I’m a Grown Woman: Beyonce and Feminist Discourse

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by Evan Seymour

It is nothing out of the ordinary for superstar entertainer Beyonce to grace the cover of a magazine, but rarely do these appearances spark conversations around feminism. Ms. magazine, one of the oldest, most widely recognized feminist publications in existence, has selected Mrs. Carter as their spring 2013 cover girl, but not all of the magazine’s readership agree with Bey’s selection, or with her being labeled a feminist.

While looking at a few of my favorite websites, I came across Jessica Wakeman’s article for The Frisky -- Beyonce On The Cover Of Ms. Causes Controversy. After reading Wakeman’s post, I started thinking about the politics of feminism. I’m not going to spend a lot of time speaking directly about Beyonce as a feminist, because I think Wakeman, along with Tamara Winfrey Harris in a separate article for Bitch Magazine (http://bitchmagazine.org/article/all-hail-the-queen-beyonce-feminism), do a more than sufficient job of exploring the issue.

What I do, however, want to take a moment to ponder is the longstanding and unfortunate schism along racial lines that is too often a part of feminist discourse. In order to set up my commentary, I want to borrow a snippet from Wakeman’s article. The first paragraph comes directly from the story teaser posted on the Ms. Facebook page:

Hobson [the article’s author], an associate professor of women’s studies at the University of Albany, sparks a discussion among other pop culture critics about female empowerment, combining feminism and ‘traditional’ roles, and the ‘politics of respectability’ for black women. At the end of the piece, it’s up to the reader to decide: Has Beyonce ‘earned’ her feminist credentials? Why do we even question her feminism at all?

In an attempt to gain a better understanding of the debate, I took a moment to research ‘respectability politics’. The term “politics of respectability” is credited to a chapter title in Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham’s book Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920 . The term is derivative of the idea of “politics of responsibility”, a commonly used part of the vernacular and ideology of the Civil Rights Movement.

According to Wakeman, “In the use of the term ‘respectability politics’, Hobson is referring to the concept that to be taken seriously in white supremacist society, black people – in this case, black women – need to adopt the behaviors and values of the dominant culture.”

The intersectionality of race and gender are nothing new to the black woman or black feminist thought. Black women understand the matrix of domination, regardless of whether or not they are familiar with Patricia Hill Collins and her work. The debate around whether or not Beyonce has ‘earned’ the title of feminist is just another chapter in an ongoing conversation.

Alice Walker, who was a contributor to Ms. from 1974-1986, popularized the term womanism, a “theoretical perspective based upon the experiences and knowledge bases of Black women [which] recognizes and interrogates the social realities of slavery, segregation, sexism, and economic exploitation this group has experienced in its history in the United States. Furthermore, womanism examines these realities and Black women’s responses without viewing them as a variation on or derivation of Black male or White female behavior and social circumstances.” (437 Beauboeuf-Lafontant).

Walker actually left Ms. in 1986. In her resignation letter, Walker wrote:
“I am writing to let you know of the swift alienation from the magazine my daughter and I feel each time it arrives with its determinedly (and to us grim) white cover…It was nice to be a Ms. cover myself once. But a people of color cover once or twice a year is not enough. In real life, people of color occur with much more frequency. I do not feel welcome in the world you are projecting.”
Walker could not have imagined at the time she wrote those words that Beyonce, aka Sasha Fierce, would one day grace the cover of the magazine.

While there are some black feminists who will undoubtedly argue against Beyonce’s selection as cover girl by Ms. magazine, there are others who laud her selection. Based upon Walker’s definition, and my own personal understanding of feminism, I am able to view Beyonce as a feminist, but I see arguments on the other side of debate and enjoy reading the thoughts of other scholarly African-Americans on the issue.

Is Beyonce being looked at through a different lens because she is a black woman? Would you want your daughter or younger sister looking at Bey as a role model for what it means to be a woman? Does her decision to wear provocative attire and flaunt her sexuality for patriarchal mainstream media negate her right to call herself a feminist? Isn’t Beyonce the same artist who made, “Bills, Bills, Bills”?

Love her or hate her, Beyonce is a part of the womanist discourse. I think it’s wonderful she considers herself a “modern feminist”, but even more importantly, I’m glad to see the conversations about feminism and popular culture, and feminism’s historical treatment of African-American women. Hopefully, this pop-culture conversation can lead to continued, meaningful dialogue around images of women in mainstream media, feminism, womanism, and the unproductive divide between these two valuable theoretical lenses.


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