The crux of the Beyoncé debate: What is feminism?
I’m writing this post, not necessarily to change your mind about whatever positions you hold about feminism, but to act in solidarity with other feminists — especially feminists of colour — who find it problematic that so many feminist sites are hailing Beyoncé as a feminist queen. Several articles and blog posts have been published with the intention of silencing the “haters” who do not like Beyoncé. I suppose that being an actual feminist and understanding how feminism has become a commercialized product means that you’re a “hater?”
A post over at Crunk Feminist Collective states:
I wish feminism could take some clues here. We don’t always bring our A-game, since we spend a whole lot of time trying to figure who’s in and who’s out as if that is going to get us anywhere. Time’s out for the WOC feminist meangirls shit. Sometimes folks just be hating. Real talk. Cuz if you ain’t critiquing Katy Perry and Pink and alla dem for being pro-capitalist and in league with the establishment, then back up off Bey.
An article in The Guardian states:
Over the years, Beyoncé has been soundly criticized for not being feminist enough…So, what exactly is she doing that isn’t feminist? …She’s pro-woman without being anti-man, and she wants the world to know that you can be feminist on a personal level without sacrificing emotions, friendships or fun. Is it a message that will appeal to everyone? No. But then, no one expects any other feminist message to be unilaterally accepted, do they?
Does anyone else see a huge problem here? Contrary to popular belief, I would argue that this debate isn’t actually about Beyoncé at all, but a larger question: What the hell does feminism even mean anymore?
All I keep hearing from popular feminism is that “feminism is supposed to be inclusive.” Seriously? I thought we put that joke to rest. The only reason why feminism is as inclusive as it is now is because no one even knows what feminism is. That’s it. Because we’re afraid of honestly setting some ground rules, all we hear about is “individual choice.”
The notion of individual choice as the epitome of women’s empowerment was not born out of feminism, but out of the confusion surrounding feminism. Instead of fighting for actual rights and systemic change, we’re sitting around gazing at the different types of thongs Beyoncé wears in her music-video series.
I think that when it comes to Beyoncé, popular feminists are conflating way too many things at once. No one is denying that Beyoncé is very talented, that she is rich, and that she is a role model for many. But what does this have to do with feminism? As Meghan Murphy stated in a previous post: “Beyoncé has a particular kind of power in this world, but having power is not the same thing as being a feminist.” Feminism is supposed to be a system of critique, a commitment to resistance of patriarchal, white supremacist values and ideals. But in popular culture, it seems like feminism means the opposite.
Too many popular black feminists are placing Beyoncé on a feminist pedestal because we are so thirsty for some black representation in that space, despite the fact that Beyoncé is the ultimate postracial, postfeminist, sexist icon. In talking about black women’s relationship to feminism, we can’t lose sight of the sexism Beyoncé employs to get to the top.
I understand that in a sexist, patriarchal culture, women oftentimes have to use their sexualized bodies to get ahead; however, we shouldn’t embrace that as feminism. Beyoncé’s hyper-sexualized, sexist image is just proof that we live in a patriarchy. I don’t blame her, as an individual, for doing this because I know there’s a culture of domination surrounding women’s limited choices. The fact that Beyoncé is as famous, rich, and talented as she is, yet still has to resort to a commercialized, infantilized, hyper-sexualized image of herself in a way that her husband doesn’t have to, is a symptom of patriarchy and white supremacy, not a gift from women’s liberation.
We can’t continuously conflate patriarchy and feminism.
Like Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry, Beyoncé is a brand that needs to sell products. Empowerment is a very, very trendy product right now. Perhaps that’s why so many pop stars are throwing the word “feminist” around. Not too long ago, Miley Cyrus stated, “I feel like I’m one of the biggest feminists in the world because I tell women to not be scared of anything.” (Because that’s apparently what feminism is about—a collection of myths we circulate where women are fearless, goddess-like sexy heroes who have power).
Feminism has merely become another market to tap into. Most actual feminists already know this, so we’re not surprised! Now, every celebrity and their sister is talking about sizeism and positive body image in convenient, quote-like form in the hope that some blog or feminist magazine picks up their “feminist” sound bite.
Feminism shouldn’t be a trend, because trends die very quickly. It’s a system of critique. We can’t lose sight of that. When people like Selena Gomez, Miley Cyrus, and Beyoncé start talking about feminism, we should all be afraid. In an ideal world, it would be great if they were actually interested in feminism, but in reality, they’re business women. Why would they need feminism if they already made it to the top with patriarchy? They would go for any trend, and feminism, unfortunately, is a trend now. It’s about being sexy and available. It’s about twerking in front of a camera. It’s about feeling individually empowered, which is not what feminism was primarily designed to do. Feminism is not supposed to cater to the most elite, privileged women.
We can’t forget that Beyoncé is in the same boat as these other pop stars, despite the fact that she has brown skin.
In a culture of mass incarceration for black folks as the new “Jim Crow“and in a post-Trayvon Martin, “colour-blind” society, I am generally skeptical of a media culture that showcases black people as deviant criminals, while simultaneously showing Beyoncé as an empowered icon. Beyoncé is an ultra-conformist to a white supremacist, patriarchal culture. Perhaps that is why she is celebrated. Her image is used to discipline blackness, while simultaneously being repackaged as some rebellious, feminist diva.
Having a commercialized pop star claim feminism shouldn’t be a moment of celebration, but a moment of skepticism.
We should always be skeptical of any mainstream outlet that supports women’s liberation in a patriarchy. Patriarchy and women’s lib do not mix.
I recently wrote a critique of Lily Allen’s employment of hypersexualized black women’s bodies in her music video, and I can’t sit here and avoid Beyoncé now when she is doing the same thing. Yes, there are different racialized power dynamics involved, but at one point or another, we’re going to have to have that awkward conversation where we openly state that black women are not one cohesive class or group with the same experiences. That there are differing levels of privilege between black women and, unfortunately, black women can be the source of oppression for other black women. Let’s just remember that. I think Beyoncé’s image can be a source of violence for some black women who are sick and tired of seeing black female sexualized bodies being plastered everywhere.
Liberation and objectification are not supposed to look the same. Feminism is not supposed to be a synonym for sexism.
I get that many black women celebrate Beyoncé because they can relate to her. Her body, her hair, and her slang conjures up a particular nostalgia for our life experiences; however, I don’t get what that has to do with feminism or critiquing patriarchy. Beyoncé has every right to call herself a feminist, just like Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez do. But, as feminists, we should be smart enough to understand how this is all a marketing ploy. None of us know Beyoncé, the person, we only know her brand, and I’m highly suspicious of any commercialized, popular entertainer, attempting to re-define feminism.
We can’t be excited every time a sell-out pop star wants to get on the feminist train because they want “empowered” fans to buy their albums. Empowerment rhetoric is the best thing that ever happened to patriarchy… And capitalism.
If we don’t find some way to define feminism, it will forever be an empty signifier that is constantly up for revision by any pop celebrity. This debate isn’t so much about Beyoncé as it is about mainstream feminism growing into nothing, and unfortunately representing all of us feminists who are actually doing work to disrupt patriarchy. I think it’s ALWAYS necessary and important to talk about black women’s relationship with popular white feminism; however, I don’t think that should cloud the fact that Beyoncé is a postracial, postfeminist figure that many black feminists do not feel connected to.
Though I will continue to dance to her music, I won’t necessarily look to her for guiding my political activism.
Aphrodite Kocięda is a graduate student in Communication at the University of South Florida and a contributor to the Vegan Feminist Network. Her current graduate research focuses on feminist activism in a postfeminist rape culture climate.