In her December 13th article for The Raw Story, “A Plea: Remember Beyonce’s Record Is Art, Not A Political Treatise”, freelance journalist Amanda Marcotte — who writes on feminism, national politics, and pop culture — tackles the accusation that Beyoncé’s album is “anti-feminist” (referencing reactions to lyrics like “bow down, bitches”) by reminding us that Beyoncé has produced for us a work of art, not one of politics. …Because if we look closely, her politics are flawed, or so the argument goes. Marcotte faults Beyoncé for “reinforc[ing] the same beauty standards she decries on the records”, but ultimately concludes that Beyoncé is still a feminist because, you know, feminism is messy. Marcotte ends the piece in (what she claims is) a “plea” that not only fails to understand Beyoncé’s feminism, but also functions to silence the Black radical politics of Beyoncé’s work:
I want to remind everyone that music is not a polemical or a campaign pamphlet. Music is art. Art can—should—be messy, contradictory, raw, and emotional. I love that Beyonce openly struggles in her music and in her image between the push-pull of both wanting to embody this kind of feminized perfection and seeing it for the trap that it is. It’s much more honest and human and humane than some kind of bland feminist treatise set to a beat. Beauty is a painful trap to ensnare women, but beauty is also pleasure and it draws you in. Denying these contradictions and presenting ourselves as people who have it all figured out all the time is tempting, but it’s not honest. And it’s certainly not art, which is supposed to reveal, not conceal. Just a small plea from me to remember that we’re talking about an art form, not a political treatise, as we tear into the lyrics, beats, and imagery that Beyoncé just turbo-launched into the public.
In one short paragraph, Marcotte manages to remind us why white feminism fails (still) to address the experiences of Black women as women; and in the same stroke, disaffects us — as a viewing public — from our identification(s) with Beyoncé as a woman of color. As an ideology, (white) feminism demands that women identify (and rally) as women first, and as bodies of color second, or better yet, last. Marcotte forecloses on the overdeterminacy of Blackness in an anti-Black world, and underestimates Beyoncé’s commitment to (what I am going to suggest here is) an insurgent, Black political future.
Politico’s magazine has a cover piece on Michelle Obama called “>”Leaning Out: How Michelle Obama Became a Feminist Nightmare.” Or, it could have been titled “random feminists are disappointed.” As per usual, the piece is long on other people’s opinions about how Michelle Obama is single handedly failing the cause and short on actual analysis and historical context.
The piece opens by sharing a story about a new political initiative that Michelle Obama is involved with, with writer Michelle Cottle implying that Obama’s focus on people and not policy is not enough:
Speaking last week at Bell Multicultural High School, a couple of miles north of the White House, the first lady touted the importance of a college degree, citing her own journey from a one-bedroom apartment on Chicago’s South Side to Princeton as evidence of how far hard work and good schooling can take you. “I’m here today because I want you to know that my story can be your story,” she told the predominantly low-income, heavily minority student body.
Cottle goes on to explain that Obama’s visit to Bell Multicultural is part of a push for a campaign to encourage college completion. Cottle then complains that Obamas efforts with youth outreach are distressingly focused on actually talking to the youth, instead of digging deep and hitting hard at policy from the White House Garden.
This example is an interesting one to criticize, to say the least. Nothing is mentioned about DC’s unique space in public education debates, now forgotten after the heyday of high profile reformers. Not much is said about why there may be a focus on minority graduation rates from college, or why Bell Multicultural might be the perfect kind of place to launch an initiative focusing on low income students and college enrollment. No, no, Cottle would like us to understand that Michelle Obama is failing feminism because she insists on being motherly.
In Cottle’s own words:
Turns out, she was serious about that whole “mom-in-chief” business—it wasn’t merely a political strategy but also a personal choice.
On Sunday night, four of my friends and I—all people of color—watched a YouTube clip of Miley Cyrus’ performance completely prepared to laugh and joke about it by its conclusion. We were expecting something that would fit neatly in the long line of ridiculous and yet mostly entertaining awards show performances. Instead, as the YouTube clip reached its end, the room fell completely silent. Even as a writer, I don’t quite have words to describe what that moment felt like. Using academic lingo to explain why cultural appropriation is problematic is one thing; the feeling in your gut when you actually watch parts of your identity being used as props is another. As is true with so many shockingly specific traumatic black experiences, this is a feeling we all recognize immediately, and a feeling we all have no words to describe. In the hours and days following, the critical feminist response was, yet again, a reminder of the ways in which my blackness—even as it exists in concurrence with my femininity—is still actively being othered.
