bell hooks vs. Beyoncé: What this feminist scholarly critique gets wrong about "Lemonade" and liberation

This battle over black women's feminism does more to box us in than Beyoncé's sexuality or anger ever could

By LaSha

Published May 17, 2016 11:00PM (EDT)

Beyoncé in "Lemonade"
Beyoncé in "Lemonade"

Often, when I'm vocal about the degradation and oppression of women – specifically black women – I am labeled a feminist by supporters and opponents alike. Women most often refer to me as feminist to confer honor. Men most often weaponize the term, using it to connate unwarranted bitterness and dismiss arguments. When either does so, I respond plainly, "I am not a feminist."

It is not that I take offense at the term. I grant it neither disgust nor worship. In reality, feminism has no firm nor universal mission. It seems the title is bestowed or stripped based on some complex and contradictory matrix with an ever-changing formula for determining who qualifies and how that qualification must be upheld. Practical feminism is more popularity contest than movement for equality and liberation, more infighting than unity. It is a trendy term, and an elitist one. I want no part.

Few examples are more illustrative of the divisive state of feminism than the controversy that surrounds Beyoncé's worthiness of her ascribed and avowed status as a feminist. To borrow a line from Beyoncé herself: Feminists, self-proclaimed or crowned, keep her "name rolling off the tongue," or rather, the keyboard. Her every public offering is critiqued for any signs of accord with or betrayal of feminist ideals, as determined by the critic. Every album, every wardrobe selection, every performance is hotly debated to polarizing results. She is at once iconic and problematic.

One of Beyoncé's most noted critics of late has been famed feminist scholar bell hooks. A legend in the world of feminism, hooks has devoted her career to writing, speaking and educating about the intersections of race, class and gender, focusing on how these intersecting identities influence oppression. As a black woman with expertise in gender studies and how the images of women, notably black women, influence our experiences, Dr. hooks is most certainly qualified to critique how the superstar's art affects women. And the influence that comes with Beyoncé's position as one of the most prolific entertainers of our time has the side effect, however unfair, of opening her up to public scrutiny. Yet while hooks' discussions of the singer's power and how she wields it are expected and perhaps even warranted, when shielded by reverence the feminist giant continues not only to analyze but target Beyoncé, with a passionate, often hypocritical contempt that reduces what should be thought-provoking evaluations to social media fodder and anecdotal evidence of women's propensity for spite.

Dr. hooks' brutal criticism of Beyoncé was first widely noted when she participated in a panel discussion in May 2014. Of Knowles, hooks first proclaimed, "...I don’t think you can separate her class power and the wealth, from people’s fascination with her. That here is a young, black woman who is so incredibly wealthy...." She further mused, "One could argue, even more than her body, it’s what that body stands for — the body of desire fulfilled, that is wealth, fame, celebrity, all the things that so many people in our culture are lusting for, wanting.” But the hardest blow came when hooks labeled Beyoncé's influence on not only "anti-feminist," but "assaulting" and "terrorist."

With the full weight of her reputation protecting her, hooks designated this woman, this young black woman like the millions who’ve looked up to her and whom she has devoted her life to speaking for, a terrorist. The impact of such a respected feminist figure branding one of the most powerful women in the world with such a title cannot be overstated. Her words moved the discussion from how Beyoncé’s music and aesthetic impresses women and girls to useless vitriol which opens the door to patriarchy, misogyny and misogynoir disguised as liberation, as hooks decides that she has the right to build and tailor the box in which all expressions of womanhood and feminine artistry must reside, and that those whose autonomy refuses to contort to fit into that box are not only against the feminist mission but actively and maliciously engaged in efforts to destroy it.

Still, hooks’ most important critique of Beyoncé is found in an essay she released last week, nearly two years to the day she called the mogul a terrorist. In “Moving Beyond Pain,” hooks examines Beyoncé’s latest project, the stunning visual album “Lemonade.” Flexing her linguistic expertise, hooks delivers an at once typical and unique perspective on the acclaimed work.

Betraying to the title, Dr. hooks’ essay does not focus as much on moving beyond pain as it does on exposing “Lemonade" as not the love letter to black women that many of us have insisted it is but a skillful exploitation of our vulnerabilities, the result of ingenious conceptualization and flawless execution that “positively exploits images of black female bodies.” In her view, Beyoncé is merely regurgitating patriarchal ideas about the irrational emotion of women, and masquerading that as healing.

And from the first sentence, hooks makes it crystal clear that she’s figured out the end game, and it’s all about the money. A reference to women in her hometown setting up lemonade stands in the first paragraph sets the tone. This album is Beyoncé’s own lemonade stand, where she serves up the perfect glass, fused with the precise amount of sweet and sour, pain and pleasure, heartbreak and happy ending — and for a price, of course!

