Bell Hooks Popular Culture Essay
Gloria Jean Watkins (born September 25, 1952), better known by her pen namebell hooks, is an American author, feminist, and social activist. The name "bell hooks" is derived from that of her maternal great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks.
The focus of hooks' writing has been the intersectionality of race, capitalism, and gender, and what she describes as their ability to produce and perpetuate systems of oppression and class domination. She has published over 30 books and numerous scholarly articles, appeared in documentary films, and participated in public lectures. She has addressed race, class, and gender in education, art, history, sexuality, mass media, and feminism.
In 2014, she founded the bell hooks institute at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky.
Hooks was born in Hopkinsville, a small, segregated town in Kentucky, to a working-class family. Her father, Veodis Watkins, was a custodian and her mother, Rosa Bell Watkins, was a homemaker. She had five sisters and one brother. An avid reader, she was educated in racially segregatedpublic schools, and wrote of great adversities when making the transition to an integrated school, where teachers and students were predominantly white. She later graduated from Hopkinsville High School in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. She obtained her BA in English from Stanford University in 1973, and her MA in English from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1976.
In 1983, after several years of teaching and writing, she completed her doctorate in literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, with a dissertation on author Toni Morrison.
Hooks' teaching career began in 1976 as an English professor and senior lecturer in Ethnic Studies at the University of Southern California. During her three years there, Golemics, a Los Angeles publisher, released her first published work, a chapbook of poems titled "And There We Wept" (1978), written under her pen name, "bell hooks". She adopted her maternal great-grandmother's name as a pen name because her great-grandmother "was known for her snappy and bold tongue, which [she] greatly admired". She put the name in lowercase letters "to distinguish [herself from] her great-grandmother." She said that her unconventional lowercasing of her name signifies what is most important is her works: the "substance of books, not who I am."
She taught at several post-secondary institutions in the early 1980s, including the University of California, Santa Cruz and San Francisco State University. South End Press published her first major work, Ain't I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism in 1981, though it was written years earlier, while she was an undergraduate student. In the decades since its publication, Ain't I a Woman? has gained widespread recognition as an influential contribution to feminist thought.
Ain't I a Woman? examines several recurring themes in her later work: the historical impact of sexism and racism on black women, devaluation of black womanhood, media roles and portrayal, the education system, the idea of a white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy, the marginalization of black women, and the disregard for issues of race and class within feminism. Since the publication of Ain't I a Woman?, she has become eminent as a leftist and postmodern political thinker and cultural critic. She targets and appeals to a broad audience by presenting her work in a variety of media using various writing and speaking styles. As well as having written books, she has published in numerous scholarly and mainstream magazines, lectures at widely accessible venues, and appears in various documentaries.
She is frequently cited by feminists as having provided the best solution to the difficulty of defining something as diverse as "feminism", addressing the problem that if feminism can mean everything, it means nothing. She asserts an answer to the question "what is feminism?" that she says is "rooted in neither fear nor fantasy... 'Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression'".
She has published more than 30 books, ranging in topics from black men, patriarchy, and masculinity to self-help, engaged pedagogy to personal memoirs, and sexuality (in regards to feminism and politics of aesthetic/visual culture). A prevalent theme in her most recent writing is the community and communion, the ability of loving communities to overcome race, class, and gender inequalities. In three conventional books and four children's books, she suggests that communication and literacy (the ability to read, write, and think critically) are crucial to developing healthy communities and relationships that are not marred by race, class, or gender inequalities.
She has held positions as Professor of African-American Studies and English at Yale University, Associate Professor of Women's Studies and American Literature at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, and as Distinguished Lecturer of English Literature at the City College of New York.
In 2002, hooks gave a commencement speech at Southwestern University. Eschewing the congratulatory mode of traditional commencement speeches, she spoke against what she saw as government-sanctioned violence and oppression, and admonished students who she believed went along with such practices. This was followed by a controversy described in the Austin Chronicle after an "irate Arizonian" had criticized the speech in a letter to the editor. The newspaper reported that many in the audience booed the speech, though "several graduates passed over the provost to shake her hand or give her a hug".
