By Gracie Weiderhaft
Last month, The New School hosted a public discussion between some prominent Black female activists, including the feminist scholar, bell hooks. If you aren’t a fan of bell hooks on Facebook (which you really should be, I mean it’s 2014…) you might have missed the conversation. In fact, it likely would have flown under even the most die-hard feminist’s radar if hooks hadn’t broken the cardinal rule of third-wave feminism — you don’t talk shit on Queen Bey.
That’s right, not only did hooks criticize Beyoncé, but she went as far as to call her “anti-feminist” and “a terrorist.” Hooks’ comments were brought about by the cover of Time Magazine which featured Beyoncé sporting a white cotton bra and panty set and a pair of lifeless eyes. Articles posted on sites like The Guardian and The Atlantic made it seem like bell had a beef with Bey baring her bod, claiming that her remarks referred to Beyoncé’s overly-sexual image and the effect it has on young girls.
Not only did these reports reinforce the stereotype of feminists as anti-sex — they were wrong. I watched the entire two hour video of the discussion (yes, that is what I do for fun of an evening). It was clear that hooks was not criticizing Beyoncé for how sexual the image was; she was criticizing her for how infantilizing it was. She likened Beyoncé’s outfit to a bra and panty set she might have worn as a pre-teen and described her expression as “deer in headlights.” In the picture, Beyoncé even assumes a slouchy, unassuming pose. In addition to the fucked-upedness of making childlike images of women sexy, the picture was an unusual choice for an issue of Time covering the “100 most influential people.” Does this image really show the pinnacle of what a successful woman is? She doesn’t look powerful. She looks washed-out.
Hooks assumed that Beyoncé had very little control of the image, and was surprised when fellow panelist, author Janet Mock, said that Bey likely approved the wardrobe, styling, and final shot herself. But does this make her an “anti-feminist” “terrorist”?
She certainly isn’t challenging white, patriarchal standards of beauty the way that hooks does through her children’s book, Happy to be Nappy. Though Beyoncé has pointed out how ridiculous our image of the ideal woman is in her music video for “Pretty Hurts,” she hasn’t really done anything to change that image — but she totally has the ability. Young girls love Beyoncé. Adult women love Beyoncé. Men love Beyoncé. I love Beyoncé. Janet Mock even posted a Vine of bell hooks dancing to “Drunk in Love,” proving that even Beyoncé critics love Beyoncé. Everybody loves Beyoncé. She can do whatever she wants, and we will still love her. So, why doesn’t she use her image to make a statement?
As a feminist, I’m reluctant to tell anyone to change his or her appearance. We should all be free to present our bodies however we’re most comfortable without shame or fear of criticism. Buuuuuuuuuut, think of how huge it would be if Beyoncé was rocking natural hair and a strong “come at me” pose on the cover of that magazine.
The situation brings up an important question. Is there a feminist or anti-feminist way to present oneself? Feminist scholars typically agree that the kinds of images of women currently presented by the media (particularly in advertising) are toxic, promoting unrealistic beauty ideals and unhealthy ways of thinking about one’s body.
At the same time, criticizing feminist superstars like Beyoncé for the ways they choose to present their bodies goes very much against the “feminism is for everyone,” anti-shaming attitude of the third wave.
I personally have struggled with how to balance the way I present my body and my feminist beliefs. I want to challenge patriarchal beauty standards, but sundresses are just so goddamn cute. I also love to pole dance, but I worry that it might border on self-objectification. I’m sure plenty of other women experience this kind of cognitive dissonance.
The whole situation shows that feminism isn’t just a circlejerk. Today’s feminists are faced with choosing between two contrasting, but equally legitimate points of view. Is Beyoncé a terrorist because she is from a different era of feminism than hooks, with different views on how one should present herself? No, but that doesn’t mean that hooks’ points aren’t valid.
There isn’t a clear right or wrong stance. There isn’t just one creed that one must subscribe to in order to be a feminist. We are still faced with issues like hooks’ critique of Beyoncé that force us to think critically about our feminism. This is good. After all, an ideology without critical thought can quickly turn into dogma.
Gracie Weiderhaft is a Rogers native, currently residing in Tulsa, Okla. She is a graduate student in Educational Studies at the University of Tulsa (TU), the President of the Society for Gender Equality at TU and an avid blogger. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author. Gracie can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.