Who’s making the ‘Lemonade’? On bell hooks’ and Beyoncé’s Feminisms
I wasn’t going to get into the bell hooks versus Beyoncé fray over Lemonade and its myriad implications. I resisted the echo chamber hoping the frenzy would die down sooner rather than later. I told myself that there really was no point of debating the merits of either side since most of the dialogue has been forced into imaginary binaries like “old feminism” versus “new feminism”, intellectual versus artistic expression, academic versus non-academic, and the like. But, after seeing a Feministing article called “A Black Feminist Roundtable on bell hooks, Beyoncé, and “Moving Beyond Pain”,” I think it might be time we start thinking more critically about how we situate both women’s feminisms and who we foreground when critiquing them.
All of this started last week when foremother of Black Feminism bell hooks published a critique of Lemonade called “Moving Beyond Pain.” (Some would say this actually started when hooks called Beyoncé a “terrorist” because of her phenotypic imagery and effect on young Black girls but I am choosing to start with this recent issue).
In her critique, hooks offers both an anti-capitalist and anti-patriarchal analysis of the visual experience and lyrics Beyoncé offered us with Lemonade.
“Viewers who like to suggest Lemonade was created solely or primarily for black female audiences are missing the point. Commodities, irrespective of their subject matter, are made, produced, and marketed to entice any and all consumers. Beyoncé’s audience is the world and that world of business and money-making has no color.”
Her point is valid. Beyoncé’s audience is not only Black cis, trans, and queer women and femmes. She is clearly in the business of making money via multiple commoditized channels. But, I think this critique is empty not because it rests upon faulty assertions but because of simple narrative assumptions on hooks’ part.
When Black women and femmes viewed Lemonade and heard the lyrics, I am pretty sure none of us thought we were the only demographic of persons doing so. I am confident we were and are well aware that Beyoncé’s artistry is consumed on a global scale by folks of many persuasions and denominations. However, when we declared that Beyoncé had made that work of art for us, we meant that she was centering us in our complexity. She had, in many ways, removed the veil of caricature so that the world would see us as we saw ourselves (feminist and scholar Melissa Harris-Perry might call this our attempt at “standing upright” in the “crooked room”).
hooks basically agrees with this sentiment (whether she acknowledges it or not) when she says,
“It is the broad scope of Lemonade’s visual landscape that makes it so distinctive—the construction of a powerfully symbolic black female sisterhood that resists invisibility, that refuses to be silent. This in and of itself is no small feat—it shifts the gaze of white mainstream culture. It challenges us all to look anew, to radically revision how we see the black female body. However, this radical repositioning of black female images does not truly overshadow or change conventional sexist constructions of black female identity.”
Now, while it may be true that Lemonade did not dismantle White hetero patriarchal capitalism, it is unfair to mischaracterize Beyoncé’s offering as devoid of voice, presence, and visibility of Black women and femmes in ways which align more closely with how we conceive of ourselves. Janet Mock’s recent tweets on the matter and her use of the term “hierarchies of respectability” sum this up perfectly. Hooks has since responded to these concerns explaining that she appreciates glamour but seeks to decolonize the Black female body altogether. The fact remains though: there are some ways that Lemonade actually lines up squarely with hooks’ own work on self-recovery and expression.
Let’s examine this further. hooks notes that,
“It is only as black women and all women resist patriarchal romanticization of domination in relationships can a healthy self-love emerge that allows every black female, and all females, to refuse to be a victim. Ultimately, Lemonade glamorizes a world of gendered cultural paradox and contradiction. It does not resolve.”
This is a fact which has merit. Let me explain why.
If one has read hooks’ work in Sisters of the Yam (2005), one will already understand where hooks is coming from with this critique. Her focus has always been on moving past hurt but doing it in productive ways. She says, “Collectively, black women will lead more life-affirming lives as we break through denial, acknowledge our pain, express our grief, and let the mourning teach us how to rejoice and begin life anew” (84). In essence, hooks suggests that Lemonade doesn’t do enough, that because Beyoncé is Beyoncé she has the power, access, and agency to move beyond traditional representations of Black women as perpetual victims, ushering in a fictive world unabridged by domination and patriarchy. This is a world hooks has been writing about for years.