In 2004, she joined Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, as Distinguished Professor in Residence, where she participated in a weekly feminist discussion group, "Monday Night Feminism"; a luncheon lecture series, "Peanut Butter and Gender"; and a seminar, "Building Beloved Community: The Practice of Impartial Love".
Her 2008 book, belonging: a culture of place, includes a candid interview with author Wendell Berry as well as a discussion of her move back to Kentucky.
She has undertaken three scholar-in-residences at The New School. Mostly recently she did one for a week in October 2014. She engaged in public dialogues with Gloria Steinem,Laverne Cox, and Cornel West.
Those who have influenced hooks include African-American abolitionist and feminist Sojourner Truth (whose speech Ain't I a Woman? inspired her first major work), Brazilian educator Paulo Freire (whose perspectives on education she embraces in her theory of engaged pedagogy), Peruvian theologian and Dominican priest Gustavo Gutiérrez, psychologist Erich Fromm, playwright Lorraine Hansberry, Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, African-American writer James Baldwin, Guyanese historian Walter Rodney, African-American black nationalist leader Malcolm X, and African-American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. (who addresses how the strength of love unites communities). As bell hooks says of Martin Luther King Jr.'s notion of a beloved community, "He had a profound awareness that the people involved in oppressive institutions will not change from the logics and practices of domination without engagement with those who are striving for a better way."
Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom
In her 1994 book Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, hooks writes about a transgressive approach in education where educators can teach students to "transgress" against racial, sexual, and class boundaries in order to achieve the gift of freedom. To educate as the practice of freedom, bell hooks describes it as "a way of teaching in which anyone can learn." Hooks combines her practical knowledge and personal experiences of the classroom with feminist thinking and critical pedagogy. hooks investigates the classroom as a source of constraint but also a potential source of liberation. She argues that teachers' use of control and power over students dulls the students' enthusiasm and teaches obedience to authority, "confin[ing] each pupil to a rote, assembly-line approach to learning." She advocates that universities should encourage students and teachers to transgress, and seeks ways to use collaboration to make learning more relaxing and exciting. She describes teaching as a performative act and teachers as catalysts that invite everyone to become more engaged and activated. Performative aspect of learning "offers the space for change, invention, spontaneous shifts, that can serve as a catalyst drawing out the unique elements in each classroom." hooks also dedicated a chapter of the book to Paulo Freire, written in a form of a playful dialogue between herself, Gloria Watkins and her writing voice, bell hooks. In the last chapter of the book, hooks raised the critical question of eros or the erotic in classrooms environment. According to hooks, eros and the erotics do not need to be denied for learning to take place. She argues that one of the central tenets of feminist pedagogy has been to subvert the mind-body dualism and allow oneself as a teacher to be whole in the classroom, and as a consequence wholehearted.
In 2004, ten years after the success of Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks writes another book titled Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope. In this book hooks offers practical wisdom about what we do and can continue to do to make the classroom a place that is life-sustaining and mind expanding, a place of liberating mutuality where teacher and student together work in partnership.  hooks writes that education as a practice of freedom enable us to confront feelings of loss and restore our sense of connections and consequently teaches us how to create community. Hooks locates hope in places of struggle where she witnessed individuals positively transforming their lives and the world around them. For hooks educating is always a vocation rooted in hopefulness. 
All About Love: New Visions
After many disputes with ex-boyfriends about the nature of love, bell hooks published All About Love: New Visions in 2000. She explains how her past two long-term boyfriends were foiled by "patriarchal thinking" and sexist gender roles, so neither relationship ever really had a chance. She continuously wanted to recommend a book for the men to read, but could not find one that would clearly make her point to support her argument. For this reason, she decided to write her own, which would go into depth about her true feelings towards love.
