What does it mean to be a feminist? Who gets to be one? And what does it take to be one? Who gets to decide who is a feminist and who isn’t? These questions, while perhaps important in theory, are almost always a means of excluding and demonizing those who don’t fit the white, liberal feminist narrative of what makes a woman a feminist. And nowhere is that more clear than in the feminist policing around singer/actress/media mogul Beyoncé.
Beyoncé is featured on the spring edition of Ms. magazine, and the Facebook thread in response has been revelatory. Ms. magazine asks in their post, "Has Beyoncé 'earned' her feminist credentials?" What a loaded question. The responses, though varied, offer a window into the slut-shaming that often dominates white liberal feminists' response to Beyoncé: "It's not about being sexy, it's about wearing these stripper outfits onstage while dancing like a stripper all for men. How is she a good role model for young girls???" And yet, how often do white liberal feminists talk this way about white female entertainers?
The comparison has been made before between Lena Dunham and Beyoncé as feminist icons. Mainstream white feminist organizations don’t question whether Lena Dunham, a self-professed feminist, is feminist enough. Though her show Girls has come under fire in more progressive wings of feminism, mainstream feminist organizations embrace her, happily framing her as a new face of feminism. Dunham openly swears, walks around naked, and simulates sex onscreen, but there is no larger mainstream questioning of her feminist credentials. But when Beyoncé, a fierce, independent woman of color flirts with the feminist moniker, the backlash begins. How interesting.
Dunham has appeared fully naked on her show. She has both appeared in and written some highly provocative and often controversial sex scenes. Her character has been shown snorting cocaine and having one-night stands, yet no one questions Dunham’s feminist credentials. And they shouldn’t — her choice to appear naked and in simulated sex scenes is not anti-feminist. It’s a choice that she made, an artistic choice meant to explore sexuality, sexual expression, and the limits of her character.
And yet, Beyoncé is often roundly criticized in feminist spaces because of her “slutty” outfits, her overtly-sexual dance moves, for her lyric choices, for using the moniker Mrs. Carter, and her occasional use of the word bitch. Who are we, feminists? Is this who we want to be? You sound like Phyllis Schlafly. She wears a unitard — she can’t be a feminist! She is gyrating and shaking her butt — how inappropriate! She said the word “bitch” — that’s a feminist no-no! Do you hear yourselves, white liberal feminists? Do you hear what you are doing to this strong, independent black woman?
Beyoncé is at the center of her own media empire, no small feat for a woman of color in a racist, patriarchal society. Equally important, she embodies empowered sexuality. When she dances, the passion and commitment exudes in her every step. Her body is her own; she owns it and uses it as she sees fit. When she wears a unitard or “skimpy” outfit, something many dancers wear, mind you, she is showing off her impeccable body, her temple, her source of strength, and all that it can do. She is forcing those of us who are clinging to our puritanical notions of propriety to sit down, shut up, and watch raw, unbridled talent and skill. And yes, she is a feminist while doing it.
When white women get to decide who is “feminist enough,” particularly around women of color, they are perpetuating racism. They are policing the boundaries of who is acceptable and who isn’t. This is nothing more than a tool of racist patriarchy wrapped in feminist rhetoric. Yes, racist. It is decidedly racist the way white mainstream feminist organizations police women of color’s feminist credentials, the way white liberal feminists reduce Beyoncé to a gyrating slut with a potty mouth.
If white feminists want to be seen as inclusive, as truly revolutionary, as working to end all oppressive power systems, they must stop perpetuating those oppressions themselves. Exclusionary boundaries of who is an acceptable feminist and who isn’t does nothing for feminism except perpetuate racism, heterosexism, cissexism, classism, and other forms of bigotry and oppression. The incessant questioning of Beyoncé’s character and choices is simply a reflection of the latent bigotry that exists in feminist spaces.
Until white feminists stop policing women of color’s feminist credentials, they are doomed to repeat the same racist patriarchy we are supposed to be combating.