On Tuesday, The New School hosted a conversation between bell hooks, Marci Blackman, Shola Lynch, and Janet Mock, titled “Are You Still a Slave? Liberating the Black Female Body.” The conversation explored representations and images of women of colour in the media.
bell hooks was one of my earliest influences. Every time a woman — young or old — asks me for a solid place to start, I recommend hooks. I’m just so grateful for her. The whole conversation is very insightful and I recommend you watch it in its entirety.
In the early part of the conversation, hooks talks a lot about Twelve Years a Slave, which she said, on the Melissa Harris-Perry show, was “sentimental claptrap.” I haven’t actually seen the film, so I can’t speak to it directly, but hooks apparently experienced a lot of backlash over her critiques because so many people enjoyed the film. She responds, saying: “As a black woman, when I see images like myself, abused, beaten, raped, tortured… I don’t feel entertained… If I never see another naked, enslaved, raped black woman onscreen as long as I live, I’ll be happy.”
Thank the lord for bell hooks. This is what I’ve said many times about rape scenes in film and television and is why I stopped watching, for example, Game of Thrones last year. I don’t need to see any more raped, abused, objectified, sexualized, brutalized women. I have seen enough. Though there certainly are defensible reasons to include depictions of gendered violence on screen, at times, and I have seen scenes of rape and other forms of male violence done in a way that is critical and do not sexualize or normalize it (I think the scene in Mad Men when Joan is raped by her fiancee is a good example of this), the vast majority of this imagery is gratuitous and sexualized.
It’s worth noting that hooks has been critical of sadomasochism (which has its roots in colonialism, slavery, and gendered violence such as witch hunts) — something that has become untouchable in terms of feminist critique because people feel “judged” (sadface). She says: “Imagine Twelve Years a Slave without Patsy. Because it’s her whole sexualization and the S&M cruelty that she endures from white males and females — all of it gives a certain ‘spice’ to the film” and then asks whether “we have to have the black female, dehumanized, tortured, raped, enslaved, in order to have our entertainment?”
And of course, we as a culture seem to think we do need this in order to be entertained. We need our porn, we need our naked, exploitable, fuckable female bodies, we need our rape fantasies and our S&M. We deserve whatever it is we desire. Our culture is one of selfish individualism, greed, excess, and anything goes if it makes us feel good; all of which we’ve seen bleed into feminism and stifle and silence critical thought and women’s voices.
hooks says she asked Janet Mock if glamour was a source of power, and Mock responded “yes,” immediately. Mock explains that, to wear makeup and heels, to “pretty [herself] up,” to “claim [her] body” and to “prettify” it in the way she wants, constitutes power. Mock sees it as claiming space. As claiming power. “This little space is mine,” she says, referring to her body. “I will do it for myself. Not for the pleasure of or for the gaze of a man.” Does she gaze at herself, I wonder? Through whose eyes? Where did these images of glamour and female beauty come from?
I do understand this in a way. I like to dress up too sometimes. I wear makeup. I’ve started painting my nails again after an almost 15-year hiatus. I do enjoy certain parts of those rituals. But what any of that has to do with “power,” I don’t know. Certainly my nails are not what give me or will ever give me “power.” Whatever “power” “glamour” bestows upon Janet Mock is a kind of selfish “power” that may grant her access to spaces she wouldn’t otherwise have access to or at least make her feel more comfortable or accepted in this world as a transwoman, but it isn’t a kind of power that will extend to anyone but herself and I don’t believe it’s the kind of “power” we should be teaching girls and women to strive for — to tell them that crippling themselves in heels and getting a ton of cosmetic surgery will give them “power.” It’s conformity, not power. It may be “fun” conformity, but it’s still conformity in that it challenges and changes nothing about women’s status or systemic power and oppression.
Which brings us to Beyonce.
