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Friday, May 16, 2014

A Feminist Weighs In On Debate Over Beyoncé

Note: This interview contains language that may be offensive to some listeners.

Beyonce is pictured in Australia, November 2013. (Rob Hoffman)

Beyonce is the subject of much criticism and praise. Heidi Lewis, an assistant professor of feminist and gender studies, weighs in. (Rob Hoffman)

Beyonce on the cover of Time.

Beyoncé is everywhere, most recently on the cover of Time as one of the 100 most influential people. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg of “Lean In” fame writes for Time, “She raises her voice both on- and offstage to urge women to be independent and lead.”

But Beyoncé is often scantily clad, and her lyrics sexually suggestive. Bill O’Reilly of Fox News said last month that for young girls, especially those without parental supervision, what Beyoncé does could have a negative impact.

“This woman knows that young girls getting pregnant in the African-American community,” O’Reilly said on his show. “She knows and doesn’t seem to care.”

Heidi Lewis, an assistant professor of feminist and gender studies at Colorado College, discusses this debate over Beyoncé with Here & Now’s Robin Young.




So have you heard the phrase yet don't go all elevator on me? It's a reference to that security camera video that showed Beyonce's sister Solange attacking Beyonce's husband Jay-Z in an elevator. Today all three issued a statement saying at the end of the day, families have problems, and we're no different.

It's a reminder of how much the spotlight is on all things Beyonce even in an elevator. Sheryl Samberg brought her into her ban bossy campaign, that's based on research that shows girls worry that being a leader will make them look bossy. Look at Beyonce, the campaign says. She's a leader. And indeed she was on the cover of Time magazine, one of the 100 most influential people.

But in the picture she's wearing hardly anything: bikini shorts and a see-through shirt. And her detractors ask, who is she influencing? Here's Fox News's Bill O'Reilly, who said recently that for young girls, especially those without parental supervision, what Beyonce does is having a negative impact.

BILL O'REILLY: She knows that young girls getting pregnant in the African-American community now, it's about 70 percent out of wedlock. She knows and doesn't seem to care.

YOUNG: Well, today we want to spend a few minutes on the question what to make of Beyonce, feminist or sex object. And a language alert, this conversation might mean some language offensive to some. Heidi Lewis is assistant professor of feminist and gender studies at Colorado College. She joins us from KRCC in Colorado Springs. Heidi, welcome.

HEIDI LEWIS: Hi, thanks for having me.

YOUNG: And this is not a new conversation. As you well know, and with Beyonce there was a 2012 Ms. magazine cover. She was put on the cover with the headline Beyonce's fierce feminism. There was a backlash against that from those who don't see her as a feminist. How would you characterize this debate over Beyonce?

LEWIS: Well, one of the things that I would say is that I'm not really all that interested in labeling somebody else a feminist or not because black women have had a long history of being misnamed and mischaracterized by so many people outside of our communities. Toni Morrison has this great quote from her book "Beloved," her novel "Beloved," and it's that definitions belong to the definers and not the defined.

And so I always think about that every time a conversation like this comes up. Now, I do appreciate having conversations about Beyonce and contemporary feminism. I just wouldn't engage in a debate that asks whether she is or is not a feminist. Feminism is so complex and so nuanced, and I think that's something that she's claiming for herself now, that we're - I'm the same age as her - in our early 30s, and I support that, just as I would any other woman making that decision.

YOUNG: Well, in fact she told British Vogue - I guess I'm a modern-day feminist. I believe in equality, but why do you have to choose what type of woman you are? Julia Sonenshein, contributing editor at, wrote about the Ms. magazine flare-up (unintelligible) flare-up, and she said she thought that the problem was that a lot of white women were not understanding that there might be a different African-American version of feminism in which a woman might want to use her body as a tool, not someone else use it but she use it as a tool, and it's just that they could not recognize that.

LEWIS: Well, I think they recognized it really well when they were embracing Madonna's feminism in the '80s and the '90s. So as a woman who had control of her sexuality, this is what was being argued at the time, who was empowered vis-a-vis her sexuality. And so I do think it's an interesting conversation to have, you know, what makes Beyonce not a feminist because of her sexuality and the way she expresses it and what makes Madonna a feminist, particularly because of her sexuality and the way she expresses it.

I wouldn't dare compare them in a way that suggests that they're the exact same, but white feminists are no stranger to sexuality as a mechanism of empowerment. So that's why I bring up the Madonna example.

YOUNG: It's a great example of, you know, maybe a hypocrisy there. Do you think that's what it is, that this is about race?

