Beyoncé has become a lightening rod yet again, and this time she's attracted the unfiltered attention of critical thinker and author bell hooks. During a New School discussion called Are You Still A Slave: Liberating the Black Female Body with trans author Janet Mock, Free Angela Davis documentary director Shola Lynch and author Marci Blackman, hooks, in short, called the pop singer a “terrorist.”
First, some context: hooks and the gang were discussing Beyoncé's recent Time magazine cover; hooks said the singer probably didn't have much agency in choosing her outfit or the cover's pose. Mock disagreed and told a story about how the introduction of Beyoncé through Destiny's Child was very influential for her as a girl because, amid MTV's TRL and white pop stars like Britney Spears, these four black girls from Houston were the contemporary Supremes. Here was someone she could identify with, said Mock, adding that she drew strength from Beyoncé's "Partition" as she was finishing her book Redefining Realness about her sexuality and sex work.
But hooks wasn't impressed. She responded to Mock saying, "Then you are saying, from my deconstructive point of view, that she is colluding in the construction of herself as a slave." hooks said that she sees a "part" of Beyoncé as "a terrorist especially in terms of the impact on young girls." She went onto explain that "the major assault on feminism in our society has come from visual media and from television and videos." To continue her point, and by Beyoncé ascribing to the dominant standard of beauty in photos like the one of her on Time, she is part of the problem of women being encouraged to uphold impossible beauty standards.
Here's the full discussion:
Before you dismiss hooks' assertions, there are several things at play here:
- hooks is a respected writer and thinker; her ideas have formed much of what feminists of color think about feminism, therefore she will always be relevant even if her thoughts are divisive. And yes, her thoughts are usually divisive and full of righteous anger. This is part of why most of us love/hate bell.
- Age is a factor. Older feminists don’t always see feminism in the same way as the generations after them — that's why we have the "waves." So where you and I might see Beyoncé controlling her sexualized image and turning it on its ear in videos like “Pretty Hurts” or claiming ownership of her body, hooks and my own mother would probably just think she fell victim to The Man’s idea of “being sexy” and she’s degrading her body to slang records. Not a lot of room for nuance there.
- hooks is the old auntie at the dinner table who doesn’t care if you like her opinion or not. She’s going to say it and she’s earned the right to do that, just like we’ve earned the right to disagree with her.
As for Beyoncé being a "terrorist," it seems to me that hooks was opting for some Cornel West-style sensationalism (I'm thinking of when Dr. West when he called President Obama a "global George Zimmerman"). It's a strategic move to share your perspective with the most controversial words possible — if the goal is to draw attention to your opinion, it works.
Beyoncé has stayed demure during most of her career, allowing the public to think what they wanted about her. However, with her 2013's surprise Beyoncé LP, she shared her exact thoughts through each song, complete with complementing video interviews. Hearing from the woman herself, it's that she’s in control of her image and her music. It is her choice to literally show her ass in the “Partition” and “Blow” videos. And it's a great ass, but it also conforms to beauty norms. Bey knows the norms aren't necessarily a good thing; when she attacks the unrealistic standards of beauty in clips like “Pretty Hurts” and starts a website called “What is Pretty?” asking fans to submit their definitions, she seems to push back against the constraints of beauty standards. She plays by the aesthetic rules, yes, but her messaging tells us that she refuses to be defined by them.
I'll play devil's advocate for a moment: These efforts might ring hollow as the pop star parades around in tailored bodysuits, flaunting the perfect hourglass shape. And that is hooks’ point, no doubt, but what’s the alternative? Beyoncé eschewing her diet and walking away from the treadmill? She is a business, and she wants to look good. That's fine, and I think her feminist messaging is an attempt at balancing the human Beyoncé with Beyoncé the business. And ultimately, that's her business.
And for all that terrorism talk, bell hooks still can't help but dance.
Image via Getty.