My new essay explores how Beyonce’s feminist stance in pop culture helped frame my own feminist awakening:
"I am in my 30s and was emboldened by Beyonce’s feminist stance on that stage, and can’t help but believe that that image will be equally as powerful to young people who witness that moment, whose first engagement with feminism will be that moment. Maybe, just maybe, Beyonce will serve as the bridgebetween pop culture and feminists like bell and Barbara and Audre, maybe some young woman bobbing her head to ‘Blow’ or ‘Partition’ or ‘Flawless’ will do so while reading Ain’t I A Woman? or Homegirls or Sister Outsider.”
—FROM my new essay: My Feminist Awakening & the Influence of Beyonce’s Pop Culture Declaration
TRANS* REPRESENTATION: A MASTER CLASS FROM LAURA JANE GRACE
Abigail Jones, Sex and the Single Tween, Newsweek.
An important and slightly horrifying long-read on pre-teen girls and media.
Related 01, and Horrifying: The YouTube trend in which girls ask they internet if they are pretty or ugly.
Related 02, and Awesome: It’s Girls Being Girls, a YouTube Channel and Tumblr by Tessa, a senior at ASU, featuring and supporting cool, interesting, personal, inspiring content for girls by girls. Get in touch with her if you want to contribute!
Sunday was International Sex Worker Rights Day. This year it provided an occasion for sex workers and erstwhile colleagues including Brooke Magnanti (Belle de Jour) to highlight the vicious abuse they have received under the Twitter hashtag #whenantisattack.
Writer and former call girl Magnanti is forced to live in secrecy, her number taken to the top of any 999 summons list because of the innumerable threats she has received. One recent example proposed that she should be gang-raped and then executed. She has been accused of being responsible for rape, sexual slavery, and prostitution itself. Her family’s privacy has been invaded to find the “causes” of her choice and her personal appearance derided, not least within what might otherwise be called the sisterhood.
Magnanti reminded us of Julie Burchill’s observation in her 1987 essay “Born Again Cows” in the book Damaged Gods: “When the sex war is won prostitutes should be shot as collaborators for their terrible betrayal of all women.” This would seem crazed were it not for MSP Rhoda Grant, who is sponsoring an “end demand for sex trafficking” bill in the Scottish parliament, declaring violence against sex workers a price worth paying to secure her proposals. As Magnanti tweeted: “Let that sink in. Politician thinks it’s OK if people die b/c of her bill. No one bats an eyelid.”
- Demonising sex workers makes their lives more dangerous (telegraph.co.uk)
- Evidence, not morality should guide sex work policy (theconversation.edu.au)
- International Sex Worker Rights Day (maggiemcneill.wordpress.com)
- March 3-International Sex Workers Day- demand for decriminalisation of Sex work #Vaw #Womenrights (kractivist.wordpress.com)
"Magnanti reminded us of Julie Burchill’s observation in her 1987 essay “Born Again Cows” in the book Damaged Gods: “When the sex war is won prostitutes should be shot as collaborators for their terrible betrayal of all women.” This would seem crazed were it not for MSP Rhoda Grant, who is sponsoring an “end demand for sex trafficking” bill in the Scottish parliament, declaring violence against sex workers a price worth paying to secure her proposals. As Magnanti tweeted: “Let that sink in. Politician thinks it’s OK if people die b/c of her bill. No one bats an eyelid.””
Last year when Beyoncé released that snippet (that was called “Bow Down” at the time) of what is now a part of one of her self-titled album's signature songs “***Flawless,” it created a stir because she uses the word “bitch.” Even I myself thought about it then in more simplistic terms where it is “sexist” no matter what though I still rode so hard to that track, loved her airy background vocals that made me think of Amy Lee of Evanescence, loved that exquisite bass and vibe of authentic trap music that made me think of hanging out in parking lots after step shows, band shows and Black talent shows and just loved the raw aggression that Beyoncé conveyed. And this isn't new for her. People used to her songs only via the radio or focused on her moments of glamour which are plentiful might miss the fact that she has several songs with Jay Z in the last decade and some of her own where she gets incredibly gritty, revealing a mixture of her perceived softness with simply being an unashamed Black girl from Houston, who is now a grown woman.