In this book, hooks combines her personal life experiences, along with philosophical and psychological ideas, to shape her thesis and discuss her main concepts. She criticizes the way in which love is used in today's society. To further explain, how we use the word without much meaning, when referring to how much we like or enjoy our favorite ice cream, color, or game. Hooks is very disturbed by the fact that our culture has lost the true meaning of love, and believes it is because we have no shared definition. For this reason, the first chapter of her book primarily focuses on what she thinks the definition of love is, which she explains includes components such as care, affection, trust, respect, honesty, communication, and commitment. She proposes that if we all came to the agreement that love is a verb rather than a noun, then we would all be happier. Hooks believes love is more of an interactive process. It is not about what we just feel, but more about what we do. She states, "So many people think that it's enough to say what they feel, even if their actions do not correspond to what they are feeling". Bell hooks strongly clarifies why society needs to adopt a universal definition of love.
Bell hooks began her book with a series of spiritual messages, which include biblical verses to support her definition of love. She claims that a standard definition of love must include spiritual growth for one’s self and others. Although she refers to biblical messages, she does not promote religion in her book; on the contrary, she encourages spiritual thinking. Hooks identifies flaws with relationships nowadays since there is a loose understanding about love. She shares personal experiences about fearing rejection and emotional pain. As a result, she acknowledges lacking full commitment and expressing vulnerability because of the fear of not receiving those things in return, so giving care and affection are the minimal expectations she had in her relationships. However, those love components were not enough. Hooks introduces the necessity of practicing self-love and care to sustain healthy relationship with a concrete understanding of love.
Overall, this book sheds some light on what hooks sees as the modern day abandonment of love and what it means for people of today to experience love. One argument she proposes is how love cannot exist in the middle of a power struggle. Hooks goes as far as to present a number of problems she finds with our modern ideals of love and proposes their possible solutions. She includes the propositions of full reconstruction and transformation of modern-day love based on "affection, respect, recognition, commitment, trust and care" (Nonfiction Book Review). Hooks also points out what she sees to be the roots of the problems regarding modern day love, those being gender stereotypes, domination, control, ego, and aggression (Nonfiction Book Review).
Another argument hooks discusses is one in which she describes how starting from a very young age, boys and girls are constantly being knocked down and told to fit into the tiny boxes of characteristics that are expected of them. Hooks points out that the boy is denied his right to show, or even have, any true feelings. To further explain, she uses men in the American culture as an example, and describes how they have been socialized to mistrust the value and power of love. While the girl is taught that the most important thing she can do is change herself and her own feelings, with the hopes of attracting and pleasing everyone else. These unfair expectations lead boys and girls to grow up into men and women who are convinced that lies are the way to go, and no one should be showing their truest feelings to each other. This leads to the paradox hooks points out because in order to have a functional, and healthy loving relationship, honesty is a natural requirement. In bell hooks's own words, "Lies may make people feel better, but they do not help them to know love". Another central argument in hooks's All About Love is the way in which it is almost impossible for women to find happiness in what she sees as a brutal culture where men are taught to worry more about sexual satisfaction and performance than actually loving someone. This reality pointed out by hooks, paired with the fact that women focus so strongly on obtaining themselves a partner, leads to most relationships being completely one sided. In this case, the men are emotionally satisfied, and the women are left without any true happiness. Hooks points out that despite these evident problems in modern-day love culture, love can be revived, and this is what she is arguing throughout her book.
Bell hooks wrote this book to inform the world how we can change the way we think about love, our culture, and one another. She teaches us ways to love in a face of a planet of love-lessness. Her New Visions demonstrate how love is possible, and stress that all love is important—romantic, friendship, our love of strangers, and community.
Noting a lack of diverse voices in popular feminist theory, bell hooks published the book Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center in 1984. In this book, she argues that those voices have been marginalized, and states: "To be in the margin is to be part of the whole but outside the main body." hooks argued that if feminism seeks to make women equal to men, then it is impossible because in Western society, not all men are equal. She claimed, "Women in lower class and poor groups, particularly those who are non-white, would not have defined women's liberation as women gaining social equality with men since they are continually reminded in their everyday lives that all women do not share a common social status."
