Who's a feminist? NOT Beyoncé! Wait, no — yes, she is! (Now let the rotten tomatoes go flying.) This is a pretty accurate account of the feminist police arguing whether, following the release of Beyoncé's self-titled album last Friday, one even should call the superstar a feminist. Because apparently feminism is a very exclusive lunch table in the feminist high school cafeteria.
Almost like the dilution of "slut-shaming," the colloquial definition of feminism has become debatable. Instead of its Merriam-Webster definition as "the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities," folks like to say that because Beyoncé sang "Cater 2 U" now she's not allowed to sing "Flawless," declaring that she "woke up like this…flawless," nor is she allowed to sample African feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discussion of how women are taught to "shrink themselves."
Music fans on Facebook and Black Twitter — which is a community all its own, and lord help you if you are ever identified and attacked there — have come to blows over what Beyoncé is allowed to do and whether her art should be the door through which many young women enter the feminism conversation.
Beyonce and her "bottom bitch feminism" is incredibly misrepresentative of African woman #BottomBitchFem
— DIESH (@DIESHforpeace) December 16, 2013
— Autumn Alston (@AutumnNAlston) December 16, 2013
And so on, and so forth, times a million.
But this is because, as Dr. Brittney Cooper writes at Salon, the political is often personal. Some people are using Beyoncé to deal with their own issues and insecurities on a public stage and look more transparent than they realize. Now, no one — artist or otherwise — is beyond reproach and art itself is ripe for analysis. Still, as Cooper puts it, Beyoncé just strikes a chord — or a nerve — with women of color.
If you are an incessantly single professional black woman who is living out the realities of those statistics that are merely news fodder for everyone else, it is hard (if you’re straight and/or into masculine-identified folks) not to watch Beyoncé embracing her hubby around the neck on the video for “Drunk in Love,” without longing for that kind of touch in your own life. If you’re a 30-something feeling the pull of your biological clock, the video “Blue” featuring a laughing and ebullient Blue Ivy will make your ovaries scream. If you’re a dark-skinned black woman with a certain kind of fraught history with light-skinned black women, the video for “Pretty Hurts,” and the kind of empathy that it urges for light-skinned Beyoncé might just be rage-inducing. And if you are particularly sensitive to the ways that black women come for each other, then hearing Beyoncé instruct bitches to bow down, might just take you over the top.
And Cooper is absolutely right. But policing who does and does not get to be a feminist is counter-productive, and we've got bigger fish to fry (especially when, say, the Catholic church is still trying to control birth control). But some of the Bey dialogue has hit such a fever pitch that we feminists are missing the whole point of fighting for equality, rather than with each other.
Beyoncé means a lot to us. She triggers a lot for us: about desire and beauty and skin color politics and access and being chosen and being the cool kid. Because representations of black female subjectivity are so paltry in pop culture, the mainstream doesn’t know that we struggle with this kinda shit, too. Nerdy girls resent the popular pretty girls. We grow up to become feminists who are beautiful in our own right, to critique patriarchy and challenge desire. And we have a sort of smugness that says, the pretty girl who gets the guy can have all that, but she can’t be radical. That Beyoncé would even want to means she has stepped out of her lane, and lanes matter greatly.
Beyoncé is a beautiful, successful, woman of color at the top of her professional career with a filthy rich husband and gorgeous baby in tow. Nope, it's not fair — but how about we all make space for one another's opinions without drawing blood over labels?