Lovers of a quality pop music spectacle can breathe a sigh of relief because the preeminent entertainer of her generation has reemerged on the world’s stage. What I have pre-emptively termed The Year of Beyoncé began with the singer in her underwear on the February cover of GQ Magazine. It continued with an almost perfectly executed Super Bowl halftime show, and in just a few days, she’ll give us a cinematic glimpse into her private life on HBO.
With every move, Mrs. Carter provides onlookers with more than enough fodder for endless scrutiny and debate. Beyoncé is a particularly compelling figure for those tasked with analyzing pop culture online chiefly because she’s so darn good at her job. She keeps us talking, but why do conversations that surround the singer feel so stale?
For the past few weeks, pop culture and feminist writers have published article after article questioning Beyoncé’s pro-woman positions. Bloggers attack her because she seems to have no desire to be a perfect feminist. (Although she hasn’t completely eschewed the label.)
The onslaught is unfathomable. Beyoncé clearly loves women; she tributes and celebrates them in her work often. But Beyonce also loves her sexually provocative wardrobe and her enormously successful husband. That makes many feminists uncomfortable. The writers that pick her apart do so in bad faith. The time they dedicate to accusing Bey would be better spent fully examining the context or consequences of her choices. At this point, each blog post feels more like an opportunistic pile-on than a thoughtful critique.
I am a feminist, but the entitlement with which these feminist criticisms are broached concerns me. Beyoncé is an entertainer not an activist. She owes us nothing. Of course we want her on our team, but the self-righteous neighing must stop.
With all this handwringing and finger-wagging, you’d think the fate of the movement lies solely in her hands. Thankfully, that’s never how feminism, or any movement for social good, works. Women on the ground carry the torch. Not the women on top. Countless foot soldiers, whose names you may never know, move the cause forward.
I understand the impulse to project feminism on to celebrities. Visibility matters. Women who espouse feminist beliefs often evade the moniker, but trying to force entertainers into the role of spokesperson neglects the fact that we, the women who claim it proudly, are the face of feminism. Bashing women who mean well produces no converts. It only alienates would-be feminists.
Her recent interview with GQ cemented in my mind that even if she doesn’t claim us, Beyoncé often thinks like a feminist. Bey could, at this point, do whatever she wants, but she’s stuck to her pro-woman guns. That’s a good sign, and a clear refutation of the cynics who claimed she exploited women’s empowerment for personal gain. To tear her down for failing to live up to an impossible standard is to ignore the fact that embracing women, particularly, black women in the way Beyoncé has done for years makes her a target. Even mainstream, marketable girl-power anthems are unpalatable to many. Yet, those who toe a hardline refuse to give her credit even for that.
Nothing would make me happier than seeing Beyoncé come out as a feminist. And, yes, The Mrs. Carter Show World Tour gave me feelings. But as a woman who loves women, I can’t be so quick to dismiss choices I may not agree with.
Those who are truly concerned about the advancement of women must learn how to deconstruct patriarchal culture in a way that doesn’t tear women down. So leave Beyoncé alone.
No one can take feminism from women of the African diaspora. It is a black woman’s birthright because we could never seek solace in the protections of womanhood narrowly defined. It is ours, yet it seems at every turn, someone is trying to wrestle it from us. Since her appearance at this year’s Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama has again been placed at the center of an old debate regarding her feminist credentials.
In front of an audience of millions, the First Lady poured out her love for her spouse of twenty years and affirmed her commitment to her children. She does this often, but this time the stakes were higher. Her husband would accept the Democratic nomination for president of the United States in a few days.
Mrs. Obama has, since she took residence in the White House, described herself as “Mom-in-Chief.” The moniker is safe and comforting for a nation socialized to view Black women as the antithesis of the studied grace she embodies. Some women, usually those with race and/or class privilege, view her embrace of the term as a betrayal. One writer called it “degrading.”Michelle’s presence as the most visible black woman in America hasn’t lived up to everyone’s hopes. Even Black women lament that Michelle Obama cast off her work, pedigree, and aspirations. She could have been our Hillary. She’s certainly smart and charismatic enough to be “Feminist-in-chief.” And although some view her as a “feminist megastar,” she’s evaded that role. Since her husband’s campaign, her impressive career history has been downplayed. She’s assured us time and again she’s a devoted wife not a political adviser.