Since that snippet came out and long before the album did, I thought about the word “bitch” with context. Both “bitch” and “nigga” are used among some Black people and we know what we mean when we use them and what kind of meaning is inferred; when it’s aggression and when it’s not. When it minimizes and when it does not. When we’re simply angry and not speaking how we normally speak. I don’t have the White supremacist thought process where Black people who subversively, affectionately or aggressively use “nigga” are equal to White racists and non-Black people of colour who are anti-Black who use “nigger” or the “ironic” White racists and cultural appropriators who use “nigga” and have structural power on their side and a different history of power with that word. I don’t have the thought process where I conflate “nigga” with “cracker” as the latter is not a racist slur. I don’t have the thought process where I treat “nigga” as something “only” poor Black people say and I need to not say it to prove how “respectable" I can be, as if racism ends once we’re “respectable enough.” Though “nigga” is not in her song, I think about the word “bitch” along similar lines, thought their histories differ.
I don’t have the thought process where I think a woman using the word “bitch” affectionately towards another woman or out of anger and in response to abuse is then oppressing women in the same way that men are, with patriarchal structural power and male privilege in their favor when they use the word “bitch.” I can simultaneously feel threatened by men saying “bitch” (and so much worse) at me during 22 years of experiencing street harassment and sing "bow down bitches" because I understand context, structural power, oppression and privilege. Even so, this does not mean that any of these words are without history and possibility for misinterpretation; they still are connected to negative perceptions. Jazmine Walker of Still Furious and Still Brave noted such in her 2012 essay Bitch Bad, Lady Good…For Who?
So despite “bitch” being used as a term to stigmatize and dehumanize us because of our daily sexual, reproductive, and personal choices, many Black women have created a space to strip it of those meanings. Just as Black people have adopted “nigga,” and have clearly set boundaries as to who can and cannot use it, “bitch” has been adopted by many Black women, but because women are seen as property, belonging to everyone but ourselves, it is harder for us to carve out those same boundaries. White people still try to police the use of the word “nigga,” but there is an understanding that they are not supposed to say it. “Bitch” is not regulated in that same way.
Beyoncé herself had this to say about why she put out “Bow Down” that became a part of “***Flawless” and you need to hear this in her own voice if possible:
The reason I put out “Bow Down” is because I woke up, I went into the studio, I had a chant in my head, it was aggressive, it was angry. It wasn’t the Beyoncé that wakes up every morning; it was the Beyoncé that was angry. It was the Beyoncé that felt the need to defend herself. And if the song never comes out, okay, I said it. And…I listened to it after I finished, and I said “this is hot!” Ima put it out. I’m not gon’ sell it, ima just put it out. People like it? Great. They don’t? They don’t.
And I won’t do it everyday because that’s not who I am. But I feel strong. And anyone that says “oh, that is disrespectful!” just imagine the person that hates you. Imagine the person that doesn’t believe in you. And look in the mirror and say “bow down, BITCH” and I guarantee you feel gangsta. So listen to that song from that point of view, again, if you didn’t like it before. (*laughs*)
The notion that Black women are always “angry” by default yet when we actually feel anger, the entire world cowers as if we’re bullying and oppressing them and not the reverse shapes the reaction to Beyoncé. While the "bow down bitches" part of the song will continue to anger literalists, those who didn’t like her anyway, as well as those that don’t think she or any Black women are “real” feminists, I rethought the application of the word and it definitely made me complicate my previously rigid perspective on “bitch.” This does not mean that saying “bitch” is a “feminist” act. The notion that each movement, thought and action Black women make has to measure up to an arbitrary feminist standard or we as a whole are no longer feminist (and when Black, usually that means no longer “human” as well, as if we’re considered human in the first place) is oppressive. There needs to be space for nuanced interpretation and contradictions, especially with cultural subtext. Otherwise recognition of Black women’s humanity and journeyed feminist progress is stifled and suffocated.
