Why Does bell hooks Have It In for Beyoncé?

The pop star’s feminist awakening has been like kryptonite for hooks, who has been perhaps “Lemonade’s” fiercest, most outspoken critic. But does feminism need a gatekeeper?

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Are we done with Lemonade yet? Heck naw! Beyoncé’s latest album is her strongest to date and her tribute to Black womanhood has set off an absolute frenzy. I admit, I wasn’t ready to feel the Bey. And yet, here I am, spamming honey bees and lemon emoticons behind her name. Beyoncé, at the very least, is helping to make Black girls all over the world feel buoyant—so carpe diem that a list of Black feminist writings has been compiled and circulated worldwide, the Lemonade Syllabus, with a whopping 40,000 pledges to nourish their minds and souls with the teachings of brilliant Black women dissecting Black womanhood. The anthology features some of the most influential Black female writers to date, including bell hooks, who appears on the list at least six times. It’s as if Beyoncé is being officially inaugurated into the Black feminist movement because Lemonade is art at its best, setting such fire to a movement that we can feel it all around us.

However, bell hooks is not impressed: She took to her site to write a lengthy critique and as I perused her passages, I found myself repeating the same phrase in my head over and over: C’MON BELL!

Like really, C’mon bell! What are you even doing right now? Yes, art should always be unpacked and evaluated, but there’s a difference between thoughtful critique and a full-fledged Tonya Harding assault to the kneecaps. Lemonade is not perfect, but hooks has belittled its impact, dismissing it as “capitalist money-making at its best” and writing it off for not dismantling patriarchy—effectively cutting off her nose to spite her face. For if the measure of success on the feminist scale is for one woman decimating patriarchy with one project then we have all failed miserably.

hooks’s work has been incredibly important to our mental health, but for some strange reason, Beyoncé is her kryptonite. I’ve yet to reconcile my love for hooks’s work with her original attacks toward the pop star, referring to Beyoncé’s brash sexy as terrorism while going on to dismiss Janet Mock and other femme thinkers, as if feminism is for cis-women only. Her parameters on feminism, particularly Black feminism, have become even clearer as she attempts to strip Lemonade of its feminist title, claiming it’s nothing but a commodity not made for the Black female audience because “Beyoncé’s audience is the world and that world of business and money-making has no color.”

C’mon bell, why?

Isn’t it time we dismantle that tired old narrative that true artists must suffer for their work and only be appreciated after they die? Would hooks write the same critique of Ta-Nehisi Coates, who wrote his own lemonade long before Beyoncé did and reaped some financial benefits? Does his growing capital undercut his social impact? Or maybe, just maybe, it’s time for us to allow artists, especially non-white artists to enjoy their success, especially a Black woman. Allow Beyoncé to slay, slay, slay. She worked her butt off to do so, c’mon bell, we should be invigorated by her confidence, not responding to it with the usual drab undertone: You think you’re sooo special, well, you ain’t all that!

I was again reminded of the respectability politics of bell hooks when she referred to Serena Williams’s “scantily-clothed dancing” and invoking the image of “sportswear,” managing to show utmost distaste for Serena flaunting her body while also implying that the tennis champion’s appearance was nothing more than some insidious subliminal message to the masses to blow their meager paychecks on Ivy Park because Mama Beyoncé and Papa Jay Z need a new Yacht. C’mon, bell!

Why feed into the unyielding and frankly irrational discomfort of the white gaze as it pertains to Serena Williams? hooks has long maintained that mainstream media’s portrayal of women is solely for male consumption, yet she is somehow oblivious that Williams’s unyielding self-love in the face of the battle with mainstream Euro standards is the antithesis of male consumption. If Serena had listened to what men and women had to say about her wondrous staglike body, she would not be prancing around in a music video proclaiming I’m not sorry about male fragility, let alone be a tennis legend. Was that not the entire theme of the video? Women are no longer sorry and are not thinking about men when it comes to their identity. Suck on my balls, pause—we’ve had enough! Who has the time when we can enjoy this showcase of a literal and metaphorical tribe of Black women, from Nefertiti to amazons, front and center, strong, in control, in love with themselves and in love with each other. These images did not beg me to buy Ivy Park (although I’ll most certainly take that men’s camouflage Neil Barrett jacket she was wearing), but they did ignite in me the confidence in daring to choose myself over male validation, and dance it out with other fantastic femmes as I declare myself over and over, NOT SORRY.

To be fair, hooks does admit the film’s artistry, if only briefly. She gushes over Jay Z’s grandmother, who speaks of making lemonade from these life lemons, and manages to acknowledge the lush and diverse images of Black womanhood. But it’s never enough, hooks makes it clear that Beyoncé and her team cannot claim to be original or revolutionary simply because the images hark back to legendary projects such as Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust.

Oh, bell, c’mon! It’s called “a homage.” It’s called being “influenced” and “inspired”—kind of like the way Sojourner Truth inspired your first major work? To discredit Beyoncé for not creating a completely new idea in the world of art-making is just strange, especially considering that she rabidly criticizes Lemonade’s themes of embracing our own rage. hooks writes that Beyoncé “wreaks violence” and haughtily comments that “even though the father in the song ‘Daddy’s Lessons’ gives her a rifle warning her about men, she does not shoot her man,” while ignoring the fact that Lemonade’s storyline shows a woman who struggles to unpack her very poignant Electra complex. hooks is instead fixated on her fear that Beyoncé’s “misguided notion” and embrace of rage will teach women to learn self-care and self-love through violence?—bell, c’mon! Please don’t make me pull up that famous quote by every white liberal racist’s favorite “respectable Negro” Martin Luther King Jr., a riot is the language of the unheard.

Beyoncé declares her true-self unheard, and therefore she riots. How can you not see that? This pop star claims her Black roots through uncanny symbolism, like dressing herself up as an incarnate of the goddess Oshun, and then she freaking riots. Why? Because the rage of the voiceless is and will always be critical to the Black female narrative, and bell hooks knows it! I know she knows that rage, I’ve read Bone Black—don’t play! hooks named her essay “Moving Beyond the Pain” as if it is beneath us to embrace and explore our rage, but how about Zora Neale Hurston, whose short story “Sweat” portrays the quiet rage of a woman who slaves away for a husband who boasts to others how much he wants her dead? How about Toni Morrison, the master heart twister? Will we deny The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, and Sula (which had so much unresolved rage in its pages that I could only mourn by abandoning my copy on a bench in Maasai territory in Kenya)? How about Raisin in the Sun or Native Son? How about the opening of Invisible Man? No, Beyoncé did not create anything new, she created something personable, and one cannot be so aggressively oblivious to the fact that part of Black women’s rage is that we scream our pain and no one cares to listen. Beyoncé used her power and influence to make the world listen and that in itself is revolutionary.


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