This morning I read Danielle Bowler’s commentary on the good versus bad feminist debate in her column We are all bad feminists, and that’s okay. While I’m all for a nuanced and reflexive critique on feminisms and their limitations in order to better develop and strengthen the movement, I found myself puzzled by what read to me as another piece that makes what I call Beyoncé-feminism possible and even okay. Yes, I’m about to police the gates.
I’m totally with Bowler that being authentic in our feminism is really hard, messy and complicated. We live in a heteropatriarchal global order where we can’t escape sexism and its reach even if we were all to wake up as radical separatist feminist dykes tomorrow (one can only dream). Like with capitalism, ablism, white racism and all those other kak “-isms” out there, sexism is a cunning deceiver and knows how to wrangle itself into our everyday decisions and behaviours simply because it is such a powerful and ubiquitous system of oppression. I, for one, am obsessed with RuPaul’s Drag Race – even in the knowledge of its commitment to reproducing and reifying a homonormative, capitalist and, yes, homophobic agenda which are all I things I’ve committed my life to working against. So let’s get real: no-one can be a perfect feminist. Unless they’re Black feminist Jesus with tits and a vagina. But this doesn’t mean we can’t try.
So we find out about this thing called feminism and decide that that’s what we’re all about. We read the literature, engage with sisters, start applying the logic in our day-to-day lives and call ourselves feminists. We know we’re kak at it, but we try. Beyoncé comes out as a feminist and this is a life-affirming moment because Beyoncé (duh!), until bell hooks decides to be a Debbie Downer and calls her a terrorist.
The rise and rise of feminism in popular culture has been a singularly important but equally dangerous thing for the feminist movement. Because of popular culture’s ubiquity and manifest influence on our lives, when pop icons ranging from Amanda Palmer to Queen Bey claim radical political identities that disrupt conservative and oppressive power, it makes choosing those same identities possible for us. At the same time, because of how conservative and oppressive power converges and reproduces itself through the pop industry, Beyoncé-feminism becomes a site through which the anti-feminist, -racist, -capitalist projects can and do advance their destructive agendas. Beyoncé walking out on stage with a massive billboard celebrating feminism behind her was, hands down, the most powerful contemporary public gesture for popularising feminism on a mass scale. But it’s wrong to even suggest that alone is enough. 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.
In her piece, Bowler offers us Chimamanda Adichie’s working definition of a feminist: a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes. This is not entirely accurate. Equality does not equal feminism. It’s the other way around. Mama bell hooks (on whose definition Adichie’s is based) tells us: feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression. In saying this, she identifies the end of sexism and sexist exploitation and oppression as the only way for achieving Adichie’s social, political and economic equality of the sexes. To claim the identity means to claim and live up to this commitment with integrity. Even in the face of the seductive excesses heteropatriarchy rewards us with.
In our obsession to all become feminists because Beyoncé said, we also need to take a moment to follow the logic of feminism through to its natural end and also engage with what feminism is not. In her instructive beginner’s manual to this ideological project with ground-rules, Feminism is for Everybody, bell hooks outlines some of these things:
- Feminism is not fighting to only allow a few privileged, upper-class womyn to succeed, but to focus on the betterment of all womyn and men;
- Feminism is not maintaining the attenuated tools used in the sexual exploitation of womyn through the policing and control of their bodies, but promoting their sexual and bodily autonomy – whatever the form;
- Feminism is not encouraging competitive relationships over men, power and commodities between womyn, it is building sisterhood between them.
- Feminism is not participating in the reinforcement of the idea that the value of womyn lies in their appearance, it is presenting diverse and affirming notions of beauty for all womyn that do not depend on what men think.
- Feminism is not white womyn in the global North decrying how oppressed Black womyn in the global South are, it is about opening up spaces for and offering tools to all womyn to identify where their oppressions lie and strategise to ending them on their own terms.
Understanding what feminism is and is not is a key step in walking the feminist path with integrity. But that’s not enough. As Bowler intimates in her piece, we also need to be accountable to others on this path in our grappling with sustaining and growing this important movement in contemporary society. Most times, it’s a quiet and affirming engagement where we point out each other’s deviations from the track, but sometimes, we need to stop and firmly say: stay in your own lane because you’re crowding out ours and leading us to our demise. We’ve been doing this with #whitefeminism, and we certainly must continue to do so with Beyoncé-feminism.
Because of its thorough and nuanced disruption of the heteropatriarchal neo-liberal agenda, the feminist movement is especially vulnerable to derailment. Perhaps now more than ever. The emergence of Beyoncé-feminism poses a particular threat to the movement because it is inherently an output of the capitalist popular culture machine we all 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.
For those of us who claim (or are thinking about claiming) the feminist identity, we need to be clear about what it is that we’re committing our lives to, how it is that we can advance the political project and what not to do to protect the movement from being derailed from its sure and steady course to freedom. Sometimes that will mean being told to check ourselves before we wreck ourselves and the project. Other times it will mean being asked to turn back and hand our feminist card at the gate because we won’t comply with the rules. Feminism is not for everybody, although it can be.