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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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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