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



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.