A few weeks have passed since the #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen hashtag first surfaced on Twitter. The subsequent conversation about the lack of representation and further marginalization of women of color by white women in the feminist movement (not at all a new conversation) seemed suddenly reenergized. Women of color have always talked about the subtle racism that happens within the feminist movement; just because you haven’t heard it, doesn’t mean it hasn’t been said—especially considering which narratives are allowed space and which ones aren’t. But with this hashtag, their voices suddenly had a stage. And some white women listened. Some critiqued their own privilege and pointed out the ways the feminist movement has historically dismissed women of color and their experiences. But now, it seems that even those well-meaning white feminists have yet to turn their articles into actual actions.
Most of the responses following Cyrus’ performance have been a conversation of the unconventional way in which she expressed her sexuality on the VMAs stage and the slut-shaming that ensued. Many feminists have since rushed to her defense and appropriately prompted us all to question our immediate negative response to Cyrus’ choice sexual presentation. And don’t get me wrong, it’s a valid stance—in the sense that slut-shaming is certainly a habit that supports rape culture and demanding that society recognizes a woman’s sexual autonomy is hard and necessary work. Back when Cyrus was being sexual without involving the appropriation of my blackness, I was totally on board. Now? Not so much.
Here’s where the racial fissures in feminism come out: by all means, defend a woman’s right to govern her own body; it’s great that white feminists have that goal at the top of their lists. But meanwhile, as a woman of color, I’m still defending my right to actually be considered a body at all and not decoration. Expressing your sexuality at my expense isn’t okay. You don’t get to claim sexual freedom while simultaneously perpetuating the oppression of another body. When you feel the need to express your sexuality by turning my body into an accessory, the black feminist in me—two identities which I refuse to separate—can’t have your back anymore. The feminist struggle is a struggle for autonomy. It’s a fight for recognition and full-body respect. But in Cyrus’ search for and exploration of her sexual identity, she limits my autonomy as a woman of color. She appropriates it. She cheapens it. She effectively uses the identity and lived experiences of so many women of color as a crutch for her career. Continue reading →
In Bitch magazine, Racialicious senior editor Tamara Winfrey Harris weighs in on feminist criticism of singer Beyonce:
Dr. Sarah Jackson, a race and media scholar at Boston’s Northeastern University, says, “The idea that Beyoncé being sexy is only her performing for male viewers assumes that embracing sexuality isn’t also for women.” Jackson adds that the criticism also ignores “the limited choices available to women in the entertainment industry and the limited ways Beyoncé is allowed to express her sexuality, because of her gender and her race.”
Her confounding mainstream persona, Jackson points out, is one key to the entertainer’s success as a black artist. “You don’t see black versions of Lady Gaga crossing over to the extent that Beyoncé has or reaching her levels of success. Black artists rarely have the same privilege of not conforming to dominant image expectations.”
Solange, Beyoncé’s sister, who has gone for a natural-haired, boho, less sexified approach to her music, remains a niche artist, as do Erykah Badu, Janelle Monáe, and Shingai Shoniwa of the Noisettes, like so many black female artists before them. Grace Jones, Joan Armatrading, Tracy Chapman, Meshell Ndegeocello—talented all, but quirky black girls, especially androgynous ones, don’t sell pop music, perform at the Super Bowl, or get starring roles in Hollywood films.
Black women (and girls) have also historically battled the stereotype of innate and uncontrolled lasciviousness, which may explain why Beyoncé’s sexuality is viewed differently from that of white artists like Madonna, who is lauded for performing in very similar ways.
Last week, Jennifer Lopez scandalized Britain with a “raunchy” performance on “Britain’s Got Talent.” Not only did viewers flock to social media (as you do) to complain about JLo dropping it like it’s hot in a French-cut one piece and thigh-high boots, but British TV regulator OfCom confirmed that it has received complaints about the broadcast and is assessing the matter, but not investigating it.
For helpful context, here is the performance–labeled “disgusting” and “shameful” by some critics–that provoked an “assessment” of whether a competitive reality show violated the bounds of decency.
In my humble opinion, the only thing indecent about that performance was the tepidness of the dancing and the awfulness of the song. (But, hey, maybe it’s not for me. I’m an old–actually the same age as JLo–and I don’t spend much time at the club lately.)
I suspect the assessment of Jennifer Lopez’s performance is influenced by both race, size and age bias. But you know I’m conspiratorial that way, so I asked Andrea, my homegirl and fellow editor at the R to weigh in.
Tami: When I heard all the crowing about this performance, I recalled Beyonce’s Super Bowl performance earlier this year., which also prompted cries of outrage.
Both of these performances seem astonishingly tame in the face of criticism. “Disgusting” is a pretty strong word to describe booty shaking in a body suit. Folk are generally cool with sexy (and sexist) Go Daddy commercials during the Super Bowl, but Queen Bey causes parents to “shield their kids’ eyes.”
