Guest Blogger bio: Sabia McCoy-Torres is a PhD candidate in sociocultural anthropology at Cornell University. Her research focuses on race, the African-diaspora, and popular culture. She is an avid dancer and proud native Bronx, New Yorker.
Some of the backlash, commentary, and critiques Beyoncé has received for using Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi’s words from “Why We Should All Be Feminists” in her song “Flawless” has inspired me to react. Not in support of Beyoncé, but instead against a notion that I do not support implied in these critiques: that somehow her “hyper” sexuality is a contradiction to her being a feminist. I put “hyper” in quotations because what exactly denotes “hyper” sexuality differs from person to person and referring to Beyoncé’s persona as hypersexual is a matter of opinion. “Hyper” also always seems to imply deviance. Maybe there is nothing deviant about her sexual persona, but rather how acceptable representations of sexuality for self-loving women with a firm sense of agency are typically framed. Still, the message is being sent loud and clear: if a woman embraces and illustrates her erotic self through her dance or dress then she is somehow not a feminist. But is this true? Is the drawing apart of eroticism and feminism worth breaking down a bit?
Birth of The Big Question
A situation I regularly find myself in doing anthropology field research on reggae culture also inspires my line questioning. I am constantly faced with women dancing in sensual and at times sexually suggestive ways. When I read theories about women who dance as they do, all point to the notion that these women are victims of a patriarchal society that causes them to sexually objectify themselves, they are responding to a history of dehumanization of the black female body, they are dancing for the male gaze. In other words, they are framed as agentless victims, living out their inferiority to men, and, in their supposed sexual objectification, clearly not empowered women.
But there is a problem. In conversation with these women, these ideas about them are rarely validated by what they say about themselves and how they see their own dancing. They mention loving their bodies, feeling confidence in themselves, how good it feels to experience the music through their chosen movements. And here comes the best part, I have arrived to clubs early enough when there are almost exclusively women present and seen dozens of women dancing by themselves, facing mirrors, watching their own reflection, dancing for no other gaze but their own. I’m sure most of them do just the same, by themselves in their bedroom mirror, like I can frequently be caught doing. Where is the male centered story here? Where are the victims of their own sexual objectification? These women are empowered movers and shakers, authors of their own movement and image, showing their agency, and, as they dance alone, their independence from men. They demonstrate senses of their female and human selves that feminism upholds.
If a woman embraces and illustrates her erotic self through her dance or dress is she then somehow not a feminist?
The historical script
There is historical background to the placing of feminism and overt displays of sexuality as opposites of each other, especially as it they relate to black women. I am indebted to Carol Batker and Treva Lindsey for my knowledge on the subject. To put it as short as possible, the Enlightened-Feminists-Us’s were placed as opposites of the In-Need-Of-Saving-Way-Too-Sexual-Them’s unintentionally. In the early 1900s, black middle class intellectuals and elites wanted to debunk racist propaganda that African-American women were hyper-sexual, and all of its savage and animalistic connotations, to underscore the humanity of African-Americans and campaign against lynching. To show their humanity, these women demonstrated that women of all races were hypersexual, especially lower class women, and that good middle class women like themselves were proof of the respectability of African-American women. I am hugely indebted to and grateful for their efforts, and it brings me great sadness that our country’s racist history necessitated their work. However, there were some unintended effects of the way they framed their activism and respectable African-American female identities. “Hyper”-sexuality became “low class behavior” and activism was linked to demureness, a-sexuality, and respectability, placing representations of female erotic and sexual selves as opposites. They created a stereotype of what a feminist, middle class, respectable black women is, leaving little room for a diversity in representation, and no room for the expression of sexual identities.
This history, while specific to African-Americans, is translatable to the historic forming of feminist personas as they apply to white women as well. The fight for women’s equality and safety has been closely concerned with tearing down the objectification of women in its many oppressive forms. What has followed in result is a sensitivity to women’s behaviors that can be thought of as coming from our historic objectification and victimization. Sex, eroticism, sexuality, all benefits to men and so frequently at the center of women’s objectification, then are demonized as deriving from a male agenda or seen as a response to the male agenda. The desire to express eroticism and sexuality are inherently a part of women as well and also to our benefit, but history seems to have pitted open expression as taboo and against the feminist agenda.
