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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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.