When asked whether she was a feminist by the Washington Post, Mrs. Obama hedged, “You know, I’m not that into labels, so probably, if you laid out a feminist agenda, I would probably agree with a large portion of it,” she said. “I wouldn’t identify as a feminist just like I probably wouldn’t identify as a liberal or a progressive.”
She made clear that she does not describe herself as a feminist, so neither will I. It is unwise to haphazardly assign the label to women who don’t desire to carry the baggage that accompanies it. However, I take issue with the assertion that Michelle Obama could not be a feminist because of the path she’s taken.
The First Lady describes herself as a mother first. This offends the sensibilites of those who believe it each woman’s responsibility to enter the workforce and stay there. After all, wasn’t that the end goal of the majority-white feminist movement of the 70s? Some feminists have in recent years, doubled down on the rejection of “choice feminism” arguing that every choice is not a good one for women. By her personal goals to attend to her husband’s, they argue, Michelle Obama with her fancy degrees and impressive work history, let us all down.
In an article for The Atlantic, Elizabeth Wurtzel doesn’t try to hide her contempt for women like Obama who could work but choose not to. She writes, “A job that anyone can have is not a job, it’s a part of life, no matter how important people insist it is.” Wurtzel’s attempt to diminish the significance of motherhood neglects an important point about the lived experiences and history of Women of Color across the world. Women who look like Michelle Obama are not empowered to do the work of mothering.
Examine the history in which African American women who stayed home with their children post-Emancipation were threatened with arrest for violating vagrany laws — one in which Mrs. Obama, a wife of two decades, was referred to as a “baby mama” by Fox News. Michelle Obama centering the work of motherhood in her life is revolutionary because only relatively recently have African American women been able to put their spouses and their families on a pedestal. By doing so, she helps rewrite the role of Black women in the public imagination.
Not to say that she made the decision to leave the workforce in a vacuum. Obama has been clear that this was not the life she envisioned for herself, but if her speech last week was any indication, she remains radiantly joyful and content.
Black and brown women will remain leery of feminism because we’ve seen how white feminists behave when they don’t get their way. Even the revered veterans of the Second Wave turned into petulant Veruca Salt’s when presented with a challenge (see: Geraldine Ferraro and Gloria Steinem circa 2008). White feminists want sisterhood only when it is convenient - only when it costs them nothing and they have something to gain. Feminism doesn’t work the same for all communities. Your feminism ain’t like mine. Uninformed and tone-deaf generalizations are the result of a willful ignorance of context and history.
Black women have responded to continued exclusion from relevant mainstream feminist discourse and activism with embittered rejection. Michelle Obama may not describe herself as a feminist but she presents for young, Black women like me a new paradigm. A Michelle Obama Feminism is one that acknowledges the breadth of my history as well as my depth of my aspirations. It celebrates the liberating joy and fortitude that has sustained Black women in America for centuries. To me, it feels like home.
I’m not a lady. The fact causes me no distress. I’m too vulgar and assertive to ever be classified as such. My hemlines too short, clothes too tight, and language too crass. And my demeanor is not at all demure. Still somehow I manage to live a joyful, fulfilling life without the distinction. I do, however, aspire to be kind, genuine, loving and thoughtful. Ladies embody those things, I suppose, but they also bear the burden of societal expectation that keeps them caged. I’m looking to get free or die trying, so I choose not to wear the mask.
This enrages men and women who believe that I, and my unladylike counterparts, caused the decline of African American culture. They blame wayward girls for the ubiquitous misogyny in Black communities. “Why should men respect women, when women don’t behave in a way that demands respect,” they ask. The logic is a smokescreen upheld to distract from the real cause of deteriorating gender relations in Black America: patriarchy. All women, be they “ladies” or not, deserve to be treated with dignity, but that’s a hard case to make to people drunk off misogyny.
Ladies are required to conform to outmoded behavioral norms created to make men comfortable, but playing that game won’t save you. Telling girls not to wear revealing clothes or use profane language will not stop the men who harass and degrade women for sport. I get just as many leers in jeans as I do in mini-dresses. You cannot dress or behave your way out of oppression.
Still those who consider themselves keepers of the community expend far too much energy trying to convince women to simply act right. When a well-meaning auntie compelled me to fix my clothes or watch my manners, she did so out of love. When men attempt to regulate the behavior of women, they may do so out of genuine concern. Benevolent sexism, however, is still sexism. It suffocates and ultimately kills the spirit.
