[trigger warning: domestic violence]
Last Friday, Beyoncé dropped a new, super-secret self-titled album and my Facebook feed promptly lost its mind. There were so many people talking about it that I had to see what was up. I watched all of the videos. And while I can’t say that most of the songs are thrilling, many of the videos are pretty fantastic. I was pretty entertained all around. Satisfied, I went ahead and moved on.
But then. The black feminist blogosphere started showing up hard for Bey, defending her to all the white feminists who have thrown shade over the years and everybody from Mikki Kendall to Crunk Feminist Collective was declaring Bey a feminist. Like for sure. Like, seriously, why are y’all still questioning this?
In her piece for the Guardian, entitled, “Beyoncé’s New Album Should Silence Her Feminist Critics,” Mikki Kendall wrote: “This album makes it clear that her feminism isn’t academic; isn’t about waves, or labels. It simply is a part of her as much as anything else in her life. She’s pro-woman without being anti-man, and she wants the world to know that you can be feminist on a personal level without sacrificing emotions, friendships or fun.”
Okay. I respect Mikki Kendall. She’s super smart and usually hella on point. I’m not really sure why she’s only talking about Beyonce’s “personal” feminism. (In fact, she goes on to say a lot about the pop star’s personal life and what’s feminist about it without ever saying much about her public persona and what she’s putting out there with that. Which is weird.) But, yeah, there are obvious feminist themes in the song/video for “Pretty Hurts”. And “***Flawless” has some feminist themes as well. And there is almost nothing happening here that is anti-feminist. (Almost. We’ll get back to that in just a bit.)
So, while I’m not sure that one or two feminist songs on an album with 14 tracks is really a feminist triumph that should silence all critics (also, the pessimist in me is like: this is corporate entertainment, “feminism” added to get people talking and thus sell more records), I do see Beyoncé as a kind of feminist. Not just because of this album, but because of feminist things she has said in the past that reveal her analysis. She’s not a perfect feminist (none of us are), she still has a way to go (most of us do), but she is certainly a feminist.
However. There are some legit concerns. Here’s my biggest issue with the album:
In her new song “Drunk In Love, ” featuring her husband, Jay-Z, he raps the following lines:
“Catch a charge, I might, beat the box up like Mike” and “Baby know I don’t play…I’m Ike Turner…now eat the cake Anna Mae.”
In case you’re not up on your wife-beater trivia, that second line is a reference to an infamous incident in the verbally, physically, psychologically and sexually abusive marriage of Ike and Tina Turner wherein Ike forced Tina (Anna Mae) to eat cake by smashing it in her face.
It was one of the last videos I watched and after some legit pro-woman awesomeness, it felt like a slap in the face. A very intentional one. In the middle of this big ol’ so-called feminist triumph, Jay-Z pops in to glorify violence against women and…that’s just cool with Bey, New Black Feminist Superhero of the Universe? And everybody else, too?
I guess so, because over on Crunk Feminist Collective’s blog, Crunktastic is writing stuff like:
“I’m here for anybody that is checking for the f-word, since so many folk aren’t. (Except Republicans. Ain’t nobody here for that.) What we look like embracing Queen Latifah and Erykah Badu even though they patently reject the term, but shading and policing Bey who embraces it? If Bey is embracing this term, that is laudable.”
No shade to the homies at CFC. But are we really arguing that calling yourself a feminist while allowing your husband to spit incredibly disgusting anti-woman shit alongside you on your album is just as legit as not calling yourself a feminist while demonstrating consistent feminist ideals? Because I have to respectfully disagree. I rarely embrace the term feminist. It often feels too disconnected from my particular experience as a black woman. But while I often reject the term itself, my ideals, my politics, and the work I put out into the world does reflect those values. The idea that embracing the term is all by itself laudable is a seriousstretch.
Another stretch: there has also been much made of the fact that Beyoncé samples Chimamanda Ngozi Adichieon her track “***Flawless.” She tells bitches to “bow down” to her over a recording of Adichie talking about feminism.