LEWIS: Well, I do think that you have to understand the long history of black women's gender and sexuality politics in the United States in order to understand a lot of the complexities of the Beyonce conversation. A lot of black women, young and of an older generation, are averse to Beyonce's way of expressing her sex and sexuality because of the long history black women have with what we've come to call the Jezebel controlling image.

So we don't use the word stereotype because we use controlling image to express the ways in which certain people are being controlled by a stereotype so that Beyonce is expressing her sex and sexuality in a way that makes people recall the Jezebel image of the sort of hyper-sexual, hyper-sexed black woman. That is triggering for a lot of even black women.

So there's even tensions in our communities about Beyonce and what she's doing.

YOUNG: Well, I'm going to jump in to say that Jezebel stereotype was used to blame black women for their own rape, for instance.

LEWIS: Exactly, right.

YOUNG: Well, if she weren't so sexy, then the white men wouldn't have to assault them.

LEWIS: Right, and that's why we call it a controlling image because it was a way to control black women. Be rapable, right? So you have this sex and this sexuality that I just can't resist. So, you know, I'm going to rape you, and it's going to be OK because you're less than human.

YOUNG: But are you saying that, conversely, Beyonce might be doing what many young black men are doing with the N-word, sort of seizing the thing that was used against her and controlling it?

LEWIS: And I think that there are similarities there. I do think that Beyonce imagines herself as being in control of her sexuality. I would add I think she is in control of her sexuality as much as a megastar can possibly be. You know, there is a record label. There are, you know, people who control the media on which, you know, through which we access her music.

So I'm not arguing that she's a complete agent. No one is. But this reclaiming is also, you know, we see this across feminisms. You know, there's a feminist publication entitled Jezebel. There's a feminist publication entitled Bitch. So lots of us have found ourselves reclaiming derogatory themes like bitch, like nigger, like jezebel, in order to sort of claim to be reclaiming something.

YOUNG: To take the sting out of it. I mean, this is a debate as old as the hills.

LEWIS: The day is long, right. And I sort of reject that take the sting off of it. I think it doesn't - just because black people say nigger amongst ourselves doesn't mean it takes the sting off of it when white people say it. It means that we get to decide when you can say it and when you can't say it. And that is something - that's where that control comes in.

But I think for her, I mean did you see the clip of her, a young man on one of her shows, reached up onstage and touched her, and she had a fit and had him removed. So it's like I'm presenting my sex and sexuality to you, but that does not give you complete access to me. So I think there's a way in which she's trying to have some control over her sex and sexuality, but I think that's difficult to do in a society that tells women that their bodies aren't their own.

YOUNG: That's Colorado College assistant professor Heidi Lewis. We're talking Beyonce. This is HERE AND NOW.


YOUNG: It's HERE AND NOW, and if you've just joined us, we're talking about Beyonce. She was on the cover of Time magazine, one of the most influential people in the country. But there are questions. Are her lyrics and outfits, sometimes just sort of a bathing suit with heels, too sexually suggestive? Is she a feminist or a sex object? We're talking with Heidi Lewis, assistant professor of feminist and gender studies at Colorado College, and we're talking about questions that young women are asking.

And Heidi, you know, the difference seems to be, for some women, that when a woman has something done to her, for instance when she's told wear this sexy outfit in your waitressing job, that's demeaning. But when a woman chooses to wear something, that's empowering.

Now we just heard about how Beyonce had a man removed from her concert, you know, for touching her. But the Bill O'Reillys of the world - we mentioned the conservative commentator - would say you can't have it both ways. Beyonce can't send the message, one message with sexual clothing and not expect a certain response.

LEWIS: And I think that a lot of contemporary black feminist thinking, and I'm thinking about myself, Treva Lindsey at Ohio State, Brittney Cooper at Rutgers University, a lot of us are trying to re-theorize pleasure politics so that it isn't having it both ways. If I don't want you to touch me, you can't, and if you do, there are consequences.

YOUNG: No matter how I dress, yeah.

LEWIS: Right, so we're trying to carve out a space for our own pleasures and desires to be respected, and I think that's where it is extremely racialized because if you think back, black women haven't had a lot of space to do that. Like, you know, slavery ended technically on paper just 150 years ago. So all that time, black women have sort of been told that we belong to whomever decides to have us, consume us.

So I think what we're trying to do, and I think Beyonce is struggling with that, she's trying to negotiate that and navigate that, is to say how much of myself can I find in who I am and how I present myself because for so long we haven't sort of had the luxury of being able to do that.

But to the Bill O'Reilly thing, because I just wanted to comment on that. So his argument is that, you know, Beyonce is irresponsible because 70 percent of black women, according to him and whatever, you know, statistic he found, are pregnant before marriage, right? Beyonce and I are the same age, around - I'm 32 years old. There's no way in the world I can be held responsible for what happens in the entire black community.