That’s precisely the problem with “Bitch Bad” by Lupe Fiasco. The rapper set out to raise women up, but he reifies the same tropes that keep us chained. He repeats “bitch bad/woman good/lady better,” and I’m suspicious. Being a woman is hard enough. Why is it better to be a lady? And who decides who’s who? Even if all women were to attempt to step into the role of a Lady, we still may not meet the arbitrary expectations or Lupe or anyone else. Men get to raise and lower the goal of acceptable behavior to suit their whims. To some I may be a lady, but I am always a woman. That should be enough.
I’m an ardent feminist in part because many of the character traits I possess naturally are often ascribed to men. I am ambitious and direct. I take no issue with setting clear boundaries. These are not the things “ladies” do. “Ladies” are ever gracious and compliant. I can be, what some would call, a bitch. That’s a pejorative I take little issue with. Like Tina Fey said, bitches get stuff done. I imagine my sheroes were all called bitches at one time or another. Perhaps that’s why they’re bad — because women embracing a term meant to shame us upsets the natural order.
My embrace of my inner bitch doesn’t mean I don’t respect myself. It means I don’t respect the path anyone else would have me walk. My choices may make me less valuable in someone else’s mind, but I know my worth. That’s what we need to be teaching girls — that they’re inherently whole and precious. That they need not seek out validation by playing dress up or acting a part. Women of all ages are discouraged from living in our fullness. The saying goes “boys will be boys,” but the desire that lie within women must be subdued. Thankfully the antiquated pedestal upon which we put “ladies” is slowly crumbling. Soon it will be a relic. In the meantime, live boldly and unapolegetically and tell every woman you know to do the same.
There will always be debate about what defines a feminist. While conservative women like Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann attempt to misappropriate the term and negate its progressive origins, Black women struggle to embrace it and see our place within the movement.
Feminism (or Womanisn if you please) is a Black woman’s birthright. We had no choice but to question the racist, sexist power structures that define Western culture. Black feminism has enabled Black women to define ourselves for ourselves in a world that would have us reduced to caricature. For this reason—and many more— I embrace Feminism fully. Its messy history of exclusion has not deterred me from recognizing the importance of feminist ideals in the quest for the equality of all people.
A feminist life is supposed to be a liberated one. A transcendent existence free of the constraints foisted upon us but a society that cares not for our best interest. Yet sometimes I feel constricted in trying to live up to the expectations I set for “good feminists.” I often feel guilty for not living my life in complete accordance with feminist principles. (I’ve written about this before)
This tension is most acute in my personal life. My desire to dismantle the structures of oppression that limit the life chances and opportunities of marginalized groups often comes second to my longing to have a good time and enjoy my youth.
The entertainment I consume is particularly questionable by Black Feminist standards. It’s violent, it’s sexist, and often homophobic. I do not say this with pride, but I’m an avid listener of the most degrading type of rap music and loyal viewer of the most exploitative television. The irony (hypocrisy) of my media choices is not lost on me.
I worry often that partaking in the corrosive culture of hip hop in particular delegitimates my voice as an activist. Of course I could just give up my unhealthy habits, but it’s not that simple. (Joan Morgan explains the pull more eloquently than I ever could.) The desire to remain connected to cultural elements that actively oppress you is damn near a sickness, but I have not yet decide if this illness necessitates a cure.
Perhaps my mistake is not enjoying but doing so publicly. If I laughed at the absurdity of Atlanta’s Real Housewives in private, at the very least it would spare me the sanctimonious finger wagging of uber feminists. These are the womyn who wouldn’t dare use the b-word. The women who spend all their free time listening to neo-soul and reading bell hooks. I am not one of those women, nor do I desire to be. My life is layered. The contradictions evidence the fullness of my womanhood.
My journey with feminism mirrors my personal faith in that I struggle daily to figure out the right balance for my life. Feminist theory remains a useful guide in helping me to understand myself and the world around me, but it is just that: theory. (Word to Patricia Hill Collins.)
The Christianity comparison is not meant to blaspheme but to illustrate that navigating personal belief systems is arduous because life is complex. Being a perfect feminist is impossible. Even icons stumble. (Alice Walker and Gloria Steinem immediately come to mind.) And I don’t condemn them for their missteps because we’re doing the best with what we know.
Maya Angelou famously mused, “When you know better, you do better.” Those who seek to leave the world better than they found it must engage in self reflection. But spiritual survival requires that we make sure that self examination doesn’t devolve into self flagellation. I can no l longer beat myself up over my feminist shortcomings. My Black Feminist contradictions will have to do.