Note: Title and content have been edited. Please see bottom of post for details.
Beyoncé has just released an album that is blowing up the charts and shattering digital sales records. Some people are calling it brilliant and groundbreaking. In an article for the New Statesman, socialist and feminist author Laurie Penny gives the singer a big bravo for projecting an image that she believes means good things for girls and women everywhere. But there’s something very problematic going on in the contemporary feminist movement, a variety of pseudo-feminism that casts the likes of Miley Cyrus and Beyoncé Knowles as champions of female empowerment in a way that prevents any discussion of the ethics surrounding the equating of objectification with liberation.
Penny incisively explains here that while not all men hate women, they all benefit from sexism by virtue of enjoying the privileges of being a man. Unfortunately, she stops short of making a holistic assessment across genders. This binary brand of feminism exclusively criticizes the imbalance of power between males and females and in so doing ignores the privilege that some females have – and leverage – over others. It also does not account for where transgendered people or gay men might fit into this dynamic. This analysis suggests that you’re either male or female, and that’s the only dichotomy that feminism should concern itself with.
We call this theory choice feminism: the very act of a woman making her own choices is an act of liberation. This might appear to be a positive philosophy at first glance, but what it really means is that a woman’s free choices are liberating to her, not necessarily to other females. Penny adopts choice feminism as a platform to defend Miley Cyrus’s antics without addressing the racist fetishism with which she oppresses women of colour. Nor does she feel that Cyrus is transmitting a damaging message to millions of young women. On the contrary, she insists that female celebrities flaunting their sexuality empowers girls to feel that they can do whatever they want without being judged for it, and that anything that might challenge this entitlement amounts to slut shaming. Does a super famous, hyper-sexualized pop starlet give girls the wrong idea about what it means to be a responsible, conscious and self-fulfilled woman in this society? We’re not allowed to talk about that, apparently.
Whereas Western women are often quick to assume that the burqa and even the hijab are tools of oppression in Muslim societies, choice feminism sends the pendulum swinging to the other extreme. When Lorde criticized Selena Gomez’s song ‘Come and Get It’ as bearing an inappropriate and unhealthy message for young girls, Gomez retorted that Lorde’s comment was anti-feminist because she was “not supporting other women”. The individualistic posturing of choice feminism turns the concept of solidarity on its head by taking for granted that everything that women do is okay, especially if we’re (presumably) doing it of our own volition, and we should never hold each other to account – even if that means trying to protect young women whose most direct experience of patriarchy is the objectification of their bodies. Writer Meghan Murphy nails it when she asks, “Since when is nonjudgmental the descriptor of a movement based on achieving collective freedom from oppression and exploitation? What if the choices being made perpetuate patriarchal ideas?”
It’s totally counterintuitive that having Miley’s T&A constantly thrust in their faces should make young women feel better about themselves. This actually has the effect of encouraging youth to idolize celebrities and thus strive to be like them – thin, famous, rich, brash – rather than to be happy just being themselves.
Miley isn’t the only celebrity whose behaviour stirs controversy. What’s really interesting, though, is how some female celebrities manage to shamelessly flaunt their extravagant wealth, supersized egos, and pornstar bodies, all while escaping scrutiny. Public opinion suggests that while Rihanna is trashy, Beyoncé is sexy but classy. That image is undermined by her newest set of videos. Partition, for example, has her writhing around, spreading her legs and bucking her hips in what can only be described as an extremely provocative exotic dance performance. I anticipate some people countering that she’s older (and therefore more self-possessed than Miley) and may have a slightly older fan base (hence having less of an impact on girls), but here’s the dead giveaway: if there’s any doubt about who holds the power as far as this song is concerned, consider the lyrics.
“I just wanna be the girl you like, the kinda girl you like.”
- Beyoncé in ‘Partition’
In this video, Beyoncé isn’t asking us to respect her or even to recognize her talent and intelligence. All she’s saying, in words and images, is: Desire me. Fuck me.
Since when did turning our oppressors’ tools against ourselves become a strategy for liberation? I don’t see this as being the same as say, homosexuals reclaiming the word ‘queer’. This has the effect of draining the term of its power to degrade and ostrasize by acknowledging that while homosexuals may be different in the sense that they haven’t been considered traditionally mainstream, there’s nothing wrong with that. This directly counters the notion that there’s something deviant or immoral about them by applying a truly positive interpretation. But when women like Beyoncé become sexual objects, which in this context are essentially commodities or products to be consumed, they’re not in any way challenging the idea that they’re sexual objects. Nor do they explain how pimping themselves out negates the pimping.