I will preface this by saying that I think Beyonce is an amazing entertainer. Drunk in Love is one of the best tracks of 2013 and is one of the few that will get my lazy ass off of the bar stool and grinding on the dance floor (DON’T JUDGE ME. Kidding, you can judge me…). But as we’ve discussed numerous times on this site, just because you like it doesn’t make it feminist. My enjoyment of Beyonce doesn’t interfere with my ability to understand what feminism is and what it is not.
hooks, in looking critically at Beyonce’s recent Time cover image, describes her as looking like a “deer in headlights” and in her (very girlish) underwear. She says: “isn’t this interesting — that she’s being held up as one of the most important people, in our nation, in the world… What does that say about the black female body?”
It’s clear many would prefer to look away from the image and from what Beyonce represents. Or theorize it into something other than what it is. (“A little girl we can lust after,” hooks says, pointedly. “A little girl who could be Woody Allen’s daughter who can be taken up into the attic and sexually abused, with people witnessing from a distance but taking no action on her behalf.”) Lynch quite literally says she doesn’t want to look at it, but would rather “shift [her] gaze” towards the “people and places that feed [her].” Third-wave feminism taught us to look for agency rather than victimization, which has merely provided us with blinders and an academic language with which we can lie to ourselves about women’s realities.
But how can we look away from Beyonce? Especially when we are being told, now, that she represents female empowerment? That she is a feminist icon? All the while objectified and sexualized and, really, is more representative of capitalist patriarchy than anything else?
hooks describes these efforts: “Let’s take the image of this super rich, very powerful black female, and let’s use it in the service of imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy.”
Despite all Beyonce’s “power” she still, hooks points out, didn’t likely have much control over that cover.
Mock protests, claiming that Beyonce chose the image. Which, I don’t know… almost makes it worse…
What we’re witnessing in this conversation is significant of almost every debate and struggle happening in feminism right now. The “she has agency therefore she is empowered and what she is doing is empowering” argument versus the “choice doesn’t equal empowerment” argument. It’s the delusions of neoliberalism, individualism and the self-help movement versus radical struggles against colonialist, capitalist patriarchy.
“What you’re saying,” hooks responds, “is that she’s colluding in the construction of herself as a slave. It’s not a liberatory image.”
This point is countered with the “reclaiming” argument. Similar to the one we are met with every time we critique Slutwalk or burlesque or Femen or selfie self-objectification. “We’re taking back ‘slut,'” they tell us. Or boobs. Or whatever.
Women are now empowered by everything they do, as The Onion would say.
hooks, of course doesn’t let anyone get away with this. “I think that’s fantasy,” she says to Blackman. “I think it’s a fantasy that we can recoup the violating image and use it…”
hooks says this is exactly what Audre Lorde meant by her famous phrase, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
“You are not going to destroy this imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy by creating your own version of it,” hooks says. “Even if it serves you to make lots and lots of money.”
Let’s hear that one again.
“You are not going to destroy this imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy by creating your own version of it.”
hooks also points out that it’s unlikely we would be so fascinated with Beyonce if she weren’t so rich and says that we cannot separate her class power and her wealth from people’s fascination with her.
“There’s a price for decolonization,” hooks says. “You’re not going to have your wealth.”
“Part of what has to happen if we are going to be free is that we have to create our own standards.” Which is to say that we need new imagery and new ideas about gender and power — not just the same ones, repackaged in order to make us feel better.
At the end of the day, hooks points out that most of us do not want to be oppressed but that people will sometimes remain enslaved because “it’s just simply easier.”
No matter how much you enjoy (or claim to enjoy) your own oppression, that enjoyment or those temporary, personal feelings of power or pleasure will not free us either as individuals or as a culture.
To hear someone say in the public realm that Beyonce is “anti-feminist,” as hooks does, going on to say that there is a part of her that functions “as a terrorist — especially in terms of the impact on young girls” is quite exciting. I mean, it’s clear, but few will say it… When “the major assault on feminism has come from visual media,” as hooks says, how can we ignore the imagery Beyonce is putting out there? How can we look away from that and call her wealth, combined with her sexual objectification, empowering? Or feminist?
hooks manages to stay radical and bring forth unpopular and challenging arguments though she must experience enormous pushback. What say you, liberals? Are you listening?
Who here has the balls to tell bell hooks that she’s wrong?