Ok, so first of all, I think the bell-hooks-Beyonce-terrorist thing was way exaggerated. [If you haven't yet, watch the really excellent New School panel where the incident took place. hooks is in conversation with Janet Mock, Shola Lynch, and Marci Blackman.] In case you missed it, here's what happened. When Beyonce's hyper-sexual public image came up in the course of this otherwise un-Beyonce-related panel discussion, hooks said:
I see a part of Beyonce that is in fact anti-feminist...that is a terrorist, especially in terms of the impact on young girls. I actually feel like the major assault on feminism has come from visual media and from television and from videos. I mean just think - do we even know, of late, any powerful man of any color that's come out with some tirade against feminism? The tirade against feminism occur so much in the image-making business and what we see.
Anyone familiar with hooks' work or with any of the conversation surrounding Beyonce's recent visual album will barely blink an eye at the argument that Beyonce's sexualized vision of femininity is anti-feminist. The point has been made and remade, by commentators across the political spectrum. hooks' use of the word 'terrorist' is unfortunate given that Americans have an understandably loaded interpretation of that word. But her argument is nothing to do with bombings or foreign wars. She argues that by forwarding the notion that empowered women are inherently sexual, Beyonce still limits the imagery and conversation around what women can be and do. In the femisphere, her stance isn't really all that controversial.
Anyway, since reading the slew of articles demonizing (while barely examining) hooks' statement, I've been thinking about the intersection of hooks' and Beyonce's politics. hooks has critiqued Beyonce before, especially her sexuality, and I don't have any problem with that. She's probably right in her critique, the way she is about most things, and even when I disagree, there's value in a complex and nuanced debate surrounding an otherwise massively adored pop star. But there's also overlap in the way these two women, empowered differently but powerfully, approach sexuality.
I just finished hooks' Communion: The Female Search for Love. (Well, I finished it a few days ago and then immediately re-read it. So I guess I re-finished it.) The book is an awe-inspiring account of "uniting the search for love with the quest to be free." hooks' assertion is that the only way to find and give love is by deconstructing and releasing internalized patriarchy, in conjunction with developing a practice of radical self-love. She gives plenty of grace to those of us to whom that process seems overwhelming and perhaps impossible. And in helping us to see how radical love is possible, she shares examples from her own life. Here she discusses her first long-term partner:
I had chosen a male partner seven years older than myself. We attended the same classes, ones that were open to graduate and undergraduate students. When he got better grades, we blamed it on the patriarchal system. It was not his fault. He willingly assumed his share of the chores - cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the household. He championed the rights of women in the workplace and believed we should get equal pay for equal work. He championed my intellectual growth, serving as a mentor. Our most intense power struggles took places in the bedroom. He still believed that women should "service" male desire. He, of course, objected to the use of the word "service" and preferred "respond to." I demanded that we use the word "service." I wanted him to understand that I was not responsible for his sexual desires. And if his dick was hard and he needed to put it someplace to seek satisfaction, then he had to find the place. He could not assume that my body was territory he could occupy at will.
Isn't it comforting that even the great bell hooks has had to deal with relationship bullshit? hooks is demanding recognition of her humanity through the practice of active desire and consent. Heck yea! But given hooks' radical politics, and that her books are much less widely read than they should be, I initially balked at the thought of using hooks' anecdotes as defense of my personal politics to a potential partner. As someone still very much figuring out how to advocate for consent and active desire, hooks is almost too radical for me to rely on for guidance as I navigate my personal romantic experiences, at least in these beginning stages of my self-love revolution.
But then I remembered Beyonce. In her song Yes, off her 2003 record Dangerously in Love, she confronts a similar issue. First, she discusses a new boo who she really likes...
You somehow intrigued me
Sounds great! She let's him get to know her a bit, but she has her boundaries...
I said yes to your number
...And it turns out he can't respect those boundaries.
You was at my house
As I listened to this song on repeat, I realized that Beyonce and hooks aren't too far apart in their valuation of consent. For both women, pushing past sexual boundaries is a deal-breaker. Both hooks and Beyonce expel otherwise promising men from their lives for pressuring them to engage sexually when the women are not desiring of that engagement.
Now, Beyonce would probably take serious issue with hooks' assertion that it is a-ok to go for months without engaging with your partner sexually. But despite the women's definite differences of opinion, I was interested at how Beyonce's lyrics reminded me of hooks. And I realized that Beyonce compelled me in a more personal way than reading hooks. Yes's lyrics are accessible and catchy. They stuck in my head, and the more I hummed them, the more I found myself questioning whether I was assertive enough about my desires and boundaries with partners. Do I require the respect from my partners that Beyonce demands in this song? While reading hooks, I was caught up in how challenging her radical politics are to my patriarchal, conventional understandings of sex. That process was educational, but didn't necessarily equip me with tools to advance my own consent practices. But Beyonce got straight to the point in a more relatable manner. By asserting herself in a situation that is depressingly common, she makes good consent practices seem achievable.
You know how there used to be that saying, "feminism is the theory and lesbianism is the practice"? Yeah, stupid second-wave shit. But could it be that when it comes to consent, bell hooks is the theory and Beyonce is the practice? Clearly I only present one example of commonality in a relationship between two women that is otherwise extremely fraught. But for those of us third-wave, Beyonce-listening, radicalizing-but-still-struggling women who wonder how to make use of feminist theory in our daily lives, maybe Beyonce is a stepping stone. How else does the work of these women intersect? Where can we see Beyonce's image and music as a distillation of feminist theory? Can someone write a dissertation on this?
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