Too Sexy to be the “Perfect Feminist”?

4360826453_1362e5c08e_zWhatever debates have occurred among self-identified feminists about Beyoncé’s brand, there was no  bolder statement than from the pop star herself when she stood on stage in front of the brightly lit word “FEMINIST” before an audience of millions watching MTV’s VMA show broadcast on Aug. 24, 2014.

As Ms. associate editor Anita Little notes:

Beyoncé is invaluable to feminism because she brings it from the fringes of public dialogue and throws it into the popular mainstream, forcing the masses to contend with both the word and what it stands for. Whether people accept or scrutinize her feminism is peripheral to the fact that at least they’re talking about it at all.

This is such a crucial point to be made, especially in light of how Beyoncé has recast the word for public discussion. On the first day of class this new school year, I made sure to discuss Beyoncé’s moment on the VMAs, and many students were excited that the pop star embraced the word. So many of them have been ambivalent about embracing this identity precisely because the stereotypes that have formed in most people’s minds about feminists—a “man-hater”; “unsexy” and “unattractive”; “domineering”—have kept them from wanting to be viewed in negative terms.

Beyoncé, as a bonafide sex symbol performing in her element on stage, while her husband tends to their child, managed to flip the script and poke considerable holes in the public imagination of feminism.

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And while many have praised Beyoncé for her bold stance, there are still others who just can’t wrap their minds around Beyoncé identifying as a “feminist.” It’s that sexy brand of hers. She’s “too sexy,” “too heteronormative,” “too male-gaze-driven” in her sexualized spectacle.

So, what exactly are we saying? Can a feminist not be sexy?  I’m eager to delve deeper into this paradox (if it is even that).

The “confusion” or even rejection by some of Beyoncé as a feminist icon seems a tad bit racialized. Responding to the Ferguson protests that followed the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in a recent op-ed piece for the The Washington Post, social commentator Touré highlighted the burden African Americans have in fulfilling expectations of the “perfect victim.” In the public imagination, the black victim who is gunned down by white police or civilians—Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Jordan Davis—must not have ever done anything wrong, anything that might suggest he or she deserved to die.

To some extent, that expectation for black victims to be “perfect” martyrs or crusaders for justice—think Rosa Parks over Claudette Colvin, the latter who also refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus months before Parks but whose status as an unwed teen would have derailed the Civil Rights movement—also transfers onto other arenas.

Beyoncé isn’t considered a “perfect feminist” and, therefore, her appropriateness as an icon for feminism can be questioned. Just as the criminalization of black youth renders them imperfect, so too does the sexualization of black women. Historically, black female sexuality has been constructed into a simplistic binary: the hypersexual, uncontrollable Jezebel or the downtrodden rape victim. And when we consider who our black feminist icons have been in the past—Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, Shirley Chisholm, Angela Davis—they are not generally known for their sexiness. They almost have to be masculinized or desexualized in order to maintain their feminist credentials.

This is why Beyoncé’s discourse on sexuality, sex and sexiness has liberatory potential. Yes, as bell hooks says, her engagement with a white supremacist capitalist patriarchal construction of beauty and sexiness—from her blonde weaves to her conventional heteronormative portrayals—does not advance new narratives of sexual liberation. Yet, I want to push back a bit on this because it is precisely her appropriation of white supremacist capitalist values that enabled her to build her enterprise and access economic and cultural power. As a black woman existing in a music industry infamous for exploiting and marginalizing black women’s musical gifts, this is already an extraordinary feat for someone like Beyoncé, who now has the ability to own a feminist identity on a world stage —something that very few female pop artists can do.

In her powerful book, Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power, Audre Lorde wrote:

We have been taught to suspect this resource [the erotic], vilified, abused and devalued within western society. On the one hand, the superficially erotic has been encouraged as a sign of female inferiority; on the other hand, women have been made to suffer and to feel both contemptible and suspect by virtue of its existence.