There are other parts of the song definitely worth discussing. I don’t just mean Chimamanda Adichie’s beautiful voice explaining what feminism is, actually using the word “feminist,” a word (and sometimes the related concepts and ideologies) absent from many mainstream women’s music while Beyoncé remains on trial for feminist inclusion or not. Chimamanda’s words on “***Flawless” are from her TED Talk “We Should All Be Feminists”:
We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise you will threaten the man.’ Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Now marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support. But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same? We raise girls to see each other as competitors – not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are. Feminist: the person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.
These words provided sort of an introduction to feminism that matters. Not only did it help Chimamanda’s career (i.e. her book climbed Amazon right after the album released) but it exposed many young Black women and other people to a feminist thinker they might’ve not known about before. It doesn’t mean that Chimananda’s feminism is perfect either, but that a doorway was created through a song. Music as a pathway to feminist thinking outside of the academe is critical.
Beyoncé herself sang something critical in “***Flawless” and not even the great parts (lyrics here; video/song here) like "I woke up like dis" that has many Black women who like her music quoting it all of the time or mentioning her "diamond" (Blue Ivy?) and her "rock" (Jay Z? As in her Roc?). The whole song is about a healthy confidence despite detractors and despite even losing. The three stars near “***Flawless” represent those 3 stars that they (group at the time was Girls Tyme) got on Star Search, one of the largest disappointments of her childhood. The critical portion of the song that I am speaking of, what made me as a womanist think about womanism is this:
My momma taught me good home training
My daddy taught me how to love my haters
My sister taught me I should speak my mind
My man made me feel so goddamn fine! (I’m flawless!)
Her mother’s role matters. Her father’s role matters. It’s very interesting that in the lyrics she presents her mother as the disciplinarian and her father as the one teaching her to be affectionate and defiant in the face of detractors. This alone reveals a shift in perceived gender roles. Her sister—a younger sister at that—inspired her courage to speak her truth. In many Black families, the older sibling takes on a quasi-motherly role that can be a gift (learn responsibility) and a curse (miss aspects of their own childhood). I know this as a big sister with four younger sisters and I also have an older one. But here Beyoncé presents her younger sister Solange as a voice of reason and courage, speaking of a relationship shaped by womanist empowerment—sisterhood even beyond DNA. Her romantic relationship makes her feel good and is relevant to her though she doesn’t have to be "his little wife" to express that love. It’s not diametrically opposed to her feminism to be in love and to be both confident and vulnerable in love. Her album clearly reveals this as well as simply seeing her with her husband. Despite having beauty and light skinned privilege, her mentioning that her man makes her "feel so goddamn fine" (which I am sure is also double entendre for feeling “well or good” too; she seems to embody genuine joy) is actually quite significant being on the same album with “Pretty Hurts.” Even for her, beauty is not a internalized foregone conclusion or painless process because despite those privileges, she’s still not a White woman and still was raised in a culture with tiered beauty politics that exist based on Eurocentric beauty standards that encompass more than complexion/hair texture/eye colour, but what body shapes are acceptable and “respectable.” And even then White women deal with the pressure of beauty norms—even as they’re used as the standard—when it’s impacted by the Male Gaze and used to oppress.
This bridge in the song “***Flawless” makes me think of the self, family, community, society, world ideological concentric circles that makes womanism what it is. It’s not about completely escaping men (in a political sense not a sexual sense since not all Black women are heterosexual) since our fates are not solely about gender oppression—as mainstream feminism posits—but are intersectional. (i.e. We share racist oppression with Black men. We share gender and class oppression with many women of colour.) Womanism—a term, concept, ideology and praxis first coined by Alice Walker—is a collection of anti-oppression social theories—which includes feminism, but is not exclusive to feminism or challenging sexist oppression alone, and centers Black women’s lived experiences and philosophies as epistemological sources. Beyoncé reveals that her fate is not solely tied to individualism or gender. Her family of origin and her family of her own making are relevant to who she is and mentioned in the same song where she is defining feminism for herself. This reveals a sense of wholeness.
