Whenever you pen a critique of Beyonce, whether it is in agreeance or opposition, we have somehow become obliged to noting that we, the critic, are not a member of the BeyHive. It’s irony that undersells why critiques of Beyoncé so often falter. Not because Beyoncé is without sin, but because so many try to frame their analysis of her based on the actions of the most raucous sect of her fanbase.
Somehow if you enjoy any element of Beyoncé, you are lumped with the 15 year who lives in Berwick-upon-Tweed and has all the time in the world to spam KidRock’s Instagram account with lemon and bee emojis, lest he or we ever forget the shade he threw at Beyonce in 2015. Then there are those who claim to not want to engage in critiques on Beyonce because the Beyhive is too much, as though there is no sanity in those whose opinions oppose yours. Yes, there is a level of immaturity that seeps through a very particular subset of the Beyhive. Though I don’t know that they are any different in the height of their shallowness than Rihanna’s Navy or Nicki Minaj’s Barbies. To get to the point, I’ve written a good deal about Beyonce in the last three months, largely in appreciation of what she is currently serving us and countering the critiques that have come out this last iteration of who we know Beyonce to be. Not because I am a part of the Beyhive. I don’t own any of her albums before 4, and there is nothing I miss about her Sasha Fierce era. But because I want to engage in actual critiques on Beyoncé and not those on the Beyhive.
With the release of her latest visual album, Lemonade, I’ve seen a rumbling of how Beyoncé is not a feminist, is not about Black women, is not intelligent, is not anything that stands for integrity. It is almost always deduced to how her fans, and really we are referring to the Beyhive, respond. Because the barometer of anyone’s influence can be found in Facebook and Instagram comments, already the shining bastion of intelligent thought.
I am in no ways asserting that Beyonce is the leader of Black feminism. She is a participant and influencer in the realm of Black feminism, whether or not you agree with her flavor of feminism. I can assert that bell hooks* is a leader in the founding of Black feminism, even though many of her beliefs I do not agree with, nor overall does her flavor of feminism represent how I choose to live and advocate for as a Black woman. I am more of a Joan Morgan’s When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost type gal.
*sidenote: for those unaware, bell hooks stylized her name with lowercase to signify what is important about her work, “substance of books, not who I am.”
Last week bell hooks published her critique of Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Having previously called Beyoncé a terrorist, I already knew hook’s opinion was not going to be favorable. Though what I do appreciate about her writing, is not the need for me to agree with any of it but how much it does provoke me to think and dig a little bit deeper. Forcing me to affirm how I stand in my own personal beliefs. So I treaded slowly over to hook’s review and I wasn’t disappointed that she questioned Beyoncé, I was disappointed in the very narrow lens hooks used to define what and who is allowed to participate in Black feminism.
hooks to Beyoncé is like Cornel to Obama. The old who squint their eyes and turn up their nose as they forget how different
their revolution looked from their elders, while they themselves criticize the next generation for not doing as they did. History will always repeat itself, with a different shade of glass to view from.
In her review of Lemonade hooks first claims that “Viewers who like to suggest Lemonade was created solely or primarily for black female audiences are missing the point.” As it was “marketed to entice any and all consumers.” When’s the last time you saw something marketed directly to Black woman as a way to up sell to the general market? Look to YouTube where Black women are often overlooked for opportunity because you can sell to a broader audience when it’s racially ambiguous or white. How does Beyonce making a visual album that poignantly and in your face celebrates black womanhood, that many of us are told is not marketable, nothing more than a marketing ploy? Considering her album 4, where Beyoncé broke away from pop and delved more deeply into a distinctly adult contemporary, rhythm and blues sound and it was her lowest selling album. What would make Beyonce the most money is going back to her days of Sasha Fierce. We can acknowledge that this is a business and Beyoncé is very much so strategically about her business. She’s also been in the game for around twenty years and what does every artist who has any sort of longevity as a musician do? Especially Black women artists who tend to have the hardest time getting their due and having the right to control their art/image…they evolve into their womanhood, revealing more of themselves. From Nina to Diana, to Whitney and Janet, we have seen this before. Beyoncé has seen it and been heavily influenced by it.
