Feminist BUZZ: Beyoncé has us asking WHO & WHAT is a feminist?

Beyoncé has the internet abuzz, but this time it’s not just about her music and the groundbreaking launch of her new album—it’s also about whether or not she is a feminist. From academics to culture bloggers, community activists to girls who never thought about or used feminism in a written sentence before—and many feminists around the world—black, white, young, old, African, Latina, men, women—everyone’s chattering about whether Beyoncé is a feminist. 

As feminists who are part of an international community (JASS) dedicated to grassroots feminist activism and reclaiming feminism as we tackle big problems, we  jumped into this debate with both feet. Since we love the wake up that only comes with contradictions, we’re grateful that Beyoncé  has taken on and shined her big spotlight on this otherwise controversial idea that men and women are equal, an idea so powerful and transformative that it is either stuffed in the corner or hurled as an insult. And we think it’s downright subversive to throw the word into the middle of maelstrom of popular culture using the voice of a great Nigerian woman writer (and feminist), Chimamande Ngozi Adichie.    

Fundamentally, the questions Beyonce’s move raises are age-old and always in need of fresh conflict to snatch the word out of the political closet so we can try it on for size. Questions like—what is feminism? What makes someone a feminist and another not? Who decides? Where and how do race, class and sexuality fit into all of this?  

Here some of the voices that caught our eye:

“Beyoncé is launching a challenge to us all, not only black women, but everyone, especially men to examine our gender biases and the ways we sexually shame women for using their sexuality, money and bodies (and the ways these do not equally apply to men). She sings unapologetically about owning her sexuality and sexual pleasure (drunk in love), dealing with grief (heaven), love (XO), and parenting (blue) among others. As a black woman artist operating under the confines of a white supremacist industry overbearing with the sexualised (heterosexual) male gaze and desire, “Beyoncé” seems to be Beyoncé’s attempt at redefining for herself what her feminism and womanism will look like, and that’s great.” Gcobani Qambela, Beyoncé: A Feminist in her Terms, Mail & Guardian (South Africa)

Its complex politics—Race, Sexuality and feminism…

“Beyoncé means a lot to us. She triggers a lot for us: about desire and beauty and skin color politics and access and being chosen and being the cool kid. Because representations of black female subjectivity are so paltry in pop culture, the mainstream doesn’t know that we struggle with this kinda shit, too. Nerdy girls resent the popular pretty girls. We grow up to become feminists who are beautiful in our own right, to critique patriarchy and challenge desire. And we have a sort of smugness that says, the pretty girl who gets the guy can have all that, but she can’t be radical. That Beyoncé would even want to means she has stepped out of her lane, and lanes matter greatly.”  Brittney Cooper, The Beyoncé wars: Should she get to be a feminist? SALON, (USA)

King Bey always brings her A-game and manages to have fun while doing it. I wish feminism could take some clues here. We don’t always bring our A-game, since we spend a whole lot of time trying to figure who’s in and who’s out as if that is going to get us anywhere. Time’s out for the WOC feminist meangirls shit… (And yes, we can and should have a robust critique, and that in itself ain’t hating. But again, sometimes, folk are just being mean or contrary, and we need to be about building some shit, not tearing shit down. And sometimes folks need to go to therapy and heal from the shit the meangirls in your past did to you. Stop taking it out on Bey. She don’t know you. Seriously.)" Crunk Feminist Collective, (USA)

Okay. …. I’m here for defending Beyoncé’s right to own her sexuality and make no apologies for it. I’m here for defending her right to figure out who she is and what she believes without having to answer to every white feminist who thinks she’s not figuring it out fast enough. I’m here for all of that. What I’m not here for is pretending that Beyoncé is some champion of black feminism as some kind of “up yours” to white women, especially if it means ignoring seriously problematic things. Frankly, I think we can do a whole lot better than that. I think—I hope—we can defend Beyoncé in all the legitimate ways there are to do so (and there are many) without losing our sense of what black feminism really is, in all of its complexities, and what it’s really not (see again: Ike Turner). I hope—I really hope—we can love Beyoncé and stand up for her without giving her, or ourselves, or anyone else, a pass.”  Mia McKenzie, On Defending Beyoncé: Black Feminists, White Feminists, and the Line In the Sand, Black Girl Dangerous, USA

