A Conversation About bell hooks and Beyoncé

This past week, The New School of NYC hosted a panel discussion called “Are You Still a Slave? Liberating the Black Female Body.” The panel was comprised of Janet Mock, Marci Blackman, Shola Lynch, and bell hooks. During the discussion, hooks, the author of Feminism is for Everybody, dropped what felt like a bomb. The conversation had turned to Beyoncé’s TIME cover and hooks was unrelenting with her criticism of Beyoncé. Janet Mock, who talks in her book “Redefining Realness” of the positive impact Beyoncé has had on her life, defended Bey, suggesting that she had far more agency than hooks was giving her credit for. hooks responded by indicating that Beyoncé was partly anti-feminist to the point where her impact was terrorist. She referred to an Audre Lorde quote to back up her criticisms; “The masters tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” 

I respect hooks so very much; Feminism is for Everybody was pivotal in my development as a feminist. I am not a huge Bey fan but her criticisms left my mind reeling. To help wrap my head around it, I contacted my friend Dan Lyles, who had recommended Feminism is for Everybody to me years ago. I felt much more settled about the whole debate after our conversation, and I’m sharing it here in the hopes that it will do the same for you.


Dan: Yeah. I mean, that’s totally a bell hooks thing to say, but I’m curious if people are going to be charitable enough to understand what she’s trying to get at. Cause I feel like, yea… Beyoncé’s blackness is mobilized in support of white supremacist heterosexual patriarchy and there is some agency she has, but it doesn’t chance the fact that it has these larger, untoward consequences.

Emily: Like Mock is celebrating the good with the bad and hooks is dismissing the good for the bad? And maybe the good isn’t enough to be worth the bad?


Dan:  I was just talking to someone the other day about bell hooks and how they wanted the earlier, firebrand hooks back.
Well. This is what that is. She’s going to hold you accountable for the things you do and say and Beyoncé, for all her nice qualities, is not a street hustler or some middle manager somewhere- she’s near the top of this hierarchy and allows herself to be used in defense of it. You do good, but if you’re not trying to break the structure or are shallowly critical of it, you gonna have the hooks put on you.


Emily:  Hahaha, that’s a great pun. And a good point.


Dan: And then there is this which decided that what is important now is to say “no no no, hooks is wrong!” When I don’t think they understand that if their arguments are held true, Beyoncé is more not less culpable.
But mainly, no one is taking hooks particularly seriously. At least not as someone who is to be understood. Only as someone to be reacted too. The same, I guess can be said for Beyoncé, but I don’t think that our capacity and attention for understanding these people as actors in the world is equal in the way that our compassion for them as human beings (may) be equal.


Emily: I respect bell hooks so much as a thinker and I thought all feminists familiar with her would as well. I find what she says challenging but it seems really naive to dismiss her  as old.
I’m wondering what it would look like to be a person of influence, a black woman of influence, and still have the positive impact that women cite about Beyoncé without participating actively in oppressive systems. Is it the oppressive systems that give a person access to such a large audience? Even today with all the “democratization” of the internet, one still cannot compete with the influence of those people and companies that hold so much of the money.
Do you know where bell hooks stands on porn?


Dan: Well, bell hooks is a media scholar so I know she must have something. My guess, from my reading of her, is that she is more concerned with the way that black bodies are hated/loved/desired/destroyed, or displayed in service of pornography  given a colonialist history of sexualizing black bodies, than she is with pornography as a huge, complex thing. And, if anything gets her ire, is that when black women who are directly effected by the ways in which they are depicted and marginlized and used in pornography speak out against it or begin asking the hard question “What is it we have here?”, it is white and often male people who step in to tell them they are ‘counterrevolutionary’ or ‘anti-feminist’ because they don’t support an agenda that disproportionately loves and gives attention to particular kinds of white feminists.
It’s like, sex positive feminists and pro-pornography feminists who can’t take into account that their sex positivism and pro-pornography have as structuing contexts their own position white, male, privileged, etc. in the construction of their idenities are the real folks that hooks would have a problem with. Instead, I think she would want a way of talking about pornography and sex positivism (not sure why I’m bringing them up execept they’re both mentioned in that article I linked you) that accepts that those things don’t have equal consequences for all people and they’re allowed to point that out.


Emily:  I read a piece about this feminist porn festival in Toronto and I’m thinking about that sort of alternative pornography when I’m trying to imagine an alternative reality Beyoncé. But non exploitative / feminist porn is very much a fringe thing, which I guess is exactly what I was thinking about the alternative imaginary Beyoncé.


Dan: I think that’s a real interesting question. Are we alternate /to/ hegemonic pornography or are we alternative /within/ hegemonic pornography? The same might be asked with imaginaries of Beyoncé.
A male comic book character that is redrawn to have breasts and long hair is only alternative within a system of storytelling where as a Tank Girl or alt comic imaginary of a female character might exist alternatively to and thus in/on that margin you’re talking about.
Personally, I’ve always been impressed by what different feminists have brough to the table in terms of the pornography question, but I also think that the ‘alternative to/alternative within’ question gets a lot of lip service, which is the level of consciousness raising that bell hooks lives in.


Emily: That’s a good way of explaining the difference.  And is it possible for an alternative to become as popular without somehow becoming oppressive / exploitative?
Even Ben & Jerry’s is owned by Unilever.


Dan: Mmmm…. The easy answer is that my gut says yes, but the way forward is complicated.
The way I understand people and organizations is that the way that you keep an alternative to system alternative to is by giving control of it to another system that is also alternative to.
The way you keep feminist indie comics good is by keeping the barriers to participation low and encourage conference formats and publishing formats that are participatory and based on reflection and dialogue and self-determination.
A feminist fandom and comicsphere, if you will. And let the people closest to the situation figure out what the hell a a feminist fandom would look like, but let that question be open to people who participate and not to some ‘owner class’ or whatever.


Emily: But by virtue of being alternative, doesn’t that limit the reach?


Dan: For a time, until it’s the dominant model (or displaces the dominant model as being the only thing that can generate it’s own life) it does. Does reach worry you?


Emily: I’m thinking back to alternative Beyoncés but I can’t imagine someone having her reach without benefiting rich white CEOs. I think Beyoncé’s reach is a huge part of what makes her, currently. She’s not doing or saying things that aren’t being done or said elsewhere. In terms of her music and feminism, I mean. She’s influential because she’s so widely known, and she’s so widely known because at some point, someone with money and means determined they could profit off of her.


Dan: And that’s where I feel like hooks is coming down on Beyonce. Like, we’ve cut her a lot of slack to this point, so now “Whatchoo gonna do? You down with the struggle or what?” And hooks is like “Not lookin’ like it”. Just like she and Cornel West have sorta moved into the “Obama has failed to live up to the aspirations placed on him and slack cut for him by not appropriately emphasizing the struggle of people who fought to put him there” camp.
Meanwhile, a lot of other people are like “Nuh uh. The fact that Beyonce exists is a success and she’s doing successful work by being visable.” But again the question lingers- Successful for whom? Successful in whose struggle?


Emily: Do you think it’s possible or probable that Beyoncé will take hooks’ criticisms to heart?


Dan: That’s kind of the million dollar question, isn’t it? If Beyoncé is the feminist I think people want her to be, I think that’s a possibility. If she’s what hooks is seeing, then unlikely.
But miracles are amazing, unlikely things so, I don’t know. I hope so. She will have to struggle against the collective forces of having the option to not care and to have a group of people telling her to stay the course.

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