Policing Feminism: Regulating the Bodies of Women of Color

The decision to feature Beyoncé Knowles-Carter on the cover of the latest issue of Ms. magazine ignited controversy among its feminist readership, and as the author of that cover story I’m not all that surprised. Indeed, my article is precisely about the “debates” over such a high-profile celebrity and sex symbol identifying as a feminist.

Still, what is surprising to me is the level of vitriol and mean-girl over-the-top outrage that accompanied the news of Beyoncé’s cover on the Ms. Facebook page. Whatever one may feel about Beyoncé as a feminist icon, when did it become acceptable to call this married mother of a toddler daughter a “stripper” and a “whore”?

I’m the first to admit that Beyoncé’s “fierce feminism” often seems contradictory in its public delivery. But after the heated response to her Ms. cover, I wish I had delved further into our queasiness over her “sexiness.” This isn’t simply a rejection of a sexy-image-as-defined-by-patriarchy: This is in the vein of pearl-clutching, although the opposite of sexiness—modesty—is hardly viewed as women’s salvation since it represents a different policing of women’s bodies.

Indeed, just back in April, when the mostly white Ukraine-based group Femen staged a “Topless Jihad Day” across Europe in solidarity with Tunisian Femen member Amina Tyler (who was penalized for posting topless photos of herself on Facebook), some took that opportunity of “solidarity” to exhibit their Islamophobia by marching topless in immigrant Muslim neighborhoods and demanding their Muslim sisters to “get naked.” Of course this did not sit well with some Muslim women in the West, who responded in kind with their own “Muslimah Pride Day,” reminding non-Muslim women that they don’t need saving nor do they want to discard their hijabs.

So, what’s going on in the sphere of Western feminism? In one area of the world they’re condemning women of color such as Beyoncé for “not covering up,” while in another part of the world they want Muslim women to “get naked.”

There is an uncanny pattern here between the condemnation of Beyoncé’s booty (how she displays it and how she shakes it) and Muslim women’s hijabs (how, when and where they wear it). What certain feminists clearly want is to regulate the bodies of women of color in order to eradicate difference. Since when did feminism reinforce dress codes instead of women’s autonomy and solidarity with other women, in which we support all of our choices while also recognizing how those choices are sometimes limited by intersectional oppressions (and no one is immune from this)?

And let’s not forget context. An Amina Tyler mounting a naked protest is about her autonomous right to her own body in a conservative society that would sooner punish her for “not covering,” while getting naked in Western culture could lead to slut-shaming and pornographic ogling. On the flip side, “covering up” in the West, especially in a hijab, could lead to hate-crime targeting, as had occurred with some Muslim women in the wake of the Boston bombings.

As Jada Pinkett-Smith aptly questioned on Facebook, in defense of Beyoncé’s choices: “Whose body is this anyway?” It seems some of us in feminist movements need a not-so-subtle reminder: Our bodies are our own! If feminism becomes yet another space for the regulation of our differences, rather than an embrace of our differences, then we have impeded our progressive move forward in our collective political consciousness.

Sure, we may ask, in the vein of Barbara Smith: “How does this free us?” (This in reference to Beyonce’s sexiness or Muslim women’s hijabs). But, if feminism looks like Beyoncé and a Muslim woman who covers and a Middle Eastern woman who engages in naked protest and a white woman who questions her power and privilege in relation to her sisters of color, then the message becomes loud and clear: Feminism is about politics, not a one-size-fits-all uniform.

And the story doesn’t end there. This is just the beginning. What more could be accomplished when we build on our differences, complicate our perspectives, and come together in solidarity? All I know is this: When my students try to creatively engage feminist consciousness and use symbols from pop culture, Beyoncé is their go-to-person. When one of my graduate students worked with middle-schoolers on a dance performance raising awareness about sexual violence, whose music did these girls choose? Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child.

I’ve learned a long time ago that our pop icons have been a gateway for young women and girls in the articulation of their feminist consciousness. Music is so ubiquitous, and exists in the most intimate spaces of their everyday lives, that it’s counter-productive to call a woman they admire a “stripper” and a “whore.” Beyoncé might very well lead them to other feminists existing beyond commercial boundaries. The widespread condemnation of her (interpreted as “feminist critique”) could stop them in their search.

Let’s stop fearing our differences. In the words of bell hooks, Feminism is for everybody!

The latest issue of Ms. magazine, featuring Janell Hobson’s cover story on Beyoncé, is available for your mobile devices or in the traditional print version. Find out how to download the Ms. app and get a year’s worth of Ms.!

Photo of Beyoncé performing in Central Park in 2011 by Flickr user asterix611 under license from Creative Commons 2.0


Janell Hobson is professor of women's, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany. She is the author of When God Lost Her Tongue: Historical Consciousness and the Black Feminist Imagination. She is also the editor of Tubman 200: The Harriet Tubman Bicentennial Project.