And I think it's really irresponsible of him to ignore the problematic sexual politics that black women have had to resist and reject that you and I have talked about. I think he is also irresponsible not to talk about the ways in which black women in particular communities don't have access to safe and health reproductive choices.

You know, you put a black woman in a community that's 300 miles away from the nearest Planned Parenthood, what do you think is going to happen? So I think we need to talk about housing, education, access to higher education, access to safe hospitals. I think all those things play a role and that Beyonce is just an easy scapegoat for an ill-informed so-called journalist.

YOUNG: Well, take it out of the realm of Bill O'Reilly. This conversation was sparked in our office when the Time magazine came in, and there she was gorgeous on the cover. But it was a very young, very hip co-worker of ours who was the one who said what I am supposed to make of this? She promotes women's empowerment, but she looks like a sex object.

You know, there are women who even want very much to embrace her, and they're not quite sure what to make of it.

LEWIS: I think what we have to do is ask - you know, and I affirm in some ways everybody's right to interpret her cover on the Time magazine. What I would be interested in doing as a media scholar is looking at all the people who have been on the cover of Time magazine, and I could say what that person just said about probably all of them. I don't relate, you know, to that. That's not the way that I would ever, you know, empower myself.

How many people on the Time magazine speak to black women's ways of doing anything? So I think we - you know, but as far as her object status, to call Beyonce a sex object I think is simplistic and lazy because it assumes that simply what you wear defines who you are, and I just don't think that to be true.

I mean, it sort of sounds like this whole idea that if you wear a certain thing and get raped, well, then don't wear that. You know what I mean? It's not the same thing. I don't want to make that mistake, but I think it's similar to reduce her, a businesswoman who has amassed a fortune due to her ability to navigate the entertainment industry, a woman who is a mother, a woman who is a wife, a woman who is a friend, down to her shorts.

YOUNG: Yeah, well, she seemed to be - some people speculated that she was responding to some of this with the remix on her latest album, in which she samples the words of Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Let's listen.


CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE: 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. And 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.

YOUNG: This is "We Should All Be Feminists," and in the portion that's sampled for the song, Adichie defines a feminist broadly as a person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes. Nothing in there about shorts.


LEWIS: Nothing in there about shorts. I'm glad that you brought that up, the featuring of Adichie on her latest album because there are a lot of feminists I know, self-proclaimed professional and personal, who didn't even know who Adichie was. And were it not for 32-year-old so-called vapid Beyonce, a lot of people still wouldn't.

And I think that it's - I hesitate to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I've been studying feminist theory for over 10 years. Beyonce is new to this. So I kind of look at her as some of my undergraduate students. She's learning. She's making her way. She's reading. You know, she's trying to figure out what feminism has meant for a lot of people, and now it seems, at least to me, that she's trying to figure it out for herself.

So I think it's really fallacious that she's even occupying this much space in conversations about a theory that's been in existence for over 200 years. You know, if I'm talking black feminism, I'm talking Patricia Hill Collins, Bell Hooks, Audrey Lorde, Barbara Smith, Barbara Christian. But I think if Bill O'Reilly wants to talk about black feminism and black women, he should call, you know, Brittney Cooper, tune in to Melissa Harris-Perry.

If you're looking to Beyonce for your feminism, that would be - that's irresponsible. You know, she's young. She's learning. And, you know, Bell Hooks wrote a - I read a transcript, I think it was a conversation that she had with Kevin Powell. And she had a scathing critique of Beyonce, and Bell Hooks is one of our black feminist foremothers that will ever remain so.

So I think even within our communities as black feminists, there is some tension. You know, there is debate.

YOUNG: What was her critique?

LEWIS: What she was doing was commenting on the problematics of Beyonce's sexuality, So exactly what - not exactly at all but in the same conversation that your co-worker was having about what Beyonce's cover of Time meant, you know, what is the message.

YOUNG: What am I suppose to make of this? Right.

LEWIS: Right, what are we supposed - you know, and people had the same reaction - a similar reaction when Michelle Obama said if she could be any woman in the world, it would be Beyonce. People thought that was really irresponsible. And I think there's something to be said about that. I just want to try to keep it messy and keep it complex because that's what it is.

You know, Beyonce is neither, you know, totally right or totally wrong, and neither is Bell Hooks, and I love her to death.


YOUNG: Well, there you go. Heidi Lewis, assistant professor of feminist and gender studies at Colorado College, thank you so much.

LEWIS: You, too. Thank you so much, Robin.

YOUNG: You are listening to HERE AND NOW.

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