I think the response to these performances is very much influenced by racial bias. Brown and black bodies are routinely sexualized. Latinas bear the weight of the “spicy” and “exotic” stereotypes. And those stereotypes have dogged Lopez throughout her career. The nickname “J. Ho”–a reference to the singer/actress’ alleged promiscuity and mercenary character–even has a spot in the Urban Dictionary. And I should point out, these accused character traits seem to be based on little but the skewed way this culture views Latinas.
Lopez herself told US magazine of the controversy: “I think people are so much raunchier than I am. I feel like I’m so tame. [I] wore it at Billboard and Britain’s Got Talent said they wanted exactly the same. So I thought I’d wear the outfit in black. No one complained at Billboard. I think people just like to talk. It was a bodysuit. A lot of performers wear that these days. It is standard stage clothes. I’m not going to walk down the street like that!”
JLo’s act does not seem markedly different from any other pop spectacle–no different Britney Spears’ iconic performance at the 2000 VMA’s or what this Britney impersonator did during an audition for…wait for it…“Britain’s Got Talent” in 2011.
Andrea: I agree, especially about the relative tepidness of Lopez’s performance and the non-scandalousness of her outfit.
What I think is at play here is Beyonce and Lopez are doing dance moves that are, whether done with Beyonce’s exuberance or with Lopez’s tepidness, sexy moves that they thought of and/or approved of. In other words, they’re expressing their sexual agency. However, that’s a major no-no in a society steeped in the sexist ethos of “I can touch you, but you can’t touch yourself,” which has a long structural history in the lives of women of color due to slavery and colonization.
And this “what about the children” reasoning as to folks’ disgust with the two women’s performance brings up not only women of color doing that stereotypical thing of ruining people’s sexual “innocence” but also something of–how shall I phrase this?–an unspoken notion of the influence of images not only affecting how a person will be “brought up” to express their own sexuality but also the kind of person their brain will be hard-wired to be attracted to. If the child–and let’s be really real, kids are indeed sexual beings–is connecting their erotic feelings to seeing a woman of color dancing like Lopez and moreso like Beyonce, the parents may be thinking that their child just may act upon that attraction and–gasp!–fall in love and–clutch the pearls!–bring “such a woman” home as a spouse.
Tami: And here’s the other thing: Jennifer Lopez (and Beyonce) are not only women of color, they are also women known for having curvy body types, which are often associated with Latinas and black women and are larger than the current ideal for celebrities. Unrestrained fleshiness and jiggle reads differently than hard and trim; Physical abundance is often mistaken for wantonness.
Media wrote about Lopez’s “bum-baring” performance, but the singer’s booty is covered; her outfit was less revealing than typical beachwear. Could the rub be that JLo’s rear is big and round vs. tiny and tight?
Andrea: I think Lopez herself has pointed out how her body shape get framed in this society: “People equate sexy with promiscuous. They think that because I’m shaped this way, I must be scandalous–like running around and bringing men into my hotel room. But it’s just the opposite.” To me, Lopez shouldn’t have had to say such a thing–her body, however it’s shaped, is hers to do with what she wants with nary a comment to the press. However, the burden of the stereotypes about Latinas and Black women keeps us defending our reputations in the public space in order to, as Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry says in her book Sister Citizen, keep our bearings in the face of the socially constructed crooked images of ourselves.
But we’re not only defending our reputations that folks assume comes with our bodies; we also need to defend our bodies, literally, as seen by the clip of Beyonce whipping around and firmly telling a white-appearing concertgoer in Denmark that she’d have him removed because he smacked her butt–and this happened last week!
This brings me back to what you said about our bodies being routinely sexualized. It’s not just that bodies of color are routinely sexualized; it’s that our bodies are furthermore seen–still–as public sexual property to be discussed and publicly contested to be the figures that people shouldn’t aspire to desire sexually, though I’ve heard quite a few non-Black and non-Latin@s say that Beyonce and Lopez inspired them to “love their curves” and/or “embrace their booties” in light of the contested reality that Beyonce’s and Lopez’s curves are seen as a physical and sexual ideal.
Tami: Lastly, I think age is a factor in this discussion as well. Western culture worships youth. Women past a certain age aren’t supposed to sexy; we are supposed to cover up. Madonna is routinely told to put it away. And, to hear some folks tell it, Janet Jackson’s biggest sin wasn’t showing booby on primetime television, but showing over-40 booby. Sexy dressing may be fine for the 20-somethings, but for women north of 40, it is unseemly.