Slut shaming isn’t cool. I should be able to walk around wearing what makes me feel comfortable and happy without worrying that I’ll be judged and devalued. I should be able to sleep with who I want to, and with as many men as I want to, without being subjected to double standards that would see men admired for the same behaviour. All I’m suggesting is that we approach this with balanced thinking. We’re not just talking about a woman who simply happens to be drop dead gorgeous and is wearing clothing and dancing in a way that accentuates her beauty. I can handle some serious sexiness. Happy hookers are fine by me. But it’s not like preteens are being carted off to burlesque shows all over the continent. This is approaching pornography, and it’s ubiquitous. So the question comes back to this: is this really appropriate? Nicki Minaj, Ke$ha, Britney Spears – when they air their crotches out in public, they’re not doing it for our liberation. And when boys and men see this, they couldn’t care less what philosophies might be underpinning it. They’re getting exactly what their male privilege tells them they are entitled to, and they further rationalize that entitlement based on the fact that women are more than happy to oblige that fantasy.
I’ve touched on gender, race, and sexual orientation, but there’s another important factor that’s usually absent from popular discourse on feminism – one which I believe at least partly explains mainstream feminism’s failure to represent the unique challenges of women of colour. That factor is social class.
In another new video for the song ‘Superpower’, Beyoncé struts in a pair of spiky heels wearing a headscarf and a khaki-coloured miniskirt while her breasts peek out from underneath her halter top. The video depicts her catwalking with her posse through riot scenes, which include cop cars ablaze. Perfect hair. Perfect makeup. Perfect nails. So Beyoncé fancies herself a human rights activist now, huh? Did she conjure this vision up from her gated mansion while bathing in a vat of liquid gold? Give me a fucking break. Are we really going to pretend that there’s nothing wrong with one of the most powerful (as perception would have it) women in the world perpetuating this culture of narcissism and money worship, by exploiting, no less, the struggles that she has never cared to voice support for despite her influence as an international celebrity? In case anyone needs reminding about what this luxury-loving diva was doing in NYC during the Occupy Wall Street protests (which her hubby slammed but used anyway to make a buck), she was out shopping. I can’t bring myself to look up to a member of the privileged, wealthy 1% who capitalizes off the 99%’s fight for a fair economy. I don’t care what her gender, religion or skin colour is.
My formative years coincided with the Riot Grrrl movement. I listened to L7, Lunachicks, The Cranberries, 7 Year Bitch, Sleater-Kinney, Tori Amos, even Hole. I didn’t admire the divas, the models or the pretty pop stars. I liked the gritty, unapologetic realness of women whose defiance was neither manufactured nor forced. It was the smeared lipstick, the pride in embracing one’s imperfections, and the unmitigated gall of staking out territory in a predominantly male genre that encouraged and empowered me. That was about 20 years ago. These days, I wonder if we’ve been beaten into submission by the corporate patriarchy such that we’ve so deeply internalized its methods that we don’t even realize we’re doing it to ourselves.
Self-determination and individualism are not the same thing. Feminism should be, and will only succeed, as a collective struggle not only for the well-being of one woman, but for all women – and most importantly – for all people.
Post edited: This post was originally entitled, ‘Beyoncé is no Ani DiFranco’. I’ve removed anything that makes mention of Ani DiFranco in order to stop the issue I’ve chosen to discuss here from being co-opted by an entirely unrelated, albeit important, issue. If you’re unfamiliar with Ani DiFranco, she’s an American indie folk artist whose career has spanned decades and who has gained a huge cult following for her prolific music and strong support for the rights of immigrants, people of colour, women, the LGBT community, etc., both in her music and in the work that she does in the community. Shortly after publishing this post, I learned that Ani had become the subject of criticism due to a recent announcement that she would be hosting a music and writing retreat on Nottoway Plantation along with several other artists. It’s perfectly understandable that many people have taken issue with the fact that a white artist who has until now been celebrated as a feminist and anti-racist failed to appreciate that holding an event on a former slave plantation could be considered not only as incredibly insensitive, but also as further validation of the claim that mainstream feminism excludes women of colour. While I recognize that this is a complex issue that will elicit a variety of opinions, it is unfortunate that for whatever reason, neither Ani nor her record label, Righteous Babe Records, have addressed these concerns (as of December 28th). The ethical and appropriate thing to do at this time – at the very least – would be to issue a formal apology and explanation. I’ve expressed this view to both parties. Now, with regard to this post, it did not focus on Ani; I had quoted her twice and gave a brief synopsis of her career. The purpose of bringing her up was to contrast the school of feminist thought that is critical of objectification as a tool of patriarchy (as expressed by Ani) with the premise of choice feminism that supporters of female pop stars use to defend them. Although the content involving Ani, notwithstanding the controversy, would still support my argument above, it has become clear that the mere mention of her is being interpreted as an invitation to go off on a tangent. The comments were beginning to devolve into insinuations that Ani DiFranco is a racist, which at any rate is irrelevant to the topic of choice feminism. Strangely, the controversy over the retreat was also somehow being leveraged to discredit my analysis of choice feminism generally and Beyoncé specifically. Again, totally off the mark, and not fair. Therefore, I decided to remove mention of Ani and did not approve some comments that discussed the retreat. As always, reasonable and relevant discussions are welcome. I may address the issue regarding the retreat in a future post. [Update: I've delved into the issue here]