Beyoncé speaks to this precise point in her behind-the-scenes video (entitled “Liberation”) concerning her most recent album: She says that she embraces the erotic, especially since becoming a mother, and wants to show the world that her sexiness won’t be curtailed because she is a “respectable” wife and parent. Interestingly, it was her infamous “pole dance” during the VMA show that has caused consternation among some feminists, but Beyoncé found inspiration for her strip-tease song and video, “Partition,” while watching an actual strip tease show at Crazy Horse in Paris—a birthday present for her then-fiancé  Jay Z—and fantasized seeing herself in the company of these women, which indicates a certain solidarity with adult entertainers, a willingness to celebrate what is feminine and sexual, and even an admission that she herself was turned on by the spectacle of sexy women. Such displays are intended for the male gaze, but Beyoncé claims that gaze for herself.

This erotic display need not indicate “female inferiority” nor something to be “contemptible and suspect.” Beyoncé deliberately staged “Partition” at the VMAs just before performing her feminist anthem, “***Flawless,” which samples Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s words from her “We Should All Be Feminists” TED Talk: “We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are.” As Beyoncé inquires in her song “Partition”: “Est-ce que tu aimes le sexe?” (Loose translation for the purposes of this essay: “Don’t feminists like sex?”)

In my interview with Adichie for Ms.‘s summer 2013 issue, the author says she tries to avoid “feminist” labels  (even though she identifies with the f-word) because such labels “can become prescriptive.” Let us hope that, with Beyoncé’s public embrace of feminism, we as fellow feminists don’t get too bogged down in what those prescriptions are. Beyoncé may not be “perfect” in her feminist expressions, but if her sexiness disqualifies her, it’s time to rethink our narratives on feminism.

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user ·S licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

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Janell Hobson is an associate professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She is the author of Body as Evidence: Mediating Race, Globalizing Gender and Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture, and a frequent contributor to Ms.

Comments

  1. The test I use is to ask whether a man could get away with it. I don’t mean a man being sexual, but rather selling his sexuality to women.

  2. Hello,

    I felt that this was a really interesting article and I found it an extremely beneficial read. I am currently enrolled in an Intro to Women and Gender Studies class this fall at Virginia Tech and am just learning the basics about feminism and its placement in the modern world. I feel as though this is a really relatable article for women my age because we often consider Beyonce a role model — so many people look up to her a a successful, powerful woman who is extremely confident in herself and the epitome of a true feminist. I think flashing the word feminist during her performance at the VMAs was extremely appropriate because to me, a feminist is a woman that is confident in herself, and knows her place and who she wants to be in this world, yet does not criticize the men of the world and victimize herself. I think this was a very powerful thing for Beyonce to do because it helped remind the world of what a feminist truly is, ridding of the negative connotation often associated with the word in the modern world. As for the notion that “feminists are not sexy,” — I feel that this is a completely biased notion. Every woman can be “sexy” in her own way, and although Beyonce may be a different version of sexy than many past popular feminists, that does not make her any less of a feminist.

    Thanks!

  3. Amanda Marousis says:

    I personally love that Beyonce is able to stand up to such a bold name as ‘feminist.’ I understand why there are some debatable aspects to the idea that someone so free and comfortable in her sexual nature can claim to be advocating for gender equality, but I think that is what makes it such a strong statement and bends the normal feminist ideas. While some may look at it as opposite the agenda of a strong, independent woman because her risky behavior on stage can be thought of as demeaning and idealizes sex just as feminists don’t seem to want. But I think the better way to look at it is that being so sexual and feminine and proud emphasizes independence more than anything and as an incredible business woman, she demands the respect feminists strive to achieve. I think she is putting just the right spin on the feminist idea and forcing us to look at everything in a slightly different light.

