beyoncé provided a hesitant response when asked whether she identified as a feminist. She stated:

That word can be very extreme … But I guess I am a modern-day feminist. I do believe in equality. Why do you have to choose what type of woman you are? Why do you have to label yourself anything? I’m just a woman and I love being a woman. … I do believe in equality and that we have a way to go and it’s something that’s pushed aside and something that we have been conditioned to accept. … But I’m happily married. I love my husband.

Beyoncé’s response notes a clear apprehension toward being labeled as a feminist, but she also stated that she believes in equality. She repeats it! “FEMINIST: A person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes” (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2013). So actually, Beyoncé is a feminist. Of course, just saying ‘I’m a feminist’ does not necessarily indicate that one is a feminist. It takes more than the verbalization; the actions prompted by analysis count as well. Like many of us, Beyoncé is a work in feminist progress. However, our refusal to understand that she’s exploring feminism in her own way makes me wonder not so much about Beyoncé’s feminist authenticity but more so about our [feminists’] projection of the field. Have we embraced the same exclusionary definition of feminism promoted by White feminists that ignored the unique experiences of Black women? Have we become so elitist in our academic feminist ways of knowing that we have others afraid to define themselves as feminist? Have we implied that being feminist means you cannot be happily married or that you cannot love your husband/wife/partner? If we have, then Beyoncé is not the one damaging feminism. We are. If we continue to perpetuate this holier-than-thou; you haven’t read enough; your hair is not natural enough; you shouldn’t be wealthy; you aren’t radical enough; you experience sexual pleasure too much; you don’t have enough degrees form of feminism, we will expand the disconnect between us and up-and-coming, exploring, figuring-it-out young feminists in the making. This is not a division we can afford.

Much of the critique of Beyoncé’s feminism was posted so quickly that I wonder whether the critics bothered to listen to the album and watch the videos. I did. There are risqué songs like ‘Blow’ (which reminds me of Vanity 6’s ‘Nasty Girl’), ‘Drunk in Love’, ‘No Angel’, ‘Partition’, and ‘Yonce’ that present a sexually free Beyoncé. This Beyoncé challenges listeners as she uses words like ‘fuck’ and suggests she enjoys being a sexual giver and receiver; being a dominatrix and the dominated. There are love ballads like ‘XO’, ‘Super Power, ‘Heaven’ and ‘Blue Ivy’. And there are songs where Beyoncé demonstrates that physical attractiveness has little to do with how we feel about ourselves. With ‘Pretty Hurts’ she sings: “Blonder hair, flat chest/TV says bigger is better/South beach, sugar free/Vogue says thinner is better […] But you can’t fix what you can’t see/It’s the soul that needs the surgery.” Similarly in ‘Mine’ she noted that she’s not feeling like herself since having the baby, a feeling with which many women can identify. And of course, there is ‘Flawless’ – the song and lyrics at the center of the feminist controversy. Dubbed a remix of her single ‘Bow Down’, the song is a contradiction where in the first verse Beyoncé is singing “This is my shit, bow down bitches.” And in the second verse, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie defines feminism and questions society’s penchant for teaching women and girls to “shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller” in order to please males. However, Beyoncé follows the ‘bow down’ contention by reminding women that we are flawless – just because are. In a limited view, Beyoncé’s flawlessness could be interpreted as a superficial declaration of physical beauty, wealth, and commodity. However, a closer listening reveals that her flawlessness is rooted in her family. She speaks of the good “home training” nurtured by her mother, the confidence supported by her father, the independence she learned from her sister, and the love she feels from her husband. (Now, don’t get me wrong. His verse on ‘Drunk in Love’ is extremely problematic. EXTREMELY. See Black Girl Dangerous blog for a dicussion.) With these lyrics, Beyoncé suggests to women that our flawlessness is deeper than any outward presentation of attractivenss. We are flawless because our communities support us. Is not Beyoncé part of our community? I mean, ain’t she a woman?

Beyonce with models Jourdan Dunn, Joan Smalls, and Chanel Iman

Beyonce with models Jourdan Dunn, Joan Smalls, and Chanel Iman

Beyoncé is not the ‘perfect’ feminist (whatever that means), and if you show me a woman (or man) who claims to have this feminist thing down to a perfected science, I’ll show you the door. Beyoncé does not appeal to all women. She doesn’t appeal to all young women, but she does appeal. Her words and actions matter to many women. So continued denouncement of Beyoncé’s credibility as a feminist does more harm to the collective cause of feminism than good. Should we minimize our feminist values and definitions? No, we shouldn’t. But these are OUR values and definitions. Since when did every woman who identified as a feminist have to subscribe to OUR values and definitions? There is no one way to be feminist. I have grown and learned so much from the work of our feminist foremothers and present-day scholars – Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, bell hooks, Patricia Hill Collins, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, etc. Yet, as a Black girl growing up in a segregated town in Alabama, my identification as a feminist did not start with this literature. It started with my mother. She never used the term, but her actions were feminist. It started with Nikki Giovanni’s poem “Ego Tripping (there must be a reason why)” that I was introduced to via an episode of ‘A Different World’. My feminism started with pop culture and expanded from there. If other young women’s interest in/definition of feminism starts with pop culture, we have to embrace and not alienate them because their feminism doesn’t look like ours. If we want them to read our bell hooks, then we have to listen to/be open to hearing what they take from their Beyoncé. Period.

Ultimately, this conversation is not about – should not be about – whether Beyoncé meets the feminist criteria because feminism should not be handled like a sorority rush meeting. The conversation should center on the questions: What do we do now? How do we forge intergenerational feminist alliances? When will we listen to the voices of young feminists that are not in the college classrooms? (Because academic feminism ain’t the only kind of feminism.) How do we work with young women whose feminism is nurtured by/challenged by hip hop and pop culture norms?  How do we work with young women to change the state of women of color in this country? These are the questions that we must attempt to answer. All other conversations are smokescreens and deflections.

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