Last night, The New School hosted a dynamic conversation between Black women activists and creatives titled “Are You Still a Slave?”
The group, which included filmmaker Shola Lynch, author Marci Blackman, feminist icon and scholar bell hooks, and activist and author Janet Mock, focused on the images of women of color in the media and what types of messages are sent to the public at large.
At one point in the evening, the discussion turned to Beyoncé’s Time magazine cover, and hooks—who once encouraged Bey’s budding feminism—accused the singer of being a “terrorist” when it comes to the messages she projects to young girls.
Hooks, argued Beyoncé’s sexy, partially-clothed Time cover did little to bolster her pro-woman bona fides.
“Let’s take the image of this super rich, very powerful Black female and let’s use it in the service of imperialist, white supremacist capitalist patriarchy because she probably had very little control over that cover — that image,“ the professor argued.
Mock and Blackman pushed back against the idea of Bey’s lack of control, questioning whether Beyoncé’s sexy image is subversive, but hooks wasn’t having it.
Mock: I think she had control over what she wore…I would argue that she has a power now that she has final-cut approval and she chose that image. I don’t want to strip Beyoncé of her agency, of choosing that image, of being her own manager, of all of this stuff.
hooks: Then you’re saying then, from my deconstructive point of view, that she’s colluding the construction of herself as a slave. It’s not a libratory image.
Blackman: Or, she’s using the same images that were used against her, and us, for so many years and she’s taken control of it and saying, ‘If y’all are going to make money off it, so am I.’ There’s collusion, perhaps, but there’s also a bit of reclaiming if she’s the one in control.
Hooks: Well, of course, I think that’s fantasy. I think it’s a fantasy that we can recoup the violating image and use it. I used to get so tired of people quoting Audre [Lorde], ‘The masters tools will never dismantle the master’s house.’ But that was exactly what she meant that you are not going to destroy this imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy by creating your own version of it. Even if it serves you to make lots and lots of money.
I’ve really been challenging people to think about would we be at all interested in Beyoncé if she wasn’t so rich, because I don’t think you can separate her class power, and the wealth, from people’s fascination with her. That here is a young, Black woman who is so incredibly wealthy. And wealthy is what so many young people fantasize, dream about, sexualize, eroticize. And one could argue, even more than her body, it’s what that body stands for—the body of desire fulfilled that is wealth, fame, celebrity, all the things that so many people in our culture are lusting for, wanting.
If Beyoncé was a homeless woman who looked the same way, or a poor, down and out woman who looked the same way, would people be enchanted by her? Or is it the combination of all of those things that are at the heart of imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy?
And I’ve been saying, people of color, we are so invested in white supremacy, it’s tragic. Lorraine Hansberry said it is the only form of extremism that should discredit us in the eyes of our children that we remain so invested.
Although Mock agreed that certain aspects of Beyoncé’s public image deserved critique (like the unfortunate “eat the cake” line from Drunk In Love), she explained why she found Beyoncé’s music and persona empowering.
Having ‘Partition’ come out…a couple months before my book came out, when I am writing about sex work and sexual abuse and issues with my body, my sexuality, it was freeing to have Beyoncé showing her ass, owning her body and claiming that space. That meant a lot to me because it gave me the ok to have that. I’m not saying that she is not participating in all of this, but I do think that there is power in her leaving her father…and saying, ‘I will not let you give this distilled image of me anymore.’ That resonates with me on so many levels.
Despite Mock’s defense of the singer, hooks contended that Beyoncé, and the media at large, levies the biggest attack against feminism today.
I see a part of Beyoncé 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 of assault on feminism in our society has come from visual media, and from television, and videos. Just think, do we know of any powerful man of any color who’s come out with some tirade against feminism? The tirades against feminism occur so much in the image-making business, and what we see.
What I’m concerned about constantly in my critical imagination is why don’t we have libratory images that are away from, not an inversion of, what society has told us?
Watch the entire conversation between bell hooks, Janet Mock, Shola Lynch, and Marci Blackman below: