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. 

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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.