Race, The World, Inequality

Beyonce’s feminism isn’t good enough for bell hooks, and neither is mine

bell hooks imposes impossible standards on Beyonce, and by extension, impossible standards on black women.

When I first started identifying as a feminist, I was pointed to a number of a black feminist scholars and writers. Women like Patricia Hill Collins, Audre Lorde, Toni Cade Bambara, Kimberle Crenshaw, Alice Walker, Joan Morgan, and bell hooks were suggested to evolve my thinking on black womanhood and feminism. I eagerly picked up what these women had to offer, but my exploration of bell hooks began and ended during the period in which I was becoming more interested in Beyonce and her feminism. I questioned how bell hooks, the incredible thinker whose theories had been so impactful, could label Beyonce (in whose self-titled album I saw so much of myself reflected) a “terrorist”.

The complete disconnect between how I felt about Beyonce, and how hooks saw her, made my interest in hooks and her feminism wane. But not because hooks critiqued Beyonce. Beyonce’s place in the pop culture canon, and ever-widening influence, certainly deserves to be examined and critiqued. However, hooks’ critiques of Beyoncé are shallow and simplistic; they feel like an attack on Beyonce and all the women who relate to and enjoy her work.

Moving Beyond Pain” – hooks’ take on Lemonade – isn’t as harsh as naming Beyonce a “terrorist”. In fact, it offers praise. However, it comes to same conclusion hooks did in her 2014 condemnation of Beyonce: that Beyonce’s feminism simply isn’t good enough. “Moving Beyond Pain” leans heavily on Lemonade’s representations of black women, and hooks commends it for its intent “to seduce, celebrate, and delight—to challenge the ongoing present day devaluation and dehumanization of the black female body.” But dotting hooks’ critique is her dissatisfaction with Beyonce’s work, continuing to assert that Beyonce’s representation of black womanhood is  “no new offering”, “not radical or revolutionary” and finally that it “does not truly overshadow or change conventional sexist constructions of black female identity.” She continues to assert that “among the many mixed messages embedded in Lemonade is this celebration of rage”.

hooks imposes impossible standards on Beyonce, and by extension, impossible standards on black women. Lemonade tells a story of a journey of hurt, betrayal, anger and eventual healing. Lemonade was incredibly familiar to me in its exploration of pain–in its despair, in its rage and in its healing. But at the end of the day – it’s still Beyonce’s story. And she has the right to tell it how she chooses. hooks surely knows about the variances among black women and our experiences but she decides Beyonce’s is unsatisfying because it doesn’t fit her ideas of a black feminist in pain, a black feminist enraged, and a black feminist working toward healing. That Lemonade, and Beyonce, fail to meet hooks’ more radical criteria for feminism doesn’t make them any less worthy of enjoyment or being called feminist.

According to hooks, Beyonce can’t exist or express herself unless she’s dismantling centuries of racist and sexist ideologies. If she’s sexual, then she’s contributing to stereotypes of the hypersexualized Jezebel, conforming to the male gaze and making herself an object. She can’t be sad or hurt or heartbroken because hooks will perceive it as “black women are always the victim”.  She can’t be angry because then she’s an Angry Black Woman and equating female power with destruction, one of the more simplified and dense declarations of “Moving Beyond Pain”. hooks saps Beyoncé (and other black women) of her agency, deciding her natural feelings, her wants and desires. She claims emotions borne out of betrayal and hurt are just another result of the white patriarchy. To her, Lemonade’s visualization of her emotional journey is beneath our notice and our acclaim.

Having to combat stereotypes as a black woman is exhausting, but I’ve always felt that fight is (or should be) unnecessary among other black feminists. Within these circles, my sexuality, emotions, and even my want for financial security should be accepted and celebrated among likeminded black women. While reading “Moving Beyond Pain”, I was struck by the impossibility of hooks’ sentiments. hooks asks that we remain fixed on subverting oppressive images, but if we’re constantly trying to go against negative stereotypes, how can we be individuals? How can we escape the pressures of racism and sexism by contorting ourselves to make way for other people’s limits? Should we avoid finding joy in things like Lemonade because someone somewhere will look at it and see a sexual, angry, betrayed black woman and decide that’s all black women can be?

hooks says Lemonade, “does not create a just culture of optimal well-being where black females can become fully self-actualized and be truly respected”. But my argument is this: if Beyonce chose Lemonade to represent herself, then in reality, she is self-actualized, as are women who see themselves in her work. This critique is just bell hooks deciding we, and Beyonce, cannot be truly respected because our feminism isn’t good enough.

I feel as though I missed that moment in time when bell hooks would have been formative and important to me. I know of her importance to other black women I admire and respect, and I admire and respect hooks for that. But I’ve encountered her at a time when Emma Watson’s feminism is more agreeable to her than Beyonce’s, when her critiques of Beyonce read more like those written by white feminists than a pioneer in black feminist thought, and it’s disappointing. I may not agree with every decision Beyonce makes, or with every piece of her feminism, but we share enough that I see I don’t have a place in bell hooks’ feminism. And I’m not sure I want one. Maybe later I will attempt another deep dive into hooks’ writing, but for now I feel it might not resonate as strongly with me.

hooks wrote that Beyonce’s “construction of feminism cannot be trusted,” but I wonder if its hooks’ current construction we should be doubting.