In addition to creating ideas of what a true feminist looks and acts like, both of these tales have resulted in a policing of women’s bodies, and how women represent themselves. This policing might be well intended. The use of sex, nudity, and women’s bodies for money, marketing, and advertising makes the lines between sexual self-expression and exploitation quite blurred. Still, when we resort too easily to policing, we reproduce a form of social inequality that says that men are allowed to be fully sexual beings but women aren’t.
That’s my momma’s feminism
I want to put out there that perhaps what Beyoncé was getting at when she included Adichi’s quote in “Flawless” is the idea that feminism should allow room for full displays of sexuality, eroticism, and desire, just as men are allowed, challenging one dimensional views of what a feminist looks and acts like. Citing the relevant parts of the quote as included in “Flawless,” Adichi says: “We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are. Feminist: a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.” It seems Beyoncé was speaking directly to what people seem to think she missed as a contradiction. It seems she is actually saying, by including this quote, that her decision to embody her full sexuality and represent it as she pleases is her right just as it is a man’s and does not exclude her from being a feminist.
Beyoncé further speaks to this point at the end of her newly released (to those who didn’t buy the album) steamy video for “Partition.” The video concludes with a rough interpretation of a quote from The Big Lebowski spoken in French. The voice says (translation): “Men think that feminists hate sex, but it’s a very stimulating and natural activity that women love.” Her position on the separation of feminism and eroticism is clear.
A real life example from a real life girl putting out real life images brings to light some of these points and questions even more. It’s the documentary video Kimari Carter submitted to apply for rapper Juicy J’s “twerk” scholarship, college funds to be awarded to the best twerking applicant. She is twerking, then, to show how well she does what many consider a complex dance, as opposed to for shock value, which is hardly concerned with skill. In the video, Carter captures herself twerking in her dorm room with a scholarly text in hand, twerking in a dark club with glow in the dark designs painted on her body, and herself having fallen asleep studying in her bed with books written by prominent black and feminist scholars surrounding her. She represents herself as a studious, hard-working woman, reader of black women’s scholarship, and avid twerker, mixing these identities together into one. Her words are interesting. She is a self-proclaimed activist, teacher, leader, and twerker. She explains twerking as being an essential part of her womanhood and also her black identity. She also reminds her viewers that this “is the new age” and old ideas of respectability need to go.
There are many ways to see her bio documentary as a huge problem, especially given the history I mentioned earlier; but this video is also useful to understanding what she, in the “new age,” sees as not being contradictions: intelligence, feminism, and sexuality, even erotically expressed through twerking. Is it possible that she is not a victim of a misogynistic society living out her own subjugation, but instead loving her own body and celebrating it through twerking as she does her mind through scholarship? Arguments about appropriate sexual representation cannot always start and stop at internalized historical legacies, or turn to patriarchy for answers.
What happens if they come too close?
Bringing sexuality and feminism intimately close can create a slippery slope and brings into question what are “acceptable” unions between feminism and the erotic. Is Miley Cyrus seemingly for no apparent creative or artistic reason licking a hammer in slow motion in “Wrecking Ball” the same as a near nude pole dancer posing acrobatically upside down in a split in Rihanna’s music video “Pour It Up”? Is one, a clear reference to oral sex without any context, better than the other, a demonstration of a certain skill though a controversial one? Is dancing as erotically or suggestively as one will for her own financial gain less harmful to young girls’ gender identity than watching women hired to dance in a male rapper’s video? I have posed many questions here that I do not give answers for, but present anyway to open dialogue rather than simply making eroticism and feminism contradictory terms. What I will say definitively is that we should distance ourselves from the idea that sexuality (in all of its representations from demure to erotic) is incongruent with feminism, and accept the possibility that all of these representations, when women self-consciously author them, represent the diversity of how women see, experience, and feel themselves.