If a pop culture icon flaunts her beauty and sexuality, does that make her an empowered feminist — or an unwitting agent of the patriarchy?
The icon in question, in this case, is Beyoncé. For as long as she's been famous, feminists have debated Queen Bey's feminism: Is she pushing for progress? Marketing her brand? Both? (Beyoncé herself first resisted the "feminist" label, then claimed it, in blazing white lights during her performance at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards.)
Following the recent release of Beyoncé's acclaimed visual album, "Lemonade" — hailed as a potent portrait of black womanhood, infidelity and redemption — feminist activists bell hooks and Janet Mock offered conflicting views about its portrayal of women in the hour-long video.
Hooks — an eminent scholar who once declared Beyoncé a "terrorist" after she posed in lingerie on the cover of Time — published a nuanced essay Monday (read it in full here) that found some reasons to praise the star singer's latest effort:
"It is the broad scope of Lemonade's visual landscape that makes it so distinctive — the construction of a powerfully symbolic black female sisterhood that resists invisibility, that refuses to be silent," hooks wrote. "This in and of itself is no small feat — it shifts the gaze of white mainstream culture. It challenges us all to look anew, to radically revision how we see the black female body."
Yet it wasn't exactly a rave review. hooks also noted the "utterly aestheticized" presentation of the female form in Beyoncé's project, and questioned whether the album does anything to resolve the challenges faced by black women: "Simply showcasing beautiful black bodies does not create a just culture of optimal well being where black females can become fully self-actualized and be truly respected," hooks wrote.
Hooks's critique drew a swift response from author and transgender advocate Mock, who took the opportunity to address a key underlying issue: the perception of "femme" women — those who, like Beyoncé, present themselves as traditionally feminine — in the black feminist movement.
"Let's move beyond the clickbaity soundbiteness of 'bell vs. Beyoncé' and discuss the dismissal of black femme feminists," Mock wrote on Twitter and her Facebook page.
Mock argued that hooks's descriptions of the women in "Lemonade" — their "big hair," their "fashion-plate fantasy" looks — are phrases that "reek of judgment of glamour, femininity & femme presentations," Mock wrote. "It echoes dismissal of femmes as less serious, colluding with patriarchy, merely using our bodies rather than our brains to sell, be seen, survive. We gotta stop this. All of us."
In other words: Bey shouldn't get side-eye just because she chooses to embrace her conventional beauty.
"Our "dressed up" bodies and "big hair" do not make us any less serious," Mock wrote. "Our presentations are not measurements of our credibility. These hierarchies of respectability that generations of feminists have internalized will not save us from patriarchy."
Hooks and Mock are friends, Mock noted, but they've publicly sparred before. In 2014, both participated in a panel discussion at the New School about the portrayal of women of color in media, a debate that prompted hooks to describe Beyoncé as a "terrorist."
The remark was in response to Beyoncé's controversial May 2014 Time cover: Beside a headline proclaiming her one of the magazine's 100 most influential people, Beyonce posed in a white bra and panties, her lips parted, her gaze sultry. hooks did not approve.
Mock argued that Beyoncé had ultimate control over her public persona and the image chosen for the cover, and her authority should be respected: "I don't want to strip Beyoncé of her agency, of choosing that image — of being her own manager," Mock said.
Hooks retorted that this only meant Beyoncé was complicit in her own exploitation.
"Then you are saying, from my deconstructive point of view, that she is colluding in the construction of herself as a slave," hooks said. "I see a part of Beyoncé that is in fact anti-feminist, that is assaulting, that is a terrorist, especially in terms of the impact on young girls."
At the time, other feminists of color strongly disagreed — including Brittney Cooper, a professor at Rutgers University and co-founder of the Crunk Feminist Collective blog.
"She trots out the 'what about the children argument' as a way to police how Beyoncé styles and presents her body," Cooper said of hooks, according to Fusion. "Black women should be able to be publicly grown and sexy without suffering the accusation that our sexuality is harmful, especially to children."
Mock echoed that sentiment Monday, arguing that Beyoncé — and any woman — should be taken seriously no matter how she presents herself. 'Femmephobia,' she said, "must be abolished in our spaces, our theories and our critiques of one another and one another's work."