Monday, May 12, 2014

Compromises, the Public Eye, & Political Expectations: why Beyoncé's not a terrorist and bell hooks isn't either

Last Friday I found out that bell hooks claimed that Beyoncé is a "terrorist". And my internet exploded. What follows is my collected thoughts on the matter. Before you proceed please read about/watch the panel discussion where the "terrorist" claim occurred.

IMPORTANT NOTE: I am a white person writing about interactions between and about women of color. I recognize that I could be reading all this shit terribly and utterly wrong and that there are most certainly racial elements involved that I've undeveloped/nonexistent understanding of. My experiences as a white person have ill prepared me to discuss this. Please read Janet Mock, Beyoncé, and bell hooks work. And listen to/read Beyoncé's words. They are the authorities on their own experiences.

I'm troubled by hook's word choice but I optimistically see hook's “terrorist” comment as being not so much specifically about Beyoncé as it is leading to a conversation about "selling out" to make money/fame in the entertainment industry. And that the music/entertainment industry make this sort of selling the price of admission for any marginalized identity who wants to promote themselves or their work.

Women (and w.o.c esp) artists will have their expression of sexuality and bodily celebration twisted into objectification and fetishization by misogynist managers/producers/publishers/viewers. I personally think it is unreasonable to expect that all marginalized creators of art should refuse to release their work/images to people who are perpetuating the patriarchy. We'd have far fewer women and p.o.c. celebrities.

That would mean we as consumers of their content expect our idols to exhibit the politics we've come to associate with them at all times. Which is an odd impractical form for political idolization. And it is as unreasonable as any expectation viewers might have of a celebrity.

As someone who seeks to be radical as much as I can, I definitely take compromises the kyriarchy hands me. Because sometimes I am tired or I just really really want what that compromise will get me. This doesn't make me a terrorist. But it does mean I'm colluding with, support, validating the kyriarchy. Which is the point I assume hooks was trying to make about Beyonce's Time cover.

I don't think hooks intended to make a villain out of Beyoncé. But having pure or radical intent doesn't absolve anyone (hooks or Bey) of the effects of their work and presentation. Hook's words were still hurtful, regardless of her intent. And no matter how loudly Beyonce sings about how shitty the patriarchy is, I know that she wants fame and money too. And sometimes the money and fame she gets to do what the patriarchy wants wins out.

One of the things I am thankful for in the exchange between Mock and hooks is that Beyoncé's agency was discussed. I've been in far too many "feminist" conversations that involved implying or outright saying that women who do porn, sex work, or the work in the entertainment industry are "brainwashed" or have no idea what they are doing.

It's because both hooks and Mock avoid diminishing Beyoncé's agency in this way that believe that hooks is not really aiming at Beyoncé with her remark. It's not a great upgrade, but I prefer “terrorist” to “brainwashed” any day.

I could be reading it wrong, but really isn't hooks just using a celebrity as a controversial entry point to get people thinking and talking about more complex, pervasive issues? Now of course there's more radical and necessary work to do than to make a critical example of Beyoncé for not exhibiting feminist and anti-racist politics all of the time.

It isn't helping anyone's deconstruction of power structures and their insidiousness to call Beyoncé a terrorist. I assume that hook's use of the word “terrorist” was a misstep at best and at worst a provocative placeholder; a way to stop the conversation completely and force a the focus onto larger systematic forces at play. Now using a black woman and celebrity in this oversimplifying way is something I believe to not be in line with hook's politics. But I also don't expect hooks to always perfectly exhibit her politics.

Sometimes Beyoncé delivers messages about how beauty culture is damaging through gyrating madly or falsely claiming that it's girls who run the world. And sometimes bell hooks calls another progressive black woman in the public eye a “terrorist”. Everyone takes compromises and unfortunate shortcuts when it comes to expressing ourselves and our politics.

The conversation about the problematic elements of accepting sexualizing and patriarchal compromises to get your career going and to maintain successful in the entertainment industry is an important one. It's a choice many have to face and that no woman with a public career ever makes easily. And just because bell hooks chose not use her body or sexuality in the promotion of her work, doesn't mean that that choice is available or desirable to every woman who works in the public eye.

What hooks is missing in her “terrorist” claim is the recognition that her own gaining of fame and recognition as a black woman who didn't do those things is unfortunately incredibly rare and for many impossible because of the industry they work in.

Those who're able to criticize the system (in this case the music industry) from outside of it should not name call the people who are trying work within it to effect progressive changes. Selling out isn't a binary. I'm not saying that change from the inside system is the right way or even the best way to change things, or even that such efforts should be above critique. I think the effectiveness and inherent problems of such approaches should absolutely be discussed. But the name calling is unnecessary. There is other more radical work to be done. And more respectful (less sensational) ways to broach these issues.

So yes, bell, Beyoncé is in the masters house (the music industry) and has been definitely been handed some of the master's tools, but I've always been of the opinion that tools are can be repurposed. And Beyonce is definitely doing work to transform the expectations of the music industry with repurposed tools.

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