She used the work as a platform to offer a new, more inclusive feminist theory. Her theory encouraged the long-standing idea of sisterhood but advocated for women to acknowledge their differences while still accepting each other. Hooks challenged feminists to consider gender's relation to race, class, and sex, a concept known as intersectionality. She also argues for the importance of male involvement in the equality movement, stating that, in order for change to occur, men must do their part. Hooks also calls for a restructuring of the cultural framework of power, one that does not find oppression of others necessary.
Part of this restructuring involves allowing men into the feminist movement, so that there is not a separationist ideology, so much as an incorporating camaraderie. Additionally, she shows great appreciation for the movement away from feminist thought as led by bourgeois white women, and towards a multidimensional gathering of both genders to fight for the raising up of women. This shifts the original focus of feminism away from victimization, and towards harboring understanding, appreciation, and tolerance for all genders and sexes so that all are in control of their own destinies, uncontrolled by patriarchal, capitalist tyrants.
Another part of restructuring the movement comes from education; bell hooks points out that there is an anti-intellectual stigma among the masses. Poor people do not want to hear from intellectuals because they are different and have different ideas. As bell hooks points out though, this stigma against intellectuals leads to poor people who have risen up to become graduates of post secondary education, to be shunned because they are no longer like the rest of the masses. In order for us to achieve equality, people must be able to learn from those who have been able to smash these stereotypes. This separation leads to further inequality and in order for the feminist movement to succeed, they must be able to bridge the education gap and relate to those in the lower end of the economic sphere. If they are able to do this, then there will be more success and less inequality.
In "Rethinking The Nature of Work", bell hooks goes beyond discussing work and raises a pertinent question that feminists may need to ask themselves. "Many Women active in feminist movement do not have radical political perspectives and are unwilling to face these realities, especially when they, as individuals, gain economic self-sufficiency within the existing structure."
In her book Reel to Real, hooks discusses the effect that movies have on any given individual, with specific emphasis on the black female spectator. She argues that, although we know that movies are not real life, "no matter how sophisticated our strategies of critique and intervention, [we] are usually seduced, at least for a time, by the images we see on the screen. They have power over us, and we have no power over them."
Hooks focuses on problematic racial representations. Bell hooks has written a number of essays and articles, and in Reel to Real she describes her experiences growing up watching mainstream movies as well as engaging in the media. Hooks believes that to engage in film was to engage in the negation of black female representation in the media. hooks states, "Representation is the 'hot' issue right now because it's a major realm of power for any system of domination. We keep coming back to the question of representation because identity is always about representation".
Asserting that for her, the "gaze" had always been political, bell hooks explains how growing up she began to grow curious as to how much influence black parents were given as a result of black slaves being punished for looking at their white owners. She wondered how much had been absorbed and carried on through the generations to shift not only parenting, but spectatorship as well. In what is described as an "oppositional gaze", hooks explains the sometimes overwhelming desire to look and thus stating that by looking, actually declares a defiantly, "Not only will I stare, I want my look to change reality." The cinema became a place of critical analysis and a place where black men could view narratives starring white women without the risk of being lynched or murdered for being perceived as a threat.
Although much of the criticism aimed at hooks is in regard to politics, liberals and conservatives alike have critiqued her informal style of writing.[original research?] After the release of her first book, Ain't I a Woman: Black Women in Feminism, hooks's writing was criticized as "ahistorical [and] unscholarly;" many[who?] complained about the absence of footnotes. hooks does not provide a bibliography for any of her work, making it difficult to find the editors and publication information for the pieces listed under the "notes" section of her work. In "Theory as Liberatory Practice," hooks explains that her lack of conventional academic format was "motivated by the desire to be inclusive, to reach as many readers as possible in as many different locations as possible".
