Hear me out; I'm pretty sure Beyoncé is slaying white, middle class feminist hegemony
Siobhan Sadlier, Outreach and Development Officer
You might be disappointed that an equalities charity is blogging on Beyoncé, but let’s face it worse things will happen in 2017. You might be even more disappointed to learn that I’ve been checking out flights to Copenhagen for the university's new course on Beyoncé. But hear me out – I think Beyoncé might have more to say about today’s gender agenda than some of the more famous feminist writers we’ve grown up loving (or hating, depending on your point of view).
How come? Well, in a capitalist society what sells says something. And Beyoncé has made a tonne of money standing in front of ten foot lights spelling feminist, asking ladies to get in formation, casually mentioning girls run the world, and bringing Black Panther iconography to one of the most watched events in history. She might not come with a glossary and a Harvard referencing but she’s filling out stadiums with women who want to listen to someone sing about some of her experiences being Black and a women in the 21st century.
Feminist conversations can get lonely and it's time to get rid of the VIP list. Beyoncé’s music has taken an unapologetically black turn in recent years and if you're asking me, black feminism brings class, poverty, and broader structural issues to the fore. Now, maybe Beyoncé is right that the best revenge is making a packet, because none of us were making a mountain of money a century ago. But actually, that isn't half as useful as understanding how women have been constrained and demeaned over the years. Understanding that tells us something about how sexism is only part of all of our day-to-day experiences. I get sexism on my way to work while I'm ordering a cappuccino, some people experience sexism when they are fetishized as sexually deviant, seen as less capable and less important when visiting the food bank with three children under five all with asthma due to the damp in inadequate housing. Let’s imagine an alien came down to your road and said, give me one person’s experience that I can learn the most about your inequality, which would be more useful? I’m white and I benefit from this as soon as I wake up until I go to sleep – we're only peering into how society functions and we're stepping on people who have a periscope, telescope, microscope – all the scope needed for a social sniper taking aim at inequality.
Of course, Beyoncé has attracted her fair share of shade of the years. In 2014, the feminist writer bell hooks described Beyoncé as a ‘terrorist’ and ‘anti-feminist’ after she appeared on the cover of Time in her underwear. She was more complimentary of Lemonade, though, Beyonce’s most recent album (and the one that made me a fan). bell said it ‘shifts the gaze of white mainstream culture…and challenges us to radically revision how we see the black female body’. But she still has her concerns, claiming: ‘simply showcasing beautiful black bodies does not create a just culture of optimal wellbeing where black females can become self-actualised and be truly respected’.
Well, perhaps, but it’s a step and a damn important one. The transgender activist Janet Mock has something to say on this that made me think twice. She describes something she called ‘femmephobia’ – the idea that women who like their lipsticks and heels are getting unduly dismissed. When we think about ‘femme’ as an actual, genuine sexual identity, it seems even more problematic to be dismissing the feminist voice of women with feminine presentations. Janet thinks bell’s view ‘echoes dismissal of femmes as less serious, colluding with patriarchy, merely using our bodies rather than our brains to see, be seen.’ Janet takes bell’s 'dressed up' bodies and 'big hair' stating that they ‘do not make us any less serious,' and that ‘our presentations are not measurements of our credibility. These hierarchies of respectability that generations of feminists have internalised will not save us from patriarchy’. I’m hearing a lot about how Beyoncé looks but one thing they both agree on is that Beyoncé is being seen and it hasn’t been seen before.
This is important, because as equality activists we have to use a range of topics and examples to talk to people – and we have to do it on their own terms. If we’re talking about what feminism means to people, we have to look at how popular feminists present themselves.
In this respect, one of the key features of the Beyoncé phenomenon is how she has managed to own her narrative. Back in 1994, the cultural critic Mark Dery asked how a community whose past had been deliberately rubbed out could imagine a future and own its own heritage. His response was to point to sci-fi novels, art, and techno and hip hop music that was being produced by artists with Black backgrounds. All these works, he argued, sought to question and re-examine the place (and future) of the African diaspora across the world. But why stop there? Why can’t pop culture also be a place to challenge some of the structures that govern society and perpetuate particular myths and stereotypes? If we think about black people’s entrance into the entertainment industry as one of the first industries where black people developed a platform, can we think of this as a space for black people to develop a fertile ground for identity formation and a galvanising agent for social change?
Daphne Brooks certainly thinks so. She thinks we’re living in a new golden age of protest music where ‘anger over racism and injustice has borne bitter, brilliant fruit’. She charts the history of ‘black sonic dissent’ positioning Beyoncé on a trajectory began with Nina Simone, Billy Holliday, and Sun Ra. Indeed, if black people’s role as entertainers was one of first layers of integration then a powerful platform is made. And it is further discrimination if we don’t accept artists’ political participation as valuable as academic political participation. Shakespeare and Dickens, high culture icons, may be exalted for their literary social commentary, but we are limiting our resources by not attuning ourselves to social commentary from a figure with a vantage point over millions. I’m waiting to see what Beyoncé and Jay Z make of a billion dollars for black people. They’re building something and I think it will be giving intersectional academics a lot to write about.
My mom thinks Beyoncé needs to wear more scarves and mittens if she is to be initiated amongst the feminist ranks. I’d wonder why we only let ourselves be influenced by perfection, the finished product when we’re still talking about what the end game of feminism might look like. Are we not climbing a cliff looking for any foot holes we can to push ourselves to the next?