None of this is to say that Beyoncé’s feminism is flawless or exempted from critique. Her version of feminism is not without issues and will not speak to everyone. But we all need to see this powerful black woman in the media owning her version of highly sexual, happily married version of feminism. We need to see a wide array of feminist perspectives and voices in the media, since feminism isn’t one unified movement. Beyoncé may not be your ideal feminist role model, but what she does and says has a meaningful impact. I’m immensely grateful to have her voice be a part of the discussion.” Athena G. Csuti, Why We All Need Beyoncé’s Feminism, Fem 2.0, (USA)

Trying to determine if Beyoncé holds up to mainstream white feminism is counter-productive, and I think even worse, it’s anti-feminist. I’m not one for saying what you can and cannot do to be considered a feminist, but I think rooting a person out of a movement that only benefits from visibility because she doesn’t see the world with your eyes means you shouldn’t be able to come to club meetings.” Julia Sonenshein, Why White Feminists Are Mad At Beyonce, The Gloss, (USA)

Beyond either/ors…

But she does something new on Beyoncé …Men and love are a focus, but she makes sure to let us know that those songs are also about empowerment: there’s even a spoken word passage in “Flawless” from a Nigerian feminist …She sings about love and sex more boldly than ever, peppering those songs with messages about independence and motherhood. And we’re eating it up.” Eliana Dockterman, Flawless: 5 Lessons in Modern Feminism From Beyoncé, TIME Ideas, (USA)

Almost like the dilution of "slut-shaming," the colloquial definition of feminism has become debatable. Instead of its Merriam-Webster definition …folks like to say that because Beyoncé sang "Cater 2 U" now she's not allowed to sing "Flawless," declaring that she "woke up like this…flawless," nor is she allowed to sample African feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discussion of how women are taught to "shrink themselves."  Hillary Crosley, Can we stop fighting over Beyoncé’s feminism now? Jezebel, (USA)

“”Feminist” is a strong word that many women (even some feminists) tend to avoid using too often. However, Beyoncé’s selective use of Adiche’s words from “We Should All Be Feminists” reflects not only this album’s complex concoction of sex, power, and love, but Beyoncé the Woman’s character as well.”  Aziz Jackson, Beyoncé's new album in a nutshell: 'We should all be feminists', The Washington Post (USA)

Talk shows, radio spots, and even comedians weigh in:

Jessica Valenti, “Beyoncé is ‘Absolutely’ a feminist” on Melissa Harris-Perry, Beyoncé drops feminist manifesto, MSNBC , (USA)

Bilal Qureshi, Feminists Everywhere React To Beyonce's Latest, NPR, (USA)

Andrea Mann, TIME Regrets Naming Pope Francis 'Person Of The Year' After Beyoncé Drops Surprise Album, The Huffington Post Comedy, (United Kingdom)

Feminism is for everyone

Before Beyoncé’s album launch, we had some version of these debates 3 weeks ago across our JASS community when we decided to feature Beyoncé on our 2013 holiday card. We never resolved this debate and created 2 holiday cards instead, the other quoting Maya Angelou.  In the wake of Beyoncé’s buzz, aside from our hallway high-fiving for being trendsetters—albeit invisible— Beyoncé reminds us of something we believe deeply. That feminism is a perpetually unfinished idea and vision that has inspired and shaped some of the most profound changes in the world over the last three centuries—from the abolition of slavery to emotional intelligence—from contraception to the fact that domestic violence is a public crime. That this big, ever-changing idea comes to life in our hearts, minds and daily lives as we struggle with all our imperfection to recognize, respect and love everyone and find more democratic, inclusive and sustainable ways to live in our families and with the planet. That this idea is not just about women and men, but about race, ethnicity, sexuality, class, ability, age and all the many ways that systems and beliefs construct privilege, power and discrimination. And as Bell Hooks says, feminism is for everybody. Feminists—from our sisters (and brothers) working on the frontline in communities with little resources to those with salaries and business cards—need to figure out how to make feminism a household word and embrace the contradictions that this implies. 

Photo Credit: Feministing

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