Viewers, and those viewers have been without question black women, “who like to suggest Lemonade was created solely or primarily for black female audiences are missing the point,” hooks confirms. “Commodities, irrespective of their subject matter, are made, produced, and marketed to entice any and all consumers. Beyoncé’s audience is the world and that world of business and money-making has no color.”

As one of those viewers who not only suggests that “Lemonade” was prepared and served for the black woman’s gaze, but demands it be respected as such, stubbornly clinging to ownership, even I cannot argue that the album is not primarily commodity. Even as I stand absolutely assured that “Lemonade” was crafted with black women in mind, I cannot deny that it was also crafted to be sold to black women. That fact, however, does not diminish its cultural significance to us.

Dr. hooks’ insistence that Lemonade is “all about the body, and the body as a commodity” does much more for invalidating black women and simplifying our complexities than Beyoncé’s so-called “anti-feminist" image ever could. Black women are enthralled, moved to tears, and motivated to unpack baggage and trauma, dead set on seeking support within the sisterhood because of “Lemonade.” It is contrary to any stretch of feminist ideology to then issue us an edict that we have been duped, reducing our connection, a legitimate feeling of transcendent sisterhood and reclamation of our own selves substantiated by shared lived experiences, to our inability to recognize and reject imperialist propaganda.

Black women’s bodies in service to other black women, moving through trauma, love, hate, degradation and maturation accompanied by a corresponding soundtrack is not mere commodity. For centuries, black women's bodies and the corresponding images were placed in service to white supremacy. Black breasts forcibly nourished dozens of babies, black and white, on plantations as enslaved black women were assigned to be wet nurses. Black women were forced to breed on plantations with mates not of their choosing to produce children who would be considered the property of their enslavers. Black women were raped by enslavers, and after the de jure emancipation of black bodies, black women continued to be community property, raped routinely as domestic and civil rights workers by men both black and white. So even if “Lemonade”'s employment of black women's bodies to sell a product is, as hooks declares, "certainly not radical or revolutionary," the concept of producing such images for the benefit of other black women is.

And while capitalistic exchange of these familiar symbols, for adoration, power, obsession and wealth, is most certainly profitable, Beyoncé using her body — the voice that flows from it, the thighs that shake, the eyes that glare — to elicit such responses is neither immoral nor undesirable.

Fundamentally, any body in capitalistic service has been commodified. Yes, Beyoncé sells ample hips and enticing cleavage. Yes, she sells an hour-glass figure and a beautiful face. But does not Dr. hooks sell the image of her body, too? Is she, with folded legs sitting at a computer typing her thoughts from arched fingers, not commodifying her body? Is her choice not to show as much leg or to cover her bosom not because she has commodified the idea that women should be modest in their presentation of their bodies? Is Dr. hooks being compensated finely for her physical presence—her body—on a panel, or at the podium of a classroom, somehow less representative of commodification than Beyoncé being well-compensated for her physical presence—her body—dancing and singing on stage or in front of a camera?

If the claim can be made that hooks somehow uses her body more honorably or more worthily than Beyoncé, though both are engaged in the same “business of capitalist money making” hooks called out at the beginning of her piece, then that brand of feminism is no more than the other side of the patriarchal coin.

We cannot move beyond the myriad of norms that comprise society's restrictive definition of what womanhood is and what its acceptable utterances and displays look like by simply replacing them with new, yet just as restrictive, norms. Undoubtedly a woman's value should not be reduced to the usefulness of her body in exciting and enticing the carnal senses. Neither, then, should a woman's value be reduced by her ability to use her body to excite and entice carnal senses. And for as long as that ability has been exploited for financial and social capital gains by men, a woman not only controlling the output of these images but making gains from them herself represents the kind of resistance to and rejection of patriarchy that should define feminism.

That part of hooks' criticism that addresses Beyoncé's eroticized presentation of both herself and other black women is expected. No examination of the pop icon can be legitimate without at least a mention of the sexuality she exudes, steers and markets. But later in “Moving Beyond Pain,” hooks dissects more crucial themes in “Lemonade,” arguing that it is a "celebration of rage." She defends this claim by highlighting the video for "Hold Up," in which Beyoncé, in a Roberto Cavalli gown, "boldly struts through the street with baseball bat in hand, randomly smashing cars." This, hooks tells us, "pure fantasy."