Andrea: *Sigh* I think part of this is the association of age and motherhood. Lopez and Beyonce are both mothers. Forty-something women especially (Bey is in her 30s) are cast as matronly–whether or not we have children–and being sexually attracted to a woman of that age is seen as MILFing, which, as the phrase states, is all about desiring a woman old enough to be (some)one’s mom, who are always constructed as non-sexual beings in this society. (Thus, the porned-out “shock” of the attraction.)
No, it’s pop goddesses who are so deeply degraded when they aren’t meeting the physical ideals of youth, like, well, getting older. And it’s Black and Latina pop goddesses–like Beyonce, Jackson, and Lopez, who’s still fondly remembered as one of the Fly Girls for In Living Color–who are degraded so roundly and so publicly.
I am still at Stanford (and will be until June.) But I am bringing back an old tradition of doing class notes on some of these ideas.
Joan Morgan, hip-hop feminism pioneer, has been moving her work into conversations around pleasure and sexual politics. Jeff Chang, hip-hopper-about-town and the head of Stanford’s Institue for Diversity in the Arts, asked Joan if she’d like the be the artist in residence for WinterQuarter. Joan agreed and then developed a class called “The Pleasure Principle: A Post-Hip Hop Search for a Black Feminist Politics of Pleasure.”
“The Pleasure Principle: A Post-Hip Hop Search for a Black Feminist Politics of Power” (CSRE127B) will explore the various articulations of a politics of pleasure in black feminist thought. We will examine classic black feminist texts on respectability politics, the erotic, hip-hop feminism, and dancehall culture, geared toward helping students develop a critical lens for interrogating depictions of black female sexuality and articulations of pleasure in popular culture. Examples include “The Cosby Show,” “Sex in the City,” “Girlfriends,” “Basketball Wives,” “Real Housewives of Atlanta,” “Pariah,” as well as the works of Beyonce, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Tanya Stephens, and Lady Saw. Continue reading →
The Manifesto therefore provides a platform of a common set of demands for the achievement of gender equality and equity and sustainable national development. It allows women to articulate their concerns in the 2004 Elections and beyond. Women are thereby empowered to use their votes as a bargaining tool and recruit others to do the same. The Manifesto provides female and male candidates with an agenda once they are elected to parliament and the District Assemblies. Finally, it would ensure political party accountability as they would ultimately be assessed on the basis of where they stand in relation to issues that concern women as outlined in the Women’s Manifesto. (Read the full Women’s Manifesto for Ghana here.)
In America, we are so convinced of our brand of democracy’s superiority that we are loathe to look beyond our shores for inspiration. And if we did, it is safe to say we would not look to Africa, a place the mainstream still imagines as a “dark continent” of indistinct and disadvantaged countries and peoples. What could the U.S.A. possibly learn from a country like Ghana?
AfroPop’s documentary “An African Election,” which premieres at 8:30 pm ET, Monday, Oct. 1, illustrates that riveting, hard-fought elections; charismatic politicos; and engaged, change-focused electorates are not exclusive to America. In a short 55 years, Ghana won its independence from the British, experienced four coups d’etat, and successfully transitioned into democracy. And there is something else to be learned by American women concerned about legislative efforts to curb our freedoms–Ghana is exactly where we might look for a response to the “war on women.”
Slide from the talk, taken from the “Top of the World” music video.
I’m knee-deep into the Knight Fellowship (more on that in October) so I’ve been scarce around here lately. But I did want to post about some upcoming events, since I love meeting Racializens in the world.
TONIGHT, 7 PM Kenyon College Higley Hall 101 East Brooklyn St Gambier, OH 43022
Presenting “From Rape Culture to Pop Culture” as part of their Take Back the Night Programming. After-chat at the Cozier Center.
Wexner Center for the Arts Ohio State 1871 North High Street Columbus, OH 43201
Panelist during the Pop Impact Symposium. Description here:
How do feminist, queer, and critical race theories “trickle down” into the creation of popular culture? Entertainment industry insiders discuss how their educational experiences and critical concepts are introduced and circulate in their work. Cultural critic and digital media consultant Latoya Peterson (Racialicious) and comedian and writer Angela V. Shelton (Frangela) talk with moderator Kimberly Springer from Ohio State’s Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.
Cosponsored by Ohio State’s Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies with support from Arts & Humanities.
Keynote–Against Pearl Clutching: Rebels, Renegades, and Critical Resistance
A look at social rebellion and historical revision through the lens of pop culture. Pearls and Cashmere, campus racism, and the politics of exclusion will be discussed.
Workshop–Bridging the Gaps: Solidarity Beyond Clichés
This workshop will focus on reading, journaling, and partner exercises designed to explore the difficulties in creating broadly inclusive spaces and creating frameworks and language that will allow for the formation of lasting coalitions.
Race, Culture, and Identity in a Colorstruck World