Many think pieces have already been written on Beyonce’s latest album Lemonade, and so I’ve been debating what value yet another think piece written by me could add to the discussion. The album itself is a masterful artistic work that demands attention. Its unapologetic examination of the pain and struggles that black woman often experience at the hands of black men, and our patriarchal society as a whole, is expertly explored through beautiful symbolic imagery, raw lyrics ,and the heart wrenching spoken word poetry of Somali-British poet Warsan Shire. It’s a brave album by Beyonce and it is amazing for a diehard member of the Beyhive such as myself to see the phenomenal artistic growth that Beyonce has undergone since her ‘Bootylicious’ days. She has gone from slut shaming her fellow women through songs like ‘Nasty Girl’, to celebrating black womanhood and black female sexuality, and it’s a transition that we as black women are only too happy to celebrate.
Well, not all of us.
In typical fashion, the Beyonce critics of the world have come out for her in full force. Beyonce has been accused of exploiting black pain, feminism and the current political climate for her own monetary gain, as it has “become fashionable” to do. And then of course, there are those who have picked up from where they left off after her self-titled album was released and have criticised her for her expression of her sexuality, of herself, and have bashed her feminism as watered down and not truly progressive.
One of those critics is former feminist icon of mine, bell hooks. In her recent piece, hooks criticises Beyonce for a number of reasons, including not adding anything new to the table, her use of violence displayed in “Hold Up”, her presentation of herself and other black women, and of course the way Beyonce has supposedly exploited the black female body in order to capitalise off of it. This is far from the first time hooks has criticised Beyonce. A few years ago, she criticised the singer for her expression of her sexuality, stating that it pandered to the male gaze, and even went as far as calling Beyonce a terrorist because of the enormous influence she has over young girls.
Now it must be said that I have a lot of respect for hooks in terms of the work she has done on misogynoir and dismantling patriarchy. However, I have a lot of issues with her, and the majority of my issues are exemplified by her criticisms of Beyonce.
The first issue I take with hooks, is her long standing femmephobia that has permeated her work. Hooks has made it clear through her past work that she finds traditional presentations of femininity, such as wearing makeup and dresses, fundamentally oppressive towards women as such presentations are rooted in patriarchal standards of beauty and gender norms. While we most certainly should be criticizing patriarchal standards of beauty, I find it problematic for hooks to dismiss feminine presentations as fundamentally oppressive. Firstly, it is exclusionary, particularly of queer women, such as trans women, who depend on those presentations for safety and survival. It is also exclusionary of the many women who actively identify and choose to express themselves in a traditionally feminine manner. Such a view attempts to police the ways that woman can or should express themselves, and this attempt to remove women’s agency from the way that they present themselves is fundamentally problematic.
In other words, hooks has a very narrow idea of how feminist women should express themselves. If feminist women do not conform to her idea of feminism they are discarded, as not real feminists at best and “terrorists” at worst.
The second issue I take with not only hooks but with everyone who holds this position, is the idea that Beyonce is “exploiting” black women’s pain and struggles through capitalist gain. In the first place, this idea completely attempts to strip Beyonce’s blackness and womanhood from her. Yes, Beyonce is extremely privileged. She benefits enormously from her class privilege, her cishet privilege, and especially from the fact that with her light skin, thin nose, and long straight blonde weave, she fits Eurocentric standards of beauty far more than the average black woman. While this must be taken into account, and interrogated, the fact remains that as a black woman Beyonce is still not immune to misogynoir. She may be Beyonce, but she still operates as a black woman in a white supremacist patriarchal world and that has certain implications for her.
In Lemonade, Beyonce draws on the pain and experiences that she as a black woman has had in order to make wider social commentary about the pain and experiences of black women as a whole. Beyonce’s decision to draw on her own experiences is nothing new. This is something that artists, particularly male artists have been doing for years. For much of the 80s and 90s, black male artists would rap about issues affecting the black community, particularly issues relating to their own personal experiences and would receive praise for it. Even today, when Kendrick Lamar released a song like “Alright”, no one is questioning his motives for doing so. And while Beyonce’s work has not always been overtly feminist, artistic growth is so common as to be expected, and one wonders if her artistic growth would be questioned had she been a man.
One also needs to wonder if Beyonce’s work would be bashed as “capitalist” exploitation had she been a man either. This is criticism that I find particularly violent for a number of reasons. As mentioned before, a great many male artists use their music to speak on societal issues and not once are they accused of exploiting anyone’s pain, let alone their own pain and the pain of their people, for capitalist gain. I have never once heard of Kendrick Lamar or the late Tupac being criticised for the way they profited monetarily from their activism. In fact, the entire idea that one should not profit monetarily from activism seems to only present itself when a black female activist is doing it.
I find it particularly hypocritical for hooks to make this criticism. Hooks has been writing feminist literature since the late 80s and she profits from the sales of those books. She is paid to do talks and panel discussions on feminist issues. She is also paid to lecture on feminism. In other words, hooks has been profiting off of her activism since she first began publishing, but in her mind, and the minds of many, this does not seem to be a problem.
I don’t personally think that it is a problem. I think that black women in activism spaces are performing labour and, as they exist in a capitalist system in which compensation for ones labour is essential for survival, they should certainly be paid for it.
In “Feminism is for Everybody”, hooks highlights the need to make feminism as accessible as possible. She criticizes feminism in academia for being too elitist, too insular, and therefore failing to serve its revolutionary purpose, especially in a world where patriarchal ideology permeates every facet of pop culture from music, to TV shows, to books. She then makes the case that feminist ideology must become more accessible through books, music, movies, etc so that it can reach a wider audience and effectively counteract patriarchal thought. She even goes as far as to write her books in a casual style far removed from the stiff, verbose, and overly complicated style of academia in order to make her work accessible.
I would argue that what Beyonce is doing is exactly what hooks has argued needs to be done. Beyonce is using her powerful position and enormous platform to spread black feminist ideology. Through her work, millions, who may not otherwise have, have been exposed to black female writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Warsan Shire as well as black female works such as “Daughter of the Soil”. Lemonade also showcased black women of different ages and backgrounds, including the mothers of black men who have died at the hands of police brutality, who may not otherwise have been showcased. While Lemonade may not have been the perfect representation of black women, it is a step in the direction hooks wanted us to move in. Instead of acknowledging this, hooks dismisses it completely and argues “well, there’s nothing new here”.
Hooks’ complete dismissal of Beyonce’s feminism is particularly contradictory when one examines the way she has previously praised women such as Emma Watson. Emma Watson is an especially important case, because Watson is also presents her self in a traditionally feminine manner and while she may not express herself sexually in the same way Beyonce does, she embodies the very type of feminism hooks claims to hate. Hooks’ has openly spoken out against feminism which focuses on making women equal to men as opposed to calling for an entire overhaul of the patriarchal capitalist society we live in. Yet, this is exactly the kind of feminism embodied by Watson’s “He for She” campaign.
There are a number of other contradictions within hooks’ criticism of Beyonce, including her equation of violence against property and the anger that is expressed by someone who has been a victim of violence, with the patriarchal violence men have enacted on women’s bodies. But what disappointed me the most about hooks’ criticism is that it feeds into the very same hypocritical at best and misogynoirist at worst approaches that so many others have taken towards Beyonce’s work.
A case can certainly be made that Beyonce’s work and feminism could use some improvement. But the current criticisms of her lack the nuance to look at her work in a fair and honest manner.