Culture

Sorry, bell hooks — Scantily Clad Beyoncé Is No Mere Tool of the Patriarchy

Women intellectuals have to get used to the fact that there are all kinds of feminists.

Photo Credit: Everett Collection/Shutterstock.com

Public intellectuals are often put in the position of having their words, no matter how off-the-cuff, treated as doctrine. Such was recently the case when, during a panel discussion about liberating the black female body, bell hooks referred to Beyoncé as a terrorist and anti-feminist. She said, "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."

hooks was, essentially, calling out Beyoncé as a "bad feminist" – a popular feminist pastime during which we arbitrarily determine who is or isn't doing feminism right. The word "terrorist", too, is a strangely popular go-to in feminist discussions that are not so much "discussions" as they are provocations, lobbed indiscriminately.

hooks and co-panelists Janet Mock, Shola Lynch and Marci Blackman were discussing Beyoncé’s Time cover, on which the singer is scantily clad and posing alluringly – as the hottest pop star in the world is wont to do when she has been named one of the 100 most influential people.

But there was more. hooks also said, "from my deconstructive point of view... she's colluding in the construction of herself as a slave ... it's not a liberatory image." This rhetoric of women "enslaving themselves", becoming ever more beholden to the patriarchy when they present themselves sexually, is common. It's quite the contradiction to want to overthrow the patriarchy but to also believe that, even now, the patriarchy is so omnipotent that women are incapable of making empowered decisions when they make decisions that don't toe the feminist party line.

hooks assumes Beyoncé had little control over her Time cover – but we're talking about Beyoncé. She upended the music industry when, last December, she surprised fans with the midnight release of her new album, recorded and mixed in utter secrecy and under her control. She has long acted as her own manager, produced and directed a documentary about her life and made many a lucrative business deal. If Beyoncé is, as bell hooks suggests, colluding in the exploitation of her own labor, it's unclear who hooks believes controls the means of production.

We don't need to be naïve, though: the entertainment industry all too often demands the sexualization of women as a precursor for their success. (My mother, for instance, likes to joke that Beyoncé and Rihanna both abandoned clothing at the same time.) hooks is absolutely correct that we need to critique and push back against gratuitous sexualization. Her concern that girls might singularly internalize the notion that their worth is intrinsically tied to their bodies – and the desirability of those bodies – is equally well placed.

At some point, though, we have to differentiate between concern and concern trolling. We have to trust that women can be feminists, good role models and embrace sexuality.

We have to believe that we can hold different points of view without labeling each other bad feminists.

Feminism is not a free-for-all where anything goes, but I would like to think that feminism (in addition to helping women overcome oppression in all forms) allows for women to make choices – even choices with which other feminists would disagree. It allows for women to be sexual and sexually provocative because they want to be. It allows for them to do with their bodies as they choose. Beyoncé, in her current incarnation, seems incredibly empowered. She is sexual, yes – but on her own terms. When Beyoncé wants, she rolls up the partition, so to speak.

Beyoncé is not above critique. As a feminist herself, I hope Beyoncé would welcome it. Unfortunately, hooks's statements provoke, without creating space for difference or substantive debate. She assumes the worst of people and the best of the oppressive patriarchy.

In referring to how Beyoncé looks on the cover of Time, hooks also says, "it's fantasy that we can recoup the violating image and use it...." It's a shame to see how an intellectual as illustrious as bell hooks has allowed the limits of the patriarchy's imagination of women – virgin or whore – to limit her own imagination of us.

Roxane Gay’s writing has appeared in "Best American Short Stories 2012," "Best Sex Writing 2012," Oxford American, American Short Fiction, West Branch, Virginia Quarterly Review, NOON, The New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, Time, The Los Angeles Times, The Nation, The Rumpus, Salon, The Wall Street Journal’s Speakeasy culture blog, and many others. She is the co-editor of PANK and essays editor for The Rumpus. She teaches writing at Eastern Illinois University. Her novel, "An Untamed State," will be published by Grove Atlantic and her essay collection, "Bad Feminist," will be published by Harper Perennial, both in 2014. She is at work on both fiction and nonfiction projects.

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