Though this track and accompanying video are among my favorites on the album, I agree with hooks: “Hold Up”'s imagery is pure fantasy. Whose fantasy, though, is open to interpretation. An international superstar dressed in couture smashing the windows of classic cars as she skips and smiles is anything but reality. Yet, isn't a woman looking perfect and smiling through her pain society's ultimate fantasy? How many women have endured infidelity and abuse privately while still presenting beauty and confidence to the world? Tina Turner famously endured brutal physical abuse for years while smiling in interviews and giving her all on stage in her extravagant costumes. What hooks views as a smug "celebration of violence," I view as the vacillation between who scorned women want to be and who we feel we have to be. It is an outward expression of rage pierced by an eternal obligation to suppress it and look happy. It is every woman who's had to get up and still be pleasant and well-groomed in the office as she dies inside trying to deal with the hurt inflicted upon her by a cheating partner.

Most importantly, though, hooks reveals that "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." Absolutely. But that is not the argument “Lemonade” makes. Rage and its consequent expressions are the easiest to work through. To me, Beyoncé's project does not encourage violence as a means to resolve hurt. Nor does it suggest that the destruction of property will repair the damage to the self-esteem caused by the ultimate betrayal. What it does is provide validation of those basic feelings, the immediate need to fuck up whatever tangible objects the cheater loves.

"Violence does not create positive change." I suppose that's true if the focus stops at revenge, but “Lemonade”'s seeming endorsement of violence does not designate violence as a vehicle for change. “Lemonade” simply makes space for women who can only feel rage, understanding that rage is the suitcase of it all. The self-healing comes from the unpacking of the box sealed by rage. Violent rage is the tape we tear through to get to the fragile contents.

And what of that unpacking? Perhaps my greatest frustration with hooks' article comes with her conclusion 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 implies that there is only one desired resolution for women in this scenario, and that resolution is not forgiving the male partner's transgressions with the ultimate goal of staying together. Yes, patriarchy dictates that women should always be prepared to save their family, ignoring or at least always forgiving their mate's adultery, no matter how severe or frequent. This is positively a feature we should reject in the quest to break the chains of patriarchy. But there's a difference in telling a woman that she should accept chronic unfaithfulness and a woman testifying — or at least appearing to do so, since despite popular assumption, there has been no affirmation that “Lemonade” is autobiographical — that her own personal resolution involved forgiving her partner and staying with him.

I am in absolute agreement with hooks that "no matter how hard women in relationships with patriarchal men work for change, forgive and reconcile, men must do the work of inner and outer transformation if emotional violence against black females is to end," yet I do not believe that it is the job of Beyoncé to focus on this point. Nothing in “Lemonade” suggests to me that a woman working through her own anger, pain and feelings of inadequacy excuses the offending partner. It does not sell the absolution of blame for cheating. In fact, it names the man who cheated as the just object upon which the rage is directed. But “Lemonade” is less about displaying a refined man who makes amends for his transgressions than it is about a refined woman committed to demanding she be treated with the respect her value warrants. The "caring images of Jay-Z which conclude the narrative" are not the championing of a good man ultimately conquered and changed by love — they are the championing of a woman who will accept no less.

“Lemonade” is not "a measure of our capacity to endure pain" absent "a celebration of our moving beyond pain," as hooks indicates. I too am beyond weary of the depiction of the strong black woman perpetually able to take hit after hit and tragedy after tragedy, and come out unscathed. “Lemonade” does not pretend that black women are some unbreakable force. Instead, it presents a broken Beyoncé — a rich, beautiful, revered pop superstar who despite the ostensible cloak of invincibility is torn apart by cheating. It presents a broken Lesley McSpadden, the incurable grief of losing her son worn in her eyes. It allows us to be human and vulnerable and defeated. The celebration is not in our endurance but the realization that we are human and have the freedom to go through tragedy and rebound. The celebration is the realization that black women, though devalued by the world, still see the value in each other. The celebration is in the resurrecting power of sisterhood and embrace of black femininity in spite of pain.

"Concurrently, in the world of art-making, a black female creator as powerfully placed as Beyoncé can both create images and present viewers with her own interpretation of what those images mean. However, her interpretation cannot stand as truth," hooks boldly asserts. I'd argue that truth is relative. If, as hooks claims, Beyoncé's "vision of feminism cannot be trusted," because it "does not call for an end to patriarchal domination," neither can I trust hooks' vision of feminism, which does call for a patriarchal end to domination — but only by replacing it with an equally rigid domination, constructed and maintained by women who wax poetic about liberation.

By LaSha

LaSha is a writer and blogger committed to using her writing to help deconstruct oppressive ideologies, notably racism and misogynoir. She runs the Kinfolk Kollective blog, where she discusses everything from parenting to politics through a black lens. Follow her on Twitter.


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bell Hooks Beyonce Feminism Lemonade Misogynoir Music Race