Is bell hooks' Critique Of Beyoncé's Lemonade 'Femmephobic’?
Since Beyoncé surprise released her most recent record, Lemonade, away from deciphering just who 'Becky with the good hair' is, the conversation has focused on the album's feminist, empowerment and racial comments.
Where some flagged Lemonade as a celeb gossip story, others noted how it's a slicing commentary on social media power; some focused on the actual music and accompanying visual story while others honed in on it as a black feminist political act. It was a lot to process, given that the pop culture princess just released a new album.
Weighing in on the feminist undertones of Lemonade is scholar, author and leading voice on feminist politics, bell hooks, who's been garnering a shit-tonne of press (and disagreement) for her essay "Moving Beyond Pain". Sweeping the internet by controversial storm, the piece deconstructs Beyoncé's version of feminism, labelling it as still pertaining to "conventional sexist constructions of black female identity."
She begins the essay by saying her initial reaction to Lemonade was "WOW—this is the business of capitalist money making at its best." As well as applauding its commercial success, hooks notes that it does offer "diverse representations of black female bodies" in "all sizes, shapes, and textures". It's not all gravy though.
hooks moves on to criticise Beyoncé and her creative collaborators, who while "daringly offer multidimensional images of black female life", have made an album that "stays within a conventional stereotypical framework, where the black woman is always a victim."
"Although based on the real-life experience of Beyoncé, Lemonade is a fantasy fictional narrative with Beyoncé starring as the lead character."
While the analysis is opportunistic and sensationalised in these terms, hooks does go on to detail the negative impact Lemonade and Beyoncé's "fantasy feminism" has on women and girls from all walks.
"Her vision of feminism does not call for an end to patriarchal domination," hooks writes, implying the Queen B is basically offering a simple, superficial kind of activism, avoiding digging up the real dirt, as someone of her stature could do.
"In such a simplified worldview, women gaining the freedom to be like men can be seen as powerful. But it is a false construction of power as so many men, especially black men, do not possess actual power. And indeed, it is clear that black male cruelty and violence towards black women is a direct outcome of patriarchal exploitation and oppression."
hooks hasn't been without her criticisms for Beyoncé's strand of feminism before. Back in 2014, the author spoke on a panel about liberating the black female body. Discussing Bey's Time magazine cover, hooks said how she sees a "part" of Beyoncé as "terrorist especially in terms of the impact on young girls."
Who should you listen to?
Given that hooks is a respected writer on all things race, gender and capitalism, it's fair game to listen to her points and trust them, if you so desire. After decades of studying, analysing and critiquing of feminism behind her, hooks offers a wise, unapologetic, opinionated perspective that quite frankly many are wary of voicing.
But given her generation, she is from a previous wave of feminism that doesn't always credit newer forms of ~feminism~ such as owning your body, being hyper-sexual and using femininity to make money.
Where some feminists argue Beyoncé reclaiming her body sexually and controlling her image is positive and empowering, older women's rights activism slams this use of the female form as feeding back into the patriarchy and using women's bodies for profit.
What hooks dismisses from her critique of Lemonade is really an understanding viewpoint of modern femme/femininity/feminism. She's refuting that a modern woman can be feminist while being beautiful, "dressed up", even vein without selling out. As Janet Mock writes on Facebook in reply to hooks:
"Our presentations are not measurements of our credibility. These hierarchies of respectability that generations of feminists have internalized will not save us from patriarchy. Femmephobia (and whorephobia!) must be abolished in our spaces, our theories and our critiques of one another and one another's work."
hooks' essay had to happen – it's been hard to pinpoint what's wrong with pop culture's most famous feminist using just that label as a marketing tool in a capitalist gains, gains, gains world.
As so many strands of feminism, forms of women's rights activism and debates as to what constitutes a "good" or "bad" feminist continue to be thrown around the social sphere, when critiquing one another's activism what we need to focus on is what is someone actually changing for the better.
Did Beyoncé's Lemonade make women of colour feel more powerful? Yes. Was it the perfect way to do it? Probably not. Has it in any way beat patriarchal norms? We'll have to see.
By Lydia Morrish, published on 11/05/2016