What’s the quickest way to pick a fight?
Wear stilleto heels to a conference on Feminism.
And if you want it to really get ugly…pair said heels with skinny jeans, nail polish and copious amounts of lip gloss.
This is exactly what I did a few years ago. As I waded through a sea of buzzcuts and flannel shirts, I could feel the eyes on me. Eyes of contempt. Eyes of lust. Eyes of confusion. I smiled and waited for the hammer to drop. I didn’t have to wait long.
About an hour into the conference, the conversation turned to the “male gaze.” For those of you who are unfamiliar with feminist lingo, male gaze is a term that was first used by feminist scholars to describe how the film industry typically adopts the point of view of heterosexual men by using camera angles and filming techniques that objectify women. Although it was a term initially applied to sexist film practices, the term now has a wider application – as it is used to describe the focalization of women as objects on a socio-cultural level. Today, much of the female representation and imagery that we see in the media is shaped to please the male gaze.
So at this conference, one sister kept talking about how we, as women, too often defined ourselves by the standards set by men. As she spoke, she pointedly looked at me… and my shoes. Following her cue, a few other women glared at me, openly hostile. Many of the women at this particular conference were lesbian and mixed in with their hostility about my questionable feminism -was definitely a certain amount of sexual interest in my appearance. Hate and lust in equal measure. Maybe they thought I would be intimidated or would start to doubt my decision to unabashedly be myself in this space that they had carved out. I chuckled silently as a Beyonce line ran through my head. They must not know about me.
First of all, let me be clear. I am a feminist. A staunch one. I am a woman who firmly believes that women should have access to all of the rights and opportunities that are afforded to men. I do not hate men. Or anything for that matter. I love men and women. I want to see a society where all of us can be free and whole. I take my feminism seriously. So seriously in fact, that I have taken time to critically think about it. I have not allowed anyone to impose their brand of feminism on me. Whether it’s white women who have made feminism all about the white, middle-class experience or sistas who have rejected feminism for some reactionary and equally debilitating form of womanism that still denies full range of expression and being, I reject anything that tells me that I’m not allowed to be my whole self. I like stiletto heels and make up. I like men. I like attractive men. When I was a single woman, I liked to look at attractive men and I liked them to look at me. Does being a feminist mean that I cannot love and embrace these parts of myself?
I used to feel a deep internal conflict between who I was and what I thought my feminism should look like. But like Joan Morgan said in When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost, I’ve learned to embrace a feminism that’s not afraid to “f*&k with the gray areas.” A feminism that lets me find peace in the understanding that my job as a
feminist human being is to constantly work on checking the “isms” within myself, while also loving the parts of me that are healthy and conducive to my growth—even if they don’t fit into someone’s pre-conceived notion of who I should be.
I now understand that every woman is a whole woman. This means that she is multi-faceted, (perhaps, contradictory), complex, and nuanced. She has many sides and has the right to express any of those sides whenever she sees fit. I experience myself as intellectual, emotional, spiritual, sexual, physical, mental, and growing. And if my understanding of feminism is correct, the ultimate goal is to create a world where women can be whatever they want to be, whenever they want to be it, without limitations imposed by gender and sexism. I think that any idea, institution, or person that tries to deny a woman this full range of expression is an enemy to feminism. Feminists…this means you! Sometimes in a misguided attempt to set up parameters, feminists create a narrower and (ironically) oppressive definition of womanhood
Check out the video below of a young lady – who goes by the name of NineteenPercent – giving her take on the new Beyonce video, Run The World (Girls). This is EXACTLY the kind of feminism that I experienced at that conference…snarky, confrontational, biting, sarcastic, and ugly…
Now don’t get me wrong. I value critique and I don’t believe anybody is exempt from it. I also think that if you can look past the off-putting tone, NineteenPercent shares some really important information and makes some critical connections. I appreciate her and any young woman who decides to address these pressing issues. Unlike NineteenPercent, I believe Beyonce’s lyrics were not oppositional, but complementary to the points outlined in the video. I think any form of empowerment starts with an internal decision to be empowered. Beyonce’s song is just that…a creative, aesthetic, call to empowerment. NineteenPercent thinks Beyonce is a liar because she failed to speak about all of the challenges faced by women. I think Beyonce is an artist doing what artists do…creating her vision of what reality should be.
However, NinteenPercent has every right to disagree. I definitely think that a strong feminist movement must include critique of ourselves and each other. But I also firmly believe in what bell hooks, calls “loving critique.” Particularly when it’s a critique of another woman. Why is it that the women who proclaim to be pro-woman so loudly are the first ones to tear another woman down in the most brutal and humiliating fashion? Why must we enter the arena of dialogue armed with ridicule and disdain for each other? Or is it less about feminist critique and more about seizing an opportunity to attack another woman in an unconscious act of internalized sexism? Does sexy (and arguably hyper-sexed) Beyonce become more of a target because of the added influence of jealousy and repressed sexuality? These are questions we should be willing to face with honesty and authenticity.
Now, I can completely understand the crux of Beyonce and why she is so controversial. Her expression is decidedly sexual. People observe her blonde hair and question her racial politics. When confronted with her as a woman, a brand, and an artist, questions arise about how much of her is genuine expression, how much is savvy marketing, and how much is female exploitation by male handlers. I’ve often thought about Beyonce’s relationship to corporate interests and what it means for the young women and men in my community whom I work with on a daily basis. Beyonce, just like feminism itself, is a complicated knot of fascinating and uncomfortable questions.
Let me just state for the record, that I have not always been pleased with everything that Beyonce has produced. And if given the opportunity, I would love to engage her in a conversation about all of the things I love about her body of work AND the things I take issue with. However, the tone of this hypothetical conversation would reflect the amount of respect that I have for Beyonce as both an artist and a black woman. Being able to navigate contentious points and differing perspectives is the sign of a movement that is healthy and truly progressive.
With that being said, I absolutely love Beyonce’s new song and video. I can relate to the words and performance. In so many ways, this song embodies how I experience my own feminism. Futhermore, I respect that Beyonce is Beyonce. She is not Gloria Steinem. She is not bell hooks. And she is not supposed to be. Her brand of feminism is and should be a reflection of who she is.
Thank you, Beyonce, for making a song for the women who embrace their wholeness, even in the face of ridicule and repression. For us sisters who have no qualms about marching into a feminist conference in sky high shoes and perfume. For the women who understand that feminism has a million different faces.
Who run this mutha?!?!?!?