In Adiche’s words, a feminist is “a person who believes in the social, economic and political equality of the sexes.” This seems to be Beyoncé’s way of declaring herself a feminist. I like the quote, I think it’s important, and I’m really glad it’s there. That said: I think it sets the bar just a bit too low. I would argue that, with all due respect to Ms. Adichie, that definition is lacking in one very important sense. I would add:
…and who is able to look at the world with a critical eye so as to be able to identify those times and places where that equality is not present.
Believing in the equality of the sexes while having no consistent analysis that makes you able to identify when and where inequality is actually taking place (for example: in a line about Ike Turner humiliating and abusing his wife) is not being a feminist. Because I don’t believe that feminism is just about what you think society should ideally be like, but rather how you both perceive society as it is and the how you push back against its real injustices. It’s great that Bey gets that women getting paid less is some bullshit. But it’s also really important to not let your husband rap about abusing women on your “feminist” album.
Kendall writes: “Feminism has never been one size fits all, yet much of the criticism that revolves around entertainers like Beyoncé…presumes that there is a unilateral guide on how to be the “right” kind of feminist.”
Sure, there isn’t one way to be a feminist. There aren’t two ways or ten ways. But the fact that there aremany ways to be a feminist does not and should not suggest that all ways are feminist ways. Feminism may be many things, but it isn’t all things. You can’t do and say things that are anti-woman (or allow your husband to do so alongside you on your album) and claim feminism at the same time. I mean, if we can agree on just one thing about feminism, it should be that you can’t glorify the marital abuses of Ike Turnerand be a feminist.
I’m here for black feminists defending Beyoncé against criticisms that she does not deserve. But I also hope that we can call out the flaws in her feminist expressions. I understand that at some point, the Beyoncé feminist/non-feminist discussion became a line in the sand, a line past which we were no longer prepared to let white feminists go. Black feminists, black women, have had to deal with constant disrespect from white feminists, not just over Beyoncé but over so, so many black women and girls and at this point we are just really fucking tired of it. We defend Beyoncé because she is a symbol of the ways in which white feminists degrade, dehumanize and demonize black women all the damn time. She is an easy example of the ways white feminists ignore and exclude black women from “their” movements, the way they paint our experiences as secondary and inferior to their own, the way they other our sexuality and demean our right to own it. We defend her against white feminists because we know that we are the only ones who can and the only ones who will. We defend her because, feminist or not, she is our sister, our daughter, our girlfriend. We defend her because having the back of a black woman being attacked by white folks is, in and of itself, part of our feminism.
We fully understand that much of what white feminists have said about Beyoncé has been in line with the same misogynoirist language and attitudes that white feminists have been displaying towards black women since…well, forever. We hear the code words, we see the upturned noses. Our ways of being in the world have never been good enough for white feminists. We defend Beyoncé because she is one of us, she is ofus, and we’re not about to turn our backs while white women do to her what they have done to us throughout history.
Okay. I’m here for that. I’m here for defending Beyoncé’s right to own her sexuality and make no apologies for it. I’m here for defending her right to figure out who she is and what she believes without having to answer to every white feminist who thinks she’s not figuring it out fast enough. I’m here for all of that. What I’m not here for is pretending that Beyoncé is some champion of black feminism as some kind of “up yours” to white women, especially if it means ignoring seriously problematic things. Frankly, I think we can do a whole lot better than that. I think—I hope—we can defend Beyoncé in all the legitimate ways there are to do so (and there are many) without losing our sense of what black feminism really is, in all of its complexities, and what it’s really not (see again: Ike Turner). I hope—I really hope—we can love Beyoncé and stand up for her without giving her, or ourselves, or anyone else, a pass.
One of my favorite scenes in all of Beyonce’s new videos is in “Partition” when she drops that napkin just so that white woman has to pick it up. I read it as an incredible moment wherein a powerful black woman flips the script on white women who are constantly trying to put her in “her place” and in one subtle movement puts them in theirs. And I am all for black women pushing back against white feminist nonsense. But it should not happen at the expense of a black feminism that includes keeping our critical lens focused, not just on white women and others who would seek to tear us down, but also on our idols and ourselves.