  4. bell hooks pretty much says it all. The pop music industry is wholly exploitative and superficial, valuing image over artistry in music. It is the commercial exploitation of women’s bodies that is the concern, an exploitation that reaffirms racial and gender expectations. This singer has been wildly successful at playing a rigged game; that does not mean she is a game changer.

  5. Janell Hobson says:

    Actually, Lanzarote, men get away with selling their sexuality to women ALL THE TIME.

    Think Prince or any pop star or rapper who always take off their shirts for the purposes of women and girls screaming, or any popular athlete.

  6. Martha Ladouceur says:

    I think we need to rethink our ideas of the “perfect feminist expressions”
    I refuse to be bound by the current rules that seem to be occurring in feminist thought, rules that say that I don’t fit because I am too this or too that.  I have a brain one that functions quite well in fact, I am completely capable of intelligent thought and so who has the right to tell me that if I want to package that intelligent brain in clothing that may be  considered sexy.. why does that make me less of a feminist?  If I win awards for sports or volunteer work or do well on an exam while attending school, no one is going to berate me for being proud of my accomplishments and for placing them up on a wall in my office or home or even putting an ad in the paper for graduating with honors. But the fact that I am proud of my body and want to wear clothing that makes me feel comfortable or heaven forbid even sexy! (I love the feel of a soft snug sweater)  This suddenly makes me less of a feminist in the eyes of other “feminist women”?   Why is sex and sexuality so wrong?  I think when so called “feminist” women are so intently discussing what women wear and that this person and that person is not a “real feminist” because she wears revealing clothing only feeds into the victim blaming, fat shaming, and low self-esteem for our women, and we actively sexualize every aspect of our own bodies.  What I choose to wear is not a reflection on any other woman and I choose to support and embrace women of all sizes, shapes, races, religions…. because they are women much like I am.  These women are fighting their own demons every single day regardless of their socioeconomic status.  Who am I to tell them they are anything but strong and beautiful.  When did feminism become about fighting/shaming other women for their choices? When did feminism stop being about empowering women? When did feminism become about oppressing women for their choices?  Somewhere along the lines the ideas of feminism have fallen off the tracks, as is evidenced but the backlash of young women and their “I don’t need feminism because” campaign.  How incredibly sad that our young women are so disconnected from what all women need, the love and support of other women.   Yes other women who can support them in their choices of being strong, intelligent, and yes even sexy.  We are all fighting our own demons each and every day why are we as women adding to the burden of our most precious resource, other women?  I will continue to choose to support and empower women, and I hope that one day women will be seen by all persons as intelligent, strong, capable and yes even sexy however they choose to express themselves.

  7. Janell Hobson says:

    Jen, years back, bell hooks also thought a rapper like Lil’ Kim – who was far raunchier in her performances – was quite subversive and advanced a black feminist agenda. So, I would take hooks with a grain of salt. Or rather, I would look more deeply at hooks’ inherent problem with Beyonce (as opposed to her embrace of someone like Lil’ Kim).

    In other words, I don’t think bell hooks has a problem with Beyoncé’s sexiness. I think she has more of a problem with her capitalist endeavors – and of course, we can go back and forth on this point. There is also the other important thing to consider: feminists change their perspectives over time.

    Who knows? Maybe she might look back at her positive embrace of Lil’ Kim and disagree with what she thought back then.

  8. BEYONCE is a fabulous role model for all young women – life and styles have changed since the 60’s and 70’s – she does capitalize on the values patriarchy has demanded of women, then flaunts her true being, that of a mature feminist!!

  9. I don’t know how it doesn’t occur to women when your listening to Jay Z that he doesn’t respect women. We are talking about the guy who doesn’t kiss them but disses them aren’t we right? I don’t think Beyonce’s sexuality is relevant. I think that the fact that she married Mr. Money Cash Hoes is and that’s what no feminist, conveniently enough, ever wants to talk about. If that’s the epitome of being a feminist, being married to a man who made millions of of demeaning women, then feminism is a bigger joke than I thought it was.

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