Alice Walker’s original definition of womanism mentions that a womanist is "committed to survival and wholeness of entire people." This commitment includes breaking out of the oppressive shell that seeks to keep Black women as one stereotype or another and not full human beings. Beyoncé herself said it best:
Yoncé is Beyoncé. Mrs. Carter is Beyoncé. Sasha Fierce is Beyoncé. I’m finally at a place where, as I said earlier, I don’t have to kinda separate the two anymore. We’re all one. It’s all pieces of me and just different elements of a personality, of a woman, because we are complicated.
Beyoncé’s wholeness as evidenced by “***Flawless” is not predicated upon individualism or independence to the point it excludes that which makes her the Black woman that she is. That’s the type of individualism that’s a key facet of White supremacy (which makes introspection, empathy, and an institutional/systems view of oppression difficult and promotes easily disproven conceptions of meritocracy, bootstrap theory and exceptionalism) and thereby impacts a narrow vision of feminism that she clearly rejects in an album that is not solely about womanhood, but clearly Black womanhood, specifically. This doesn’t mean that the album is not relatable. It is to those who don’t need Whitewashed generalizations in order to connect to any Black women’s music. But there is no apology for Blackness being central to her womanhood and womanhood being central to her Blackness in her music.
This is what I love about the song “**Flawless” and the album BEYONCÉ itself. It most certainly is about wholeness. Beyoncé the artist, the singer, the woman, the Black person, the Black woman specifically, the Southern Black American woman with Texas and Louisiana cultural influence, the Black person a part of the Diaspora, the creative, the wife, the unashamed adult sexual being by choice and with agency, the mother (which she regularly explains positively altered her some of perspectives), the friend, the human being. (Not all of these facets are needed for a Black woman to be whole, but simply recognizing all that we are and resistance to controlling images.) She speaks to erotic power, political power, the power of motherhood and family, friendship and love, the power in recognizing both confidence and uncertainty shaping human perspective.
While Beyoncé isn’t accepted as a feminist by many (and some simultaneously seem to be using “feminist” and “human” interchangeably, where not being “feminist enough” means it becomes acceptable to dehumanize a Black woman), she clearly reveals that she does not need that acceptance to shape her music, her art, her politics, or her life. She just is who she is and on her own journey. While there are humanly contradictions amidst that journey, it positively impacts many people. It speaks to me as a womanist and just as a Black woman who likes her music because I don’t need womanism, Black feminism or any theory to solely be in print or in the academe or have a Ph.D. attached. While I do value the latter and have degrees myself, I find that I seek womanist inspiration and insight in variety of places. Black women’s music has been a great place to express womanist politics for nearly a century in America and Beyoncé manages to do so with great vocals, tracks, visuals, and ensembles. Her ***Flawless Feminism is a fresh approach but one with historical ties in Black womanhood and Black musical oral history/tradition. It’s not the only way but a way of navigating the beautiful complexity that is Black womanhood.
Related Essay List: Womanist Perspectives On Black Music
um, yes, yes it really can. it’s true that the male gaze is a thing that exists and it’s difficult to subvert, and it’s true that the porn industry is seriously problematic in a lot of ways, and it’s even true that feminist porn is hard to find, but it does exist. women, trans*, and queer folk have sex and get turned on too, and representing that is important, and on top of everything else, writing off all porn is dangerously linked to writing off pornographic actors, who are just people doing their jobs, not some villains trying to dismantle feminism.
[my links nsfw, obvs]
A photo I took of beautiful Sophia from last summer’s Dyke March in Montreal, QC
For many of these women, the reading experience begins from a place of seething rage. Take Sara Marcus’ initial impression of Jack Kerouac: “I remember putting On the Road down the first time a woman was mentioned. I was just like: ‘Fuck. You.’ I was probably 15 or 16. And over the coming years I realized that it was this canonical work, so I tried to return to it, but every time I was just like, ‘Fuck you.’” Tortorici had a similarly visceral reaction to Charles Bukowski: “I will never forget reading Bukowski’s Post Office and feeling so horrible, the way that the narrator describes the thickness of ugly women’s legs. I think it was the first time I felt like a book that I was trying to identify with rejected me. Though I did absorb it, and of course it made me hate my body or whatever.” Emily Witt turned to masculine texts to access a sexual language that was absent from books about women, but found herself turned off by their take: “many of the great classic coming-of-age novels about the female experience don’t openly discuss sex,” she says in No Regrets. “I read the ones by men instead, until I was like, ‘I cannot read another passage about masturbation. I can’t. It was like a pile of Kleenex.”
