What Beyoncé, Black Girls Rock! and Popular Education Mean for the Feminist Movement

Having been aware of celebrity DJ Beverly Bond’s nonprofit organization Black Girls Rock! and its annual awards show for quite some time, I must confess that this year was the first time I actually tuned into the BET show. And watching the parade of truly amazing Black women from all walks of life, who are making an impact on our culture and society and being celebrated for it—from The Walking Dead actor and award-winning playwright Danai Gurira to pop star Rihanna to showrunner Shonda Rhimes to young actor and provocateur Amandla Stenberg to #BlackLivesMatter founders Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi—I could not help but be inspired.

Imagine, I said to fellow Black women, what a show like this would have done for our self-esteem when we were growing up as little Black girls in this culture.

Of course, no sooner are we tearing up, smiling and finding joy in Rihanna’s words—”All girls rock. Black girls…we’re just on another level!”—when some unappreciative, non-black man (Nev Schulman of MTV’s Catfish, to be specific) manages to undo all that good by invoking longstanding stereotypes of Black women on Twitter. Of course, the more confident and self-assured among us can let his comments slide off our shoulders. However, if Black Twitter is any indication, too many of us are not there yet, and the sincere trauma of having been devalued throughout our lives (from castigation of our looks to physical and sexual assaults to systemic criminalization and demonization) means that a show that highlights glamour and spectacle to proclaim “Black Girls Rock” is simply not enough to undo centuries of systemic racism.

Nonetheless, there is something to be said about witnessing a program that uses words like “intersectional feminism” to introduce award recipients. Think of the many young people who get to hear that term without having to enroll in a feminist theory course at college (especially if they cannot afford tuition). There is also something to be said about honoring the #BlackLivesMatter creators and younger girls like Marley Dias, who is ensuring a robust collection of children’s literature highlighting Black girls through her #1000BlackGirlBooks project. And while some may question the inclusion of Hillary Clinton in this celebration of Black womanhood, the optics of inviting someone making a bid to become the first woman president of the United States are strong, regardless of what one might think of her politics.

On the other hand, there are cultural figures—such as Beyoncé—who are, intentionally or not, using their platforms to water down these more complex, theoretical notions of feminism instead of advancing and informing popular understandings of the word. In a recent interview with Elle, Beyonce explained that she wants to separate feminism from a vaguer idea of “humanism.”

Said the singer,

Working to make … inequalities go away is being a feminist, but more importantly, it makes me a humanist. I don’t like or embrace any label. I don’t want calling myself a feminist to make it feel like that’s my one priority, over racism or sexism or anything else.

Apparently “feminism,” as Beyoncé, and arguably the broader public, understand it, does not include concerns with racism and other social issues that are not based in gender politics. Feminism, in this context, cannot be “intersectional.” If that’s what people know about feminism, then what does “intersectional feminism” mean to an audience who may not understand it when they hear it, as they did if they tuned into Black Girls Rock?

Perhaps the various goals concerning women’s empowerment are not mutually exclusive. But I do think these popular narratives that have become symbolic feminism—symbols of a “feminist” politic, from a woman running for president to a pop star singing of “power”—serve as a popular education of sorts for a wider audience, the vast majority of whom might not be reading the latest feminist theory text. We could choose to accept that these more popular iterations stand in for feminist theory, since in the absence of formal education popular education takes its place.

But is it appropriate to think of a show like Black Girls Rock! as taking part in this education? Is Beyonce a teacher? If so, what are their learning objectives and responsibilities? To make young Black girls feel better about their bodies, their minds and their potential? To turn them into potential leaders so that they can become strong, qualified, (and electable) female candidates for president? To turn them into radical change agents who would rather fight than fit into systems of power? All of the above?

What are the goals for a popular feminist education that often relies on symbols of feminism? I ask because the power represented by Black Girls Rock! is a much-needed representation in the wider popular culture. However, for its goals to be achieved, this show would need to instill in its audience enough confidence to annihilate any power that mean-spirited comments carry on Twitter. And if the appearance of a woman presidential candidate cannot, even on a symbolic level, mediate the widespread misogyny and misogynoir of our culture, we may need to have deeper conversations on what “women’s empowerment” actually means, what a society based on such power would actually look like, and if it is an appropriate agenda to set for a popular feminist movement.

Get the Ms. Blog in your inbox! Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

Photo of Beyonce courtesy of Flickr user martin 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.