What happens when one of the world’s foremost Black feminist scholars and thought leaders issues a biting assessment of the world’s most-famous Black female musician’s latest work of art? An all-encompassing public conversation about feminism, Black women’s marginalization and empowerment ensues.
The controversy erupted when iconic scholar bell hooks published a critique of Beyoncé‘s hit visual album "Lemonade" on her eponymous Berea College institute’s blog Monday (May 9). As we reported in April, "Lemonade" earned widespread praise for its musical ambitiousness, the visual component’s incorporation of prominent Black women (ranging from celebrities to the mothers of Black men killed by police and vigilantes), contributions from ascendent artists and filmmakers including Warsan Shire and Khalil Joseph, and its narrative of a woman changed after infidelity.
While praising "Lemonade’s" creative ambition, hooks—who infamously called Beyoncé a "terrorist" in 2014—ultimately admonished the album for its what she calls its reliance on victimhood tropes and subservience to patriarchal and capitalist themes, among other criticisms:
As a grown Black woman who believes in the manifesto "Girl, get your money straight" my first response to Beyoncé’s visual album, "Lemonade," was WOW—this is the business of capitalist money making at its best.
Honoring the self, loving our bodies, is an appropriate stage in the construction of healthy self-esteem. This aspect of "Lemonade" is affirming. Certainly, to witness Miss Hattie, the 90-year-old grandmother of Jay-Z, give her personal testimony that she has survived by taking the lemons life handed her and making lemonade is awesome. All the references to honoring our ancestors and elders in "Lemonade" inspire. However, concluding this narrative of hurt and betrayal with caring images of family and home do not serve as adequate ways to reconcile and heal trauma.
In the world of fantasy feminism, there are no class, sex and race hierarchies that break down simplified categories of women and men, no call to challenge and change systems of domination, no emphasis on intersectionality. In such a simplified worldview, women gaining the freedom to be like men can be seen as powerful.
No matter how hard women in relationships with patriarchal men work for change, forgive and reconcile, men must do the work of inner and outer transformation if emotional violence against Black females is to end. We see no hint of this in "Lemonade."
The responses inspired by hooks’ post, both in social media and various response pieces, ranged (like "Lemonade’s" various chapters) from denial to anger to forgiveness. Some of the critiques, like one from Ebony‘s Jamilah Lemieux’s, noted hooks’ seeming hypocrisy in making a rigid anti-capitalist and Black feminist critique:
I’m not sure how to process a critique of "Lemonade" from a woman who has wrapped her significant arms around Emma Watson, the 26-year-old actress who is the face of He For She (a very glib UN campaign for gender equality) while expecting Beyoncé to deliver a flawless feminist work lest she be written off as nothing more than a pretty princess of capitalism. (Watson’s place in the Panama Papers is a delightful counterpoint to this, of course.)
What a painful example of White privilege: to gain the co-sign of one of the most prolific Black feminist authors on the planet for contributing nothing that is groundbreaking or profound, while that same author is incredibly heavy handed when describing the Black woman who has brought feminism to young people who may never engage with it otherwise.
How detached from the hearts and minds of Black women does someone have to be to distill "Lemonade" down to "the business of capitalist money making at its best"? If all commercial art is commodity, does that really mean that creating a work that centers Black women in a beautiful way and speaks directly to and about us is rendered valueless because it’s available to be consumed by all? And what does this say about the dozens of books she’s published, presumably none of them available for free? Her speaking engagements?
Others, like BlackYouthProject.com’s managing editor Jenn Jackson, felt that hooks’ critique ignored diverse manifestations of Black feminism:
…[M]y issue with hooks’ critique here is that, while many of her concerns are valid, they do not make room for the particular feminisms of a star like Beyoncé. That is to say, hooks’ expectations of Beyoncé outstrip the space the artist is herself attempting to make with this work.
"Lemonade" is an album and visual experience. It isn’t a theoretical intervention nor is it the last we will see of Beyoncé’s feminisms. So, while hooks’ key points stand, they are less effective when one considers that hooks herself is, in some ways, reproducing the oppressive and dominant pressures which she wants so badly to eradicate.
"Lemonade" is beautiful and empowering because it faces that truth so fully. Even the pretty girls, and the rich girls, and famous the girls will feel pain. Still untold are the stories of how many of these girls and women are also inflicting pain—because we are human. We also make choices that hurt and harm our beloveds—even when we are feminists. Patriarchy is evil and must be dismantled. Intimacy can painful, but must be embraced.
Openly gay ex-NFL player Wade Davis also contributes to the roundtable, saying that hooks and Beyoncé aim for the same things from different perspectives:
In "Hold Up" Beyoncé explains, ‘I’m not too perfect to ever feel this worthless.’ These lyrics articulate what I believe both Beyoncé and bell hooks are suggesting, just from different vantage points. Beyoncé’s debunking her "Flawless" myth by offering us her humanity in "Lemonade." On the other hand, bell’s wants us (Beyoncé) to re-imagine "flawlessness" or "Lemonade" as something that is a journey towards "self-love" to remember our own humanity.
Author and trans activist Janet Mock offered her own critique on her Facebook page, criticizing hooks’ (and other critics’) seeming dismissal of Black femme presentation:
… so let’s move beyond the clickbaity soundbiteness of "bell vs Beyonce" and discuss the dismissal of Black femme feminists which I feel parts of bell’s critique is steeped in. (ie: "Utterly-aestheticized," "not dressed up bodies," "fashion plate fantasy" reek of judgment of glamour, femininity & femme presentations.) It echoes dismissal of femmes as less serious, colluding with patriarchy, merely using our bodies rather than our brains to sell, be seen, survive. We gotta stop this. All of us. Femme feminists/writers/thinkers/artists are consistently dismissed, pressured to transcend presentation in order to prove our woke-ability.
What did you think about hooks’ criticism? Let us know in the comments.
For a variety of resources you can use to understand "Lemonade," check out "The Lemonade Syllabus" by scholar Candice Marie Benbow and "#Lemonade: A Black Feminist Resource List" co-authored by historians Janelle Hobson and Jessica Marie Johnson.
*Note: post’s title edited to correct misspelling of hooks’ name.