There’s a weird mental bargain I’ve made as a fan of classic cinema: I’m a black female actor who longs passionately for more ethnic diversity in entertainment, and I have been turning the volume down on that passion to enjoy my old movies and TV shows.
I don’t recall the first time I became aware of feminist author and activist bell hooks, but I have a fuzzy memory of coming across her book Ain’t I a Woman at some point in elementary school while doing a report on Sojourner Truth. The book borrows its title from Sojourner Truth’s historic 1851 address, and either a kindly librarian or my good friend Dewey Decimal must have suggested it during one of my many visits to the library.
As a young girl, I upheld bell hooks as an inspiration–a brilliant black woman in America who was writing and speaking about race and blackness and feminism and all sorts of things that influences in my life were telling me “good girls” just didn’t talk about. That’s part of what made her important: I didn’t see her as trying to be a “good girl,” and that even being an option was a revolutionary thought for Very Young Pia.
Lately, Ms. hooks has joined the long list of public figures whose shine began to dull for me upon either closer scrutiny or the simple passage of time and associated shifts in taste, tone, and artistic output. I still have immense respect for much of what she has put into the world, but I also struggle with many of her more recent statements, such as the current ones about Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj.
The latest from Ms. hooks comes from a panel she presented at NYC’s The New School, where she is a scholar-in-residence. Called “Whose Booty Is This,” the panel explored the transference of the power of the pussy as the central body part of a woman’s sexuality to the booty, a body part that is enjoying a renaissance of sorts in pop culture. The booty renaissance itself is ripe for critique through an intersectional lens, since the asses of black women have been politicized and alternately scorned or hypersexualized for generations. The hypocrisy of mainstream media like Vogue suddenly declaring that the booty is having a moment deserves its own panel, if not a full series.
That’s why I’m concerned that Ms. hooks chose to use her considerable platform to focus on her negative perception of Beyoncé and Nicki. Earlier this year, she called Queen Bey a “terrorist” with regards to her feminism, and the BeyHive deployed the troops. It bears repeating that while I respect both Mrs. Knowles-Carter and Ms. Minaj as talented women and exceptional performers, I’m neither of the BeyHive nor am I a Barb, as their respective fan bases are known. But still.
Hooks is so fundamentally against repeated imagery of us as a product of systemic white male fantasies that she applied such a loaded word to Beyoncé for her perceived acts of terror in perpetuating such images to impressionable young girls. I get that. But at what point did hooks’ laser focus on dismantling patriarchy hone in on our sisters and drown out the larger conversation altogether?
As I said in my recent appearance on MSNBC’s The Last Word, why is Beyoncé a lightning rod for criticism of her feminism while white celebrities like Emma Watson and Lena Dunham are granted a pass? Furthermore, those of us who dared to critique Ms. Watson’s recent speech on feminism at the UN were then attacked and accused of being haters and racists and setting the movement back with our (allegedly) petty infighting.
No one’s feminism needs to be flawless. Beyoncé may wake up that way, but as a movement we are coming from different perspectives and life experiences. Hooks has even said of Beyoncé: “I embrace her use of the term ‘feminist’- it’s a starting point; it gives us something to work with.” That was in March of this year, two months before the panel where she wondered if Beyoncé was actually “anti-feminist” and dropped the terrorist label on her.
I just re-visited a 1997 Paper magazine interview hooks did with rapper Lil’ Kim (and the original “Queen Bee,” but I’ll save that for another day). I almost get the feeling that hooks’ suspicions of pure patriarchy as the cause of a female performer appearing sexy are as strong today with Bey and Nicki as they were with Lil’ Kim in 1997. However, they’re rendered bitter and more accusatory now, after years of marinating in a desire for change that society has not made good on.
It would be reductive to simply say “bell hooks is bitter,” but I’m struck by the tone of the Lil’ Kim interview, wherein she comes off as Kim’s good girlfriend just kicking back and talking about porn and “taking it up the butt” and gently questioning who controls her image. Seventeen years later, and the gentle questioning of patriarchal control has become concerns about whether Beyoncé’s lyrics in “Partition” referencing oral sex may be “part of the tropes of the existing, imperialist, white supremacist, patriarchal capitalist structure of female sexuality.” Really, bell hooks?
In both that interview in March and the booty panel last week, hooks makes mention of trying to contact Beyoncé. At the beginning of the year, it was “I’ve actually used Twitter to reach out to Beyoncé,” and now at the Booty Panel it’s become “I wish she were here. She and I need to talk.” I hope that if that conversation ever happens, Beyoncé might be afforded some of the generous sistagurl vibe that Kim got, which also comes with a conversation as opposed to a panel where the critic is pontificating in the absence of her target.
I’m not “over” bell hooks yet, but it’s starting to feel like she’s over us. In the same booty panel, she called Nicki’s “Anaconda” video “boring.” I posit that Nicki’s target audience had the exact opposite reaction. Hooks might think that I’m assuming Nicki’s entire target audience is male, and I’m about to make some vulgar pun about “bored” vs. “excited” and work in an erection reference. Nope. When I watch “Anaconda,” admittedly on mute and with any other song playing because the track itself is trash, I twerk around my bedroom by myself, for myself.
There’s still loads to unpack about who owns our bodies and how we present them. I want hooks to continue her work in this area without summarily dismissing the possibility that we have more agency than it looks like through her eyes–even when we’re corseted up or going down. In the 1997 interview, hooks said that Lil’ Kim’s “harshest critics were older women, and older black women specifically.” We could say the same to Bey and Nicki today, and we might just mean bell hooks.