Beyonce has been criticised by bell hooks. Photo: Getty Images
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Is bell hooks right to call Beyoncé a terrorist?

Writer and theorist bell hooks has labelled Beyoncé a “terrorist” for how she chooses to appear in her music videos – illuminating one of the thorniest debates in feminism. 

Well-known feminist theorist bell hooks has attracted a huge amount of criticism after describing Beyoncé as a "terrorist". Most surprisingly, fellow black feminists are among those who have rounded on the author for aiming the T-word at the singer, and hooks has been accused of trolling. Perhaps terrorist is a harsh choice of word, but hooks is a cultural critic who throughout her 30-year career has used plain language to make her theoretical ideas accessible to everyone. And for hooks to raise alarm at the images presented – or inflicted – on us again and again, and the potential harm caused, isn’t beyond the realms of unfairness. The issue is not only that Beyoncé doesn’t sing a line these days without groping her perfect, near-naked body, bu that she frequently projects herself as a sexual plaything for men. And the sheer volume of these images is staggering.

hooks made the terrorist remark during a discussion entitled “Are You Still A Slave?” at New York’s New School, after fellow panellist Janet Mock talked about feeling inspired by Beyoncé’s video ‘Partition’. “It was freeing to have Beyonce showing her ass, owning her body and claiming that space”, said Mock. But hooks disagreed: “I see a part of Beyoncé that is, in fact, anti-feminist, that is assaulting, that is a terrorist . . . especially in terms of the impact on young girls.” She continued: “I actually feel like the major assault on feminism in our society has come from visual media and from television and videos.”

The popular opinion peddled in Beyoncé’s defence is that she has the right to define and depict herself as she chooses.  The singer, through her alter-ego Sasha Fierce, should apparently be applauded for taking charge of her sexuality and shaping her brand. If Queen Bey, or Yonce - or whatever her latest nickname is - wants to whip off the vast majority of her clothes, fondle her breasts, slap her behind, shake her bottom cheeks at high speed, who is to stop her? If she feels happiest rolling around in waves in a teensy weensy bikini or writhing on a bed in her undies, let her. She is a woman empowered. And she is in full control of her bootiliciousness, thank you very much.

But what’s so empowering for most of us about popping into a local take-away or mobile phone shop and witnessing Beyoncé pouting and groping on a huge public screen? Sure, Beyoncé is a fine singer and a talented dancer, and she has a lovely bottom too, but the images can and do feel like an assault.

Beyoncé didn’t fondle herself very much during her Destiny’s Child days. The group formed 16 years ago, produced female-friendly anthems such as ‘Independent Women’ and ‘Survivor’. The lyrics often promoted ideas of female strength and power. The videos didn’t scream look-at-my-sexy-body. But now perhaps in a bid to stay ahead of Miley Cyrus, Rihanna et al, Beyonce appears to reference porn culture at almost every turn. The porn influence is apparent in her dreamy gaze to camera and open mouth, and her use of poles, cages and beds as props. When men are present in her videos, they appear mostly fully-dressed as passive spectators and Queen Bey’s role is invariably to perform and please.

Beyoncé’s ‘Partition’ video, released earlier this year, shows her dressed in a variety of raunchy costumes in a bid to turn on husband Jay-Z who appears passive while she writhes around singing: “I do this all for you, baby, just take aim/ And tell me how it’s looking, babe (how it’s looking)/And tell me how I’m looking, babe (looking, babe)."

Her previous single, ‘Drunk in Love’, was heavily criticised as a result of the dodgy rap line sung by Jay-Z, which references a scene of abuse from the Tina Turner biopic What’s Love Got to Do With It. But the video itself doesn’t undermine the abuse theme either. Beyoncé pouts and wriggles adoringly around her husband who appears drink in hand, unmoved to the point of uncaring.

Even the recent video for ‘Pretty Hurts’ sees Beyoncé reflecting on the injustice of women judged on the basis of their looks as she relaxes at home in sexy underwear, opening her legs and clutching her crotch. Perhaps Beyoncé is no better or worse than other female pop stars who use sexual images in a bid to boost their status? Lily Allen, like Beyoncé, released a sexist video to promote an anti-sexist song (‘Hard Out Here’) last year. And it’s hard to imagine that only a few years ago her video portrayed her bicycling make-up free around London town. But Beyoncé is one of the most powerful women entertainers in the world. Her images are everywhere.

hooks has articulated feelings about Beyoncé which rarely get discussed in any meaningful way. And she knows her stuff. She has written more than 30 books about race and gender and her first book, the groundbreaking Ain’t I A Woman, was written when she was a 19-year-old undergraduate.

Part of the hooks panel discussion considered how far Beyoncé was responsible for creating her own image. “She’s colluding in the construction of herself as a slave . . .it’s not a liberatory image,” said hooks. Another panelist, author Marci Blackman, added: “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 going to make money off it, so am I.” I certainly believe that Beyoncé hasn’t been slow to recognize that porn-style sexiness in music video sells.

Perhaps Beyoncé’s feminist credentials have helped protect her from much criticism up to now. But how seriously should we take Beyoncé’s feminism anyway? Every other famous person wants to be a feminist, among them Miley Cyrus, David Cameron and Joan Collins. Who will be next to declare their feminist credentials? Chris Brown? Roman Polanski? Nigel Farage?

Beyoncé wrote in her recent essay on gender equality for the nonprofit media initiative The Shriver Report:

We need to stop buying into the myth about gender equality. It isn’t a reality yet. Today, women make up half of the US workforce, but the average working woman earns only 77 percent of what the average working man makes.”

So what about issues of equality in her own music videos? Will she ask her husband to take off his clothes, shaking his behind, and gazing suggestively into the camera lens anytime soon?

Claire Hynes is a freelance writer who has a PhD in creative and critical writing from the University of East Anglia. She is the literary events director for Norfolk Black History Month and she is a former news editor of The Voice newspaper.

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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism