Last week, the social activist and writer bell hooks essentially accused Beyoncé of being a bad feminist. During a panel about modern slavery and liberating the black female body, the discussion rolled around to Beyoncé's scantily-clad cover photo for Time's most influential people issue last month.
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.
-- bell hooks
Naturally, there will be those who express their personal brand of liberation and self-empowerment differently to Beyoncé -- that's fine, and kind of the point of feminism. But bell hooks missed the mark in her criticisms of Queen Bey. Here's why.
A terrorist is someone who uses threats and violence to create a state of fear in order to achieve their goals. Here are some examples of terrorists: Genghis Khan, Sadaam Hussein, Adolf Hitler, Osama bin Laden. Beyoncé doesn't quite seem to fit the bill. Even if the pop sensation is anti-feminist (more on this later), she's still no where near terrorist territory.
In fact, playing into the destructive and unhelpful narrative of "feminism as terrorism," which depicts feminists as militant man-hating oppressors, is far more damaging to the movement than anything Beyoncé has ever done.
And as for the impact on young girls, I'd wager that calling Beyoncé a terrorist and undermining her feminism has a greater impact on the millions of girls -- and particularly women of color -- whom the singer teaches about empowerment, agency, autonomy, sexuality, body pride, hard work and success. All in all, bell hooks is guilty of gross exaggeration, unhelpful terminology and misapplication of language.
The patriarchal narrative
hooks also said Beyoncé is "colluding in the construction of herself as a slave," adding that she probably had little control over her photo used on the Time cover. As Roxane Gay pointed out in the Guardian, we're talking about Beyoncé here -- one of the most famous and influential women in the world; a businesswoman who has long been her own manager; a musician who kept an album in complete secrecy then sold almost 830,000 iTunes downloads in three days; a global icon who has written for the Shriver Report, sung at two presidential inaugurations and brought girl power into the 21st century. Nobody puts Beyoncé on the cover without Beyoncé's say-so.
All that hooks does here is try to reduce Beyoncé's agency and see her only within the framework of the white patriarchal narrative in which she accuses the singer of colluding -- the very narrative that Beyoncé and her fans put in its place with a thrust of the hip and a flick of the wrist. Who's guilty of collusion with the patriarchy here, hooks?
In fact, her sexuality is the very tool Beyoncé uses to break down this age-old narrative; NPR's Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah calls her a cyborg, who survives by "seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other."
Sexual empowerment is historically very important to feminism. From the 1960s, sexual liberation was at the core of second wave feminism, which was instrumental in the wide-scale availability of contraception, the normalization of pre-marital sex, the legalization of abortion and the general idea that a woman's body is hers to do with what she wants.
It's not a brand of feminism that speaks to or works for everyone, but Beyoncé's form of feminist liberation is to be a strong, sexual woman -- and to be utterly confident in it. That's the very point of her self-titled recent album, which Kara Brown at Vice called a better defense of Beyoncé's feminism than any writer could proffer. If it achieves one thing, it's "an overwhelming sense of Beyoncé's indomitability," says New York's Jody Rosen. He points out that the record is not just a collection of songs but "a journey from innocence to experience, from self-doubt to self-determination" -- if that's not feminism, what is? One song, Flawless, even features an excerpt from the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TED talk titled "We should all be feminists."
We raise girls to see each other as competitors, not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are. Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.
It's usually helpful to discuss disputed issues and to hold public figures, even Queen Bey, to account -- and to quash conversation is to miss the point of feminism. But what good does it do for all the "young girls" about whom bell hooks is so worried to embrace the negative sides of Beyoncé's feminism? Instead of jumping on buzzwords like "anti-feminist" and "terrorist," wouldn't it be more constructive to dwell on the ways the singer has contributed to feminism?
Beyoncé is a role model to millions, and the fact that she does that without being a straight-faced pant suit-wearing politician or an endearingly cute and clumsy actress -- aren't they equally as guilty of playing into the patriarchal narrative, hooks? -- shows that you can be whoever you want to be. Any person -- regardless of gender, career choice, or body shape -- can be a feminist, and a successful woman. When prominent women like Lily Allen and Shailene Woodley say things like the need for feminism is dead or the movement detracts power from men, Beyoncé's booty-wiggle is hardly the biggest feminist issue out there.
Writing for The Atlantic, Noah Berlatsky pointed out that by jumping on Beyoncé in this way, bell hooks is no better than Bill O'Reilly, the conservative commentator who last month belittled the singer and accused her of harming children by apparently promoting pre-marital sex and teen pregnancy. O'Reilly and hooks "both seem unable, or unwilling, to consider Beyoncé as an artist," Berlatsky said. "hooks speculates that Beyoncé's appeal is not just her beauty, but her money -- completely leaving out the possibility that people might be interested in this musician because of her music."
At the end of the day, feminism is about equality, diversity, acceptance and liberation. You might not agree with everything Beyoncé stands for, but she oozes those values. If anyone is anti-feminist here, it's bell hooks for trying to take away Bey's agency and dismiss her choice of self-expression and personal empowerment.
There is unbelievable power in ownership, and women should own their sexuality. There is a double standard when it comes to sexuality that still persists. Men are free and women are not. That is crazy. The old lessons of submissiveness and fragility made us victims. Women are so much more than that. You can be a businesswoman, a mother, an artist, and a feminist -- whatever you want to be -- and still be a sexual being. It's not mutually exclusive.