However, my issue with hooks’ critique here is that, while many of her concerns are valid, they do not make room for the particular feminisms of a star like Beyoncé. That is to say, hooks’ expectations of Beyoncé outstrip the space the artist is herself attempting to make with this work.
Lemonade is an album and visual experience. It isn’t a theoretical intervention nor is it the last we will see of Beyoncé’s feminisms. So, while hooks’ key points stand, they are less effective when one considers that hooks herself is, in some ways, reproducing the oppressive and dominant pressures which she wants so badly to eradicate.
Yet, I, like Zeba Blay writes for Huffington Post, think that we must move beyond loving Beyoncé and Lemonade (as I certainly do but have been critical of her for some time), to a moment where we are able to cogently level critique and receive it.
This moves me to the Feministing article. The eleven person “roundtable” features Black hetero and queer men, women, and femmes who each seem to disagree with hooks’ critiques wholesale. hooks’ concerns are deemed “trite,” “petty,” “unimaginative,” “irrelevant,” “laughable,” and, well, the list goes on. What is odd, too, is that even though there are academics on the “roundtable,” there is a distinct anti-academic milieu to the attacks on hooks’ concerns. This seems paradoxical in that Beyoncé is often defended on the basis of her profession yet hooks is too often maligned for her’s. I am a firm believer that a feminism which is dismissive of the totality of Black womaness (be it academically-inclined or otherwise) is flawed.
Though, what is most troubling about the piece is simply that none of the critiques of hooks’ concerns offer an anti-capitalist, anti-neoliberal counter argument. Each is still, for the most part, situated in a dimension of Black women’s self-autonomy and liberation through political economy even if that liberation comes with a side of self-exploitation.
Beyond that, while Melissa Harris-Perry, Joy-Ann Reid and Doreen St. Felix in their commentary each ask us to push further in both our conceptions of hooks’ critiques and our unabiding love for all things Beyoncé, many of the others rely upon singular clap-backs, loosely conceived of anecdotes, and personal narcissisms that they seem to believe are really what animate hooks’ primary critiques. Now, this isn’t to say that the experiences and sentiments expressed are invalid. Rather, it is to trouble the ways that we respond to critique especially where Black feminist praxis is concerned.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there isn’t a single voice on the “roundtable” that holds room for hooks. At times, it reads like an eleven person firing squad aimed squarely at her chest. I find this concerning just as I find it concerning that two Black queer men are featured on the “roundtable” rather than other Black cis or trans women or femmes. Part of me wants to believe this should be a conversation between us. And, that, while even hooks has told us that “Feminism is for everyone,” Black women’s feminisms are inherently for us. Just as we want so badly for hooks to make space for Beyoncé, why haven’t we also critically-engaged each other by questioning the ways that we don’t even give space to one another? Or, how we make space for others who are, too, situated in patriarchal formations just by their identities alone?
This is all to say that it matters who is propped up to speak on behalf of whom just as it matters who is or is not invited to the table at all. Or, in this case, who gets to make the lemonade. A “roundtable” on this subject should be a representation of all of our (meaning Black hetero and queer, trans and cis, women and femmes) multiply marginalized feminisms just as our critiques should be.
I am glad this conversation is happening. I think it is vital and necessary. But, I also think that our desire to resist the echo chamber shouldn’t be aimed only at patriarchy or mainstream White feminism or capital or academics; it should be nuanced and adaptive. It should be as intersectional as our lived experiences. And, it should most definitely be authentically our own.
The best example I have seen in terms of disagreeing with grace and loving one another critically is Janet Mock’s and bell hooks’ conversation at The New School in 2014. See below.
Photo: YouTube screenshot