This isn’t just about the books. When young women read the hyper-masculine literary canon—what Emily Gould calls the “midcentury misogynists,” staffed with the likes of Roth, Mailer, and Miller—their discomfort is punctuated by the knowledge that their male peers are reading these books, identifying with them, and acting out their perspectives and narratives. These writers are celebrated by the society that we live in, even the one who stabbed his wife. In No Regrets, Elif Bautman talks about reading Henry Miller for the first time because she had a “serious crush” on a guy who said his were “the best books ever,” and that guy’s real-life recommendation exacerbated her distaste for the fictional. When she read Miller, “I felt so alienated by the books, and then thinking about this guy, and it was so hot and summertime … I just wanted to kill myself. … He compared women to soup.”
March is International Women’s History Month, and over on the OUPblog we’ve selected some feminist-friendly classics from our Oxford World’s Classics series. Below you’ll find a mixture of fiction, politics, and religion, and while some will probably be familiar, there’s a couple of less conventional choices for a feminist list thrown in. Agree with these choices? Disagree? What have we missed? Let us know!
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft
This seminal 18th century work reveals Wollstonecraft’s developing understanding of women’s involvement in the political and social life of the nation.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Yes, Reader, Jane does marry Mr Rochester, but only on her own terms.
A Room of One’s Own, and Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf
In these works, Virginia Woolf considers with energy and wit the implications of the historical exclusion of women from education and from economic independence.
The Awakening and Other Stories by Kate Chopin
Kate Chopin was one of the most individual and adventurous of nineteenth-century American writers, whose fiction explored new and often startling territory.
The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
“’But it’s bad – it’s bad,’ Mr Tulliver added – `a woman’s no business wi’ being so clever; it’ll turn to trouble, I doubt.’”
Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell
Elizabeth Gaskell’s second novel challenged contemporary social attitudes by taking as its heroine a fallen woman.
The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner
Lyndall, Schreiner’s articulate young feminist, marks the entry of the controversial New Woman into nineteenth-century fiction.
While not a conventional choice for a list of feminist works, this is a remarkable story of a woman who knew her own mind and stuck to her principles come what may.
The Yellow Wall-Paper and Other Stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
“The Yellow Wall-Paper” is regarded as one of the most important early works of American feminist literature, illustrating nineteenth-century attitudes towards women’s physical and mental health.
For a full explanation of each inclusion, read the blog post.
Recommended reading by Roxane Gay over at Salon re: Miley Cyrus, Sinead O’Connor, open letters, and how this is not the first time we’ve dissected a famous young woman’s coming of age.
It’s also interesting that we feel so compelled to dissect the lives of young women, particularly young women in the public sphere who behave in sexually provocative ways. Of course, who knows what sexually provocative behavior is. Sometimes, a woman is sexually provocative because she exists, the nerve of her. What are these young women doing? What are they wearing? Who are they dating? Why? What do their parents think? How could they possibly have been raised right? Why don’t they respect themselves? We like to think we’re progressive and evolved, but we still hold young women’s behavior to a rather rigid standard.
O’Connor offers Cyrus reasonable, maternal advice. But it’s striking that she is cautioning Miley against participating in her own sexual objectification instead of, say, taking Cyrus to task for what many, myself included, recognize as the real problem with Cyrus’s new image: the exploitation of certain aspects of black culture for attention, profit and personal gain. It’s also strange that some find Cyrus’s new image so problematic while little was said about her Hannah Montana persona, which was just as carefully and deliberately crafted by Disney’s celebrity machine.