By Nomusa Mthethwa
Nomusa asks if she is less of a feminist because she did not learn about feminism from a gender studies class but instead from a Beyoncé song? She argues that there is a false binary, saying that she went from the “Flawless” song to reading all of Adichie’s works to reading essays and books by Amina Mama, Ama Ata Aidoo, Bessie Head, Kimberle Crenshaw, Pumla Gqola, bell hooks, Alice Walker, dream hampton, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis and Assata Shakur.
When reading Danielle Bowler’s opinion piece “When Feminism Becomes Trendy”, it refers to another article written by Sekoetlane Phamodi titled “Feminism Is Not For Everybody, Although It Can Be”. I clicked on the hyperlink in order to get the context of Bowler’s piece only to find myself thinking about a response to what I believe is an unfair policing of Beyonce’s choice to identify herself as a feminist. The piece in general embodies the mainstream white feminism view that deems Beyonce, a black woman, unworthy of “feminist credentials”.
He says, “Feminism is an ideology. Ideologies have ground-rules. And even if she is the Beysus, those same ground-rules apply to her and every single one of us who claim the identity.” He says that “Beyonce-feminism poses a particular threat to the movement because it is inherently an output of the capitalist popular culture machine we know to routinely co-opt progressive ideologies with the aim of refashioning them in its own image, exploiting and discarding them when they are no longer profitable or useful for advancing its own ends. Beyoncé-feminism erodes the integrity of the feminist project by dressing it up in bright lights and sequins with no requirement for accountability for deviating from its ideological principles and aims.”
Firstly, Beyoncé does not deviate from the basic tenets of feminist ideology. Time and time again she has publicly spoken the feminist language in a world where female pop artists have either shied away or blatantly rejected the label. In an interview for GQ Beyoncé said “Let’s face it; money gives men the power to run the show. It gives men the power to define value. They define what’s sexy. And define what’s feminine. It’s ridiculous.” In an interview for Vogue she stated “I’m a modern-day feminist. I believe in equality.”
The fact that Beyoncé fully and wholeheartedly claimed the label feminist even if it was dressed up in “bright lights and sequins” in a world that hates the label is a subversive act in itself. She backs up her words by having an all-female musical band called the SugaMamas and having complete autonomy over her brand, controlling every image and every sound from album production to music videos and every aspect of her music tours.
“Beyoncé-feminism” is founded upon feminist ideology that women own their bodies and that women are allowed to embrace their sexuality without caring about the judgement of those who fall prey to respectability politics. Just because she likes to show off her body and express her sexual agency it does not mean that her feminism is invalid.
Beyoncé’s feminism could be described as “Womanism” a term first coined by Alice Walker where the black woman’s experience is at the centre and her feminism is just a component that goes along with her spirituality, her relationship with herself and other women as well as her immediate environment. Womanism is not only about gender oppression but race and class oppression as well. All one needs to do is listen to the album titled Beyoncé where she confronts beauty politics despite her light-skinned privilege and highlights the importance of the role of her family including her husband, her mother, her sister and her daughter play in her life among other things. The inclusivity of her relationships is a basic tenet to Womanism. In Beyoncé she shows that she is not just a one-dimensional pop princess but a multi-faceted human being – a mother, a friend, a wife and a creative artist- which goes against the tropes and stereotypes of a black woman.
Beyoncé does not share a class struggle with most black women but she does fight against women’s issues within her own financial privilege. She has written an essay titled “Gender Equality is a Myth” where she tackles the topic of lack of equal pay. These are just a few examples of Beyoncé expressing her feminism.
As Alice Walker states in In Search of our Mother’s Gardens a Womanist “is committed to the survival and wholeness of an entire people, male and female. Not a separatist except periodically for health…loves the spirit…loves the struggle. Loves herself. Regardless.” To say that Beyoncé’s feminism is an “output of capitalist of the popular culture machine” is to erase her experience, her agency and her humanity and this is what’s “a threat to the movement” not Beyoncé’s feminism.
Male feminists of all races, whether they are asexual, transsexual, homosexual, bisexual, pansexual or heterosexual, have the ability to spew far more vitriol when critiquing women without any response and may even garner agreement from us simply because we may feel like they should be afforded a special place in feminist discourse since they are one of the few men who have claimed the label. We are so used to men being patriarchal and misogynistic or believing that it is an intrinsic part of their characters that we don’t think that the men who claim to be feminist or “allies” are capable of such expressions. Male feminists can also act from a place of male privilege in order to pick what kind of feminism is the right kind according to them as well as silence or completely ignore a woman’s experience or actions that give her every right to call herself a feminist should she so choose to.
Bowler suggests that feminism is becoming too aesthetic and trendy because of a few banners on runways and this takes away from the grass-root level activist movement that feminism expresses. I do not think it takes away from the movement at all. In fact I would deduce that pop culture feminism acts as a gateway for a person to find out more about Feminism in its entirety including its ideologies, intersections, subsets and concepts.
I for one went from the “Flawless” song to reading all of Adichie’s works to reading essays and books by Amina Mama, Ama Ata Aidoo, Bessie Head, Kimberle Crenshaw, Pumla Gqola, bell hooks, Alice Walker, dream hampton, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis and Assata Shakur.
Am I less of a feminist because I did not learn about feminism from a gender studies class but instead from a Beyoncé song? I would like to believe that there is no hierarchy within Feminism between those whose knowledge stems from an academic environment and those of us who are autodidacts. Those who consume pop culture are not shallow vapid human beings who do not learn more about an ideology when it is presented through mainstream music and those who call themselves feminist within pop culture should not be judged at face value. Take the time to listen to their words and let their actions speak for themselves.
Every person who calls themselves feminist will have a different social location within Feminism depending on their personal experience and where they place themselves in the intersection of gender, class and race. Feminism isn’t so rigid that those who don’t subscribe to your kind of feminism are immediately deemed not feminist. This kind of gatekeeping is violent and oppressive and fuels the misconceptions about feminism that make people hesitant to claim the label even if their opinions and actions are considered feminist.
Wherever you find yourself on the Feminism spectrum ultimately the tip of the umbrella where all these different subsets meet is to advocate for equality in the economic, political and social spheres and the freedom to make your own choices without having to take into account the judgement you will receive from or having your choice informed by the white capitalist patriarchal society we live in.
Feminism isn’t monolithic but rather a range of ideologies that inform a variety of movements and to treat it as such is not only reductionist and exclusionary but unfair to every woman knows Adichie’s part in “Flawless” off by heart and loves to twerk to Beyoncé songs.