This is strategic. Strategic in that Beyonce can afford to demand that we, and not just Black folks but a much larger and diverse audience, has to listen to her while she is this daring, this controversial and this Blackity, black black black (in the words of Eveeeeezy). Sis is Black af and unapologetic about it without losing her artistry, her celeb power, her legacy or her sanity (look what we’ve made of Nina). And one must ask, dear bell, ms hooks…do you not make a real cute coin off your books, your writing, and your public speaking. Maybe calling Beyoncé a terrorist was strategic in providing you press lest this witless younger generation remain unaware of who you is.
bell hooks pushes forward that “radical repositioning of black female images does not truly overshadow or change conventional sexist constructions of black female identity.” But when, since Eve bit that crisp Pink Lady apple, has anything man produced been all things, immediately dismantling a system? Has hooks, for all her laying of this great foundation, been able to entirely shift the premise of feminism or stop the erasure of women of color? Pressed upon white women that feminism can not exist without intersectionality? This is presuming that Beyoncé’s intentions were for Lemonade to be seen as the standard or column upon which Black feminism stands and not a celebration or a reprieve for Black women. hooks can see that “Lemonade offers viewers a visual extravaganza— a display of black female bodies that transgresses all boundaries.” That “Portraits of ordinary everyday black women are spotlighted, poised as though they are royalty.” Indeed, Lemonade “shifts the gaze of white mainstream culture.” I don’t know that it ever presumed to do more as a musical album. In an age where hard beats and mumbled lyrics are the peak, Lemonade is pushing forward thought, invoking the pride of being a Black woman.
bell hooks goes to on to delineate that Lemonade continues on with the stereotype of the black woman as always being a victim. “Beyoncé is sexualized along with her acts of emotional violence.” A “celebration of rage.” “And even though the father in the song “Daddy’s Lessons” gives her a rifle warning her about men, she does not shoot her man.” “Contrary to misguided notions of gender equality, women do not and will not seize power and create self-love and self-esteem through violent acts.” hook is attempting to castrate Beyonceé through the very literal lens that hooks viewed the art through. You decry the “sexualized violence” because there can be no meaning, no illertation if the character is done up or pretty or well dressed, and then contradict by questioning why she does shoot her man. “Hold Up,” the track hooks’ is referencing where Beyoncé dressed in a golden yellow dress takes a bat to cars as she walks down a street after breaking open doors to room that is submerged under water. There are heavy visual references to Oshun in this clip but hooks see’s nothing more than rage. This is on par with suggesting that Toni Morrison’s literary works celebrate incest or Zora Neale Hurston condones domestic abuse. Absurdity. “Hold Up” does not incite violence, it is a visual aide to the emotional feelings of dealing with betrayal by a loved one. How short sighted most one be to miss that?
“Concluding this narrative of hurt and betrayal with caring images of family and home do not serve as adequate ways to reconcile and heal trauma.” This here is largely why I’m not a fan of hooks she has before dismissed the value of women who seek to be wives, who love to be mothers if only just mothers, they are fine with that calling. And who am I define what one seeks as a woman, as her own being?
Who are you to define feminism through such a narrow lens because Beyonce finds value in her husband and family life? Does that make anyone less authentic less a feminist, less about womanhood if they value creating a family with man? hooks is absolutely right in stating that “men must do the work of inner and outer transformation if emotional violence against black females is to end.” But how did she miss the message of Beyonce’s husband being invested in her and their relationship?As hooks questions “can we really trust the caring images of Jay Z which conclude this narrative?,” without providing any base for her simple dismissal. Rather she builds her case on a nose in the air prejudice.
Yes, ms. hooks in order to truly be free “we must dare to create lives of sustained optimal well-being and joy and not a measure of our capacity to endure pain, but rather a celebration of our moving beyond pain.” That is what Lemonade is for a many Black women. That we are not less a feminist for loving another or for having that love betrayed, for going through the emotions and finding that love or a new love again. That we can move beyond that moment where we feel less than. That we should never be invisible. We should find pride in our vulnerability and we should understand that each woman is unique. Through our love, our rage, our pain, our triumph, our freedom, we are each different and deserving of celebration.
What would be great to see is bell hooks taking a step back and taking time to understand how the identity of Black women has evolved in the 21st century. We can both learn something here. While hooks can celebrate the privileged mediocrity of Emma Watson’s feminism, she can give more credence to the dynamism of what Beyonce is doing on a the pop culture stage that she dominates. And what the means for the Black girl in 2016 who constantly sees pieces of her co-opted for public consumption by white women while being told that she the Black girl is too Black to be good enough.