Feminism’s taken a bashing in the last year or so – or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say feminism’s being bashed into shape by the vociferous outcry of women of color. From Mikki Kendall’s launching of the scathing hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen, to the increased profile of black feminist writers on the pages of sites such as Salon, Jezebel and The Guardian, the intellectual realm of feminism has been appropriated and explored more fully than ever before by the women who have traditionally been marginalized by the [historically white] feminist movement. This is even more apparent in the controversy surrounding bell hook’s participation in The New School’s panel discussion last week, where she, along with Janet Mock, Shola Lynch and Marci Blackman, discussed Beyoncé’s Time magazine cover. hook’s (by now infamous) comment that Beyoncé’s overtly sexualized ‘little girl’ look on the cover (wide eyed, innocent, scantily clad, slack jawed) far from being indicative of her own agency and power, was evidence that she was “colluding in the image of herself as a slave” released a storm of criticism and controversy across the internet within feminist circles.
Roxane Gay’s defense of Beyoncé in The Guardian focused on her tart dismissal of hooks as “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.” Salon’s Brittney Cooper similarly sprang to protect (poor) Beyoncé, claiming that “If hooks’ analysis held Bey’s humanity at the center, she would necessarily come to different conclusions about whether Bey is a terrorist or not.” going on to say that she was disappointed that hooks’ had “conflated Beyoncé’s brand and image with Beyoncé the person.” According to Fusion, other black feminists again took issue with the criticism, and defended it with the argument that of course good ole Bey was in control. Beyoncé’s her own manager. She’s in control of her own thigh gap, her own instagram, her own media, her own styling, ad infinitum.
What I find most interesting about this whole situation is that bell hooks was being, well, bell hooks in this discussion. Who is our go-to black feminist deconstructionist? bell hooks. What has bell hooks made a career out of? Criticizing and exploring the intersectionality between race, class, sex and gender under the umbrella of Imperialism and white supremacy. bell hooks knows all about reclaiming feminism from bourgeois white women such as myself. She’s pretty much one of the first to identify this as a weakness in both feminist theory and practice, and she’s advocated, for much of her career, for an acknowledgment and acceptance of difference within the age old concept of sisterhood, and for a move towards a restructuring of the cultural framework of power, seizing control of destinies which are not dictated by patriarchy and capitalism.
When hooks calmly 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.” she meant precisely that. She sees A PART of a ferociously talented, incredibly beautiful, phenomenally successful young black Capitalist as complicit in the systems which oppress us. hooks uses the language of the discussion panel to frame her observation, to contextualize it. By identifying Beyoncé’s commercial success as capitalist, by conflating capitalism with terrorism, hooks’ comment is so absolutely in tune with her thinking, I find myself more bewildered by the defensive, hurt reactions of mainstream black feminist thinkers like Gay and Cooper, than anything else. There’s nothing arbitrary about hooks’ criticism. I doubt hooks was thinking to herself, “I’d better make clear I’m not attacking Beyoncé’s character here or she might get hurt”/ Nor is it as simple as deciding who is, or is not, a feminist. hooks, let us remember, is one of the grandmothers of intersectionality, one of the first to point out that you can’t be a Pro-Capitalist Feminist. It simply doesn’t make sense in her way of thinking. And perhaps in bell hooks’ world, there’s a part of all of us that is an anti-feminist terrorist: watching shit movies, discussing bad TV shows like they matter, consuming the latest apple product, sucking up and doing shit we don’t want to do or say because we have to, to maintain our lifestyle.
Beyoncé may be the beautiful, talented, tasteful black icon, but when all is said and done, Beyoncé’s playing the same game as the annoying and tasteless Nicki Minaj – she’s just playing it better, with a little more dignity, and several million more dollars in the bank. By attempting to suggest Beyoncé is feminist because she controls the manner in which she commodifies herself and that hooks is wrong to think otherwise, anyone who disagrees with hooks may as well disagree with her whole canon of work up until this point. Because hooks is just making the point that Beyoncé’s “brand” (presumably the “part” of Beyoncé to which she refers) in failing to challenge capitalism, in failing to challenge sex or gender stereotypes, is oppressive. Sure, Beyoncé may have proven to the world that black women can be strong, intelligent, powerful, talented, sexy and beautiful, but that doesn’t mean all black women have equal opportunities in this world because Beyoncé’s life is just dandy. In hooks’ eyes you can’t be a feminist and a capitalist. You can’t be a racist and a feminist. You can’t be against white supremacist imperialist oppression, and yet be so good at the capitalist game that you think this alone cancels out your complicity in its evils.
Beyoncé is unique: a superstar. There’s no one like Beyoncé. hooks’ hit on a nerve when she dared to criticize America’s – and particularly Black America’s – royalty, but the existence of such royalty only proves its fallibility. And that’s OK. Beyoncé can still be a nice person, or a complete bitch, in private. We can still like her music. She still gets to be one of life’s winners. She still gets to be a strong black woman in control of commodifying herself, and doing so really, really well. She still gets to be someone trapped into manipulating the public perception of herself to such excruciating detail, that when her sister has a fight with her husband on woozy black and white security footage, it dominates the news for days. What does this say about feminism? That it’s extremely important for the liberation of all marginalized and oppressed people that we find out exactly why the fuck Solange smacked the shit out of Jay-Z? The fact is, whatever bell hooks says or thinks, Beyoncé still gets to be Beyoncé.
She just doesn’t get to be a feminist fighting for anyone’s liberation. Not even her own.
Ruth Fowler is a journalist and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. She’s the author of Girl Undressed. She can be followed on Twitter at @fowlerruth.