By Crystal M. Hayes
I am not here to take Beyoncé’s feminist card away. Her feminist credentials are safe with me, and not debatable. In fact, the very idea of questioning a woman’s self determination, seems, well, quite anti-feminist at its core. Beyoncé, like any woman, has the right to claim feminism for herself, and she gets to decide what it means to her. The whole point of feminism, I believe, is to give women options, and choices to control their own destinies. We do not necessarily have to agree with those choices, but we do have to respect a woman’s freedom to choose how she will embrace feminist ideals and principles. Having said that, I come to feminism through one of the most brilliant and important critical Black feminist theorists of our time: bell hooks. hooks teaches me that at the core of feminism is confronting our own internalized sexism and patriarchy—and helping others to do the same—so that we do not become the very thing that we claim to be in opposition against.
This is one of the main reasons why I also struggle to reconcile the pro-woman independent Beyoncé, with the artist Mrs. Beyoncé Knowles-Carter who performed her hit song “Drunk in Love” at the Grammy’s. I did not see this performance during the Grammys. I had to watch via Youtube after becoming aware of the buzz about it via Twitter and Facbook. During her performance, I was more than a little confused, and angry to watch Mrs. Knowles-Carter not just mouth the verse that references a scene of severe domestic violence from the 1993 biopic movie of Tina Turner’s (Anna Mae) life—“eat the cake Anna Mae, eat the cake Anna Mae,”—but defiantly joins Jay-Z in rapping it. If you do not know the movie, “What’s Love Got to Do with It,” this vile verse comes from a scene when Ike Turner, Tina’s husband and manager, becomes jealous of his wife’s success and tries to humiliate her publicly by violently forcing her to eat cake. He then attacks and slaps a female band-mate who tries to protect Tina (Anna-Mae) from Ike’s abuse. I know a lot of Black women who love the idea of Beyoncé as a feminist—and so do I—but I cannot, in good conscience, put Beyoncé on some kind of feminist perch or pedestal when I and others have some deep concerns about Beyonce’s promotion of evocative, violent imagery, and even rape fantasies. If you do not believe me, watch the scene from the movie that is referenced in the song, here.
In their marriage, Ike nearly killed Tina. Ike Turner brutalized Tina for years. He raped and tormented Tina. Ike was a jealous, abusive, deeply disturbed man, and he nearly destroyed Tina Turner’s life. We will never know the true costs of all the marital abuse that Tina endured, but one thing is for sure—there is nothing empowering about watching Beyoncé glamorize patriarchal violence by referencing Ike Turner in her music. Referencing a known wife batterer rapist like Ike Turner in her music, and for that matter, even Mike Tyson, a convicted rapist who was also accused of domestic violence against his wife, at the time, Robin Givens, makes me feel more than just a little ill, angry, and disappointed. As much as I appreciate the impulse of some Black women to protect Beyoncé from attacks by those who question her feminist credibility, I am not at all comfortable with blind loyalty and capitulation. I get it. The criticism coming from mainstream white feminists about Beyoncé’s version of feminism is disheartening, particularly when you consider the very painful history of Black women’s marginalization in white mainstream feminist circles.
Nevertheless, glorifying violent imagery is deeply problematic, on multiple levels, no matter who does it, but even more so when it is coming from our beloved Beyoncé—the once pageant girl turned grown woman, pleasure and sëx positive “we be all night,” self-identified feminist. I think these things matter, so for now, I would just like to remind us, as bell hooks reminds me, that simply picking up the “feminist banner” does not absolve us of the responsibility of actively doing the work of feminism. We must all be willing to do the painful work of unlearning internalized, sexist patriarchal values, and beliefs if being feminist is ever going to be used as a tool to ultimately create a more equitable world for women and girls. bell hooks teaches us, that “Feminism is for Everybody,” and those of us who truly believe this must be willing to challenge one another to grow beyond the rhetoric to practice. It is great that Beyoncé is listening to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie TED talks on feminism, and hopefully, next time, she will also turn to a little bell hooks, so that when she collaborates with her husband Jay-Z we won’t get lyrics that uphold and romanticize patriarchal violence, but ones that challenges it. It really does matter.
Crystal is a Clinical Assistant Professor and can be reached via Twitter @motherjustice.