If you told me, someone who has been feminist identified since I was 12 years old, that I would ever critique bell hooks in defense of the woman who wrote “Bootylicious,” I would have called you a lot of liars. But here we are.
I read hooks’s response to Lemonade over dinner at a very fancy gala, one of those events that makes me feel like I’m just a little girl playing dress up and that one day, someone is going to send me back to where I belong. Her words, ironically, seemed to say the same exact thing to Beyoncé—remanding her back to her sandbox, away from the grown folks’ business of feminism.
The essay made me feel sad. Sad that the woman who I’d told so many others to read in order to build up their feminist foundation remains so disconnected from the feminism that has empowered me so much. Sad that someone as brilliant as hooks cannot see the forest for the trees (or, perhaps, “see the orgasm fir the exposed thighs” may be more accurate) when it comes to Beyoncé, sad that she is so disconnected from the reasons why this woman and this work have such great meaning to our sisters.
I’m not sure how to process a critique of Lemonade from a woman who has wrapped her significant arms around Emma Watson, the 26-year-old actress who is the face of He For She (a very glib UN campaign for gender equality) while expecting Beyoncé to deliver a flawless feminist work lest she be written off as nothing more than a pretty princess of capitalism. (Watson’s place in the Panama Papers is a delightful counterpoint to this, of course.)
What a painful example of White privilege: to gain the co-sign of one of the most prolific Black feminist authors on the planet for contributing nothing that is groundbreaking or profound, while that same author is incredibly heavy handed when describing the Black woman who has brought feminism to young people who may never engage with it otherwise.
Celebrities are often lauded for doing the bare minimum as it relates to social justice and intellectual labor; however, from the moment Beyoncé identified herself as a feminist, there have been White writers tripping over themselves to explain why she isn’t feminist enough. Absent from most of this work has been an understanding of the singer’s relationship to her audience and the unique ways that Black women have performed feminism throughout history. I would have expected more from the likes of hooks; alas, she jumped right in the fray and called our sister a “terrorist” in 2014.
How detached from the hearts and minds of Black women does someone have to be to distill Lemonade down to “the business of capitalist money making at its best”? If all commercial art is commodity, does that really mean that creating a work that centers Black women in a beautiful way and speaks directly to and about us is rendered valueless because it’s available to be consumed by all? And what does this say about the dozens of books she’s published, presumably none of them available for free? Her speaking engagements?
In the very essay in which the author calls herself a proponent of Black women having their money together, she goes on to suggest that the mere sight of a twerking Serena Williams—who does not appear to be wearing Ivy Park—is a subtle advertisement for Beyoncé’s new clothing line, because the image “evokes sportswear.” She doesn’t see Williams performing a dance that was critiqued and appropriated for White consumption. She doesn’t see a woman delighting in the body that has been called every disgusting name in the book by the likes of racist tennis fans and Jason Whitlock alike. Instead she sees Black femme sexuality and capitalism, and she doesn’t seem to have much tolerance for us finding joy in either.
I wish that hooks had more context for Lemonade because simply identifying Julie Dash imagery is not enough. My own journey with Beyoncé has been a complicated one. Long before I would have considered myself to be a hardcore fan of her music, I fell in love with the joy she brings to Black women and girls. Her work and her role in the public imagination are not above critique or examination, be clear, but there is something incredible about the love Black women have for her—something deeper than our over-valuation of high-yella gals, more significant than a beautiful voice and weightier than the beauty of a Coke bottle frame in a custom cut onesie.
The writer seems to believe that Beyoncé’s self-ID as a feminist means that she is required to speak plainly about ending patriarchy, or offer nothing at all. hooks uses this woman as a receptacle for all her angst over capitalism and the male gaze, expecting that “good” feminists must able to divorce themselves from those concepts lest we be a danger to ourselves: “(Beyoncé’s) her construction of feminism cannot be trusted. Her vision of feminism does not call for an end to patriarchal domination.”
“In this fictive world, black female emotional pain can be exposed and revealed. It can be given voice: this is a vital and essential stage of freedom struggle, but it does not bring exploitation and domination to an end.”
Is feminist work only valid if it performs that labor? Where is Beyonce’s space to learn and grow as a feminist? Why not invite the opportunity to engage with a woman who has captivated the hearts and minds of women that hooks should want to reach, as opposed to branding her as an untrustworthy “terrorist?” What feminism makes enemies of our sisters for failing to perform gender critique as we see fit?
Lemonade rocked me to my core, forcing me to confront feelings about past lovers, my father, our relationship to the Black men who hurt us, over and over again in ways large and small. This was a shared experience by definition, a love letter to Black women shared before the entire world on HBO. It cost money and will gross much more, sure. But least we not forget that Beyoncé invited an audience than may not otherwise engage with the likes of Julie Dash and Ntozake Shange to discover a world of Black Girl Magic that can’t be experienced via Tidal. Has hooks seen the Lemonade syllabus?
For whatever flaws or imperfections the project may have, it is groundbreaking, it is important and it is meaningful. I hope hooks finds space to reconnect with Black women who can help her to contextualize it appropriately, because it seems a lot of it was lost to what she already felt about the woman who created it.
Feminism requires space for bell hooks and Beyonce alike. I just hope that the former is willing to acknowledge that.