In "Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work; By bell hooks; Mother to Mother," Nicole Abraham criticizes hooks's unconventional format rationalization. Abraham suggests that, if her rationalization for not providing footnotes and bibliographic information in her writing is that it will help her reach a broader (presumably a less academic) audience, hooks either assumes the average person has "no real interest or knowledge about who really wrote what ideas and where we can look for more thoughts on similar subjects" or "she mean[s] that we are lazy readers who have not the sophistication to grapple with the complications of an endnote."
- Black Is... Black Ain't (1994)
- Give a Damn Again (1995)
- Cultural Criticism and Transformation (1997)
- My Feminism (1997)
- Voices of Power (1999)
- Baadasssss Cinema (2002)
- I Am a Man: Black Masculinity in America (2004)
- Writing About a Revolution: A Talk (2004)
- Happy to Be Nappy and Other Stories of Me (2004)
- Is Feminism Dead? (2004)
- Fierce Light: When Spirit Meets Action (2008)
- Occupy Love (2012)
Awards and nominations
- Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics: The American Book Awards/ Before Columbus Foundation Award (1991)
- Ain't I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism: "One of the twenty most influential women's books in the last 20 years" by Publishers Weekly (1992)
- bell hooks: The Writer's Award from the Lila Wallace–Reader's Digest Fund (1994)
- Happy to Be Nappy: NAACP Image Award nominee (2001)
- Homemade Love: The Bank Street College Children's Book of the Year (2002)
- Salvation: Black People and Love: Hurston Wright Legacy Award nominee (2002)
- bell hooks: Utne Reader's "100 Visionaries Who Could Change Your Life"
- bell hooks: The Atlantic Monthly's "One of our nation's leading public intellectuals"
Throughout the book the author explores various manifestations of her central contentions - that early feminist theory and practice was limited in scope, and that true feminist movement has the potential to vastly improve the lives of men and women alike
- Talking back: Thinking feminist, thinking Black. 1989. ISBN 0-921284-09-8.
- Yearning: race, gender, and cultural politics. 1990. ISBN 0-921284-35-7.
- With Cornel West, Breaking bread: insurgent Black intellectual life. 1991. ISBN 0-89608-414-0.
- Black looks: race and representation. 1992. ISBN 0-89608-434-5.
- Sisters of the yam: Black women and self-recovery. 1993. ISBN 0-89608-415-9.
- Teaching to transgress: education as the practice of freedom. 1994. ISBN 0-415-90808-6.
- Outlaw culture: resisting representations. 1994. ISBN 0-415-90811-6.
- Killing rage: ending racism. 1995. ISBN 0-8050-5027-2.
- Art on my mind: visual politics. 1995. ISBN 1-56584-263-4.
- Reel to real: race, sex, and class at the movies. 1996. ISBN 0-415-91824-3.
- Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood. 1996. ISBN 0-8050-4146-X.
- Wounds of passion: a writing life. 1997. ISBN 0-8050-5722-6.
- Remembered rapture: the writer at work. 1999. ISBN 0-8050-5910-5.
- Justice: childhood love lessons. 2000. ISBN 0-688-16844-2.
- All About Love: New Visions. 2000. ISBN 0-06-095947-9.
- Feminism is for everybody: passionate politics. 2000. ISBN 0-89608-628-3.
- Where we stand: class matters. 2000. ISBN 0-415-92913-X.
- Salvation: Black people and love. 2001. ISBN 0-06-095949-5.
- Communion: the female search for love. 2002. ISBN 0-06-093829-3.
- Teaching community: a pedagogy of hope. New York: Routledge. 2003. ISBN 0-415-96818-6.
- Rock my soul: Black people and self-esteem. New York: Atria Books. 2003. ISBN 0-7434-5605-X.
- The will to change: men, masculinity, and love. New York: Atria Books. 2004. ISBN 0-7434-5607-6.
- Space. 2004. 
- We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity. New York: Routledge. 2004. ISBN 0-203-64220-1.
- Soul sister: women, friendship, and fulfillment. Cambridge, Massachusetts: South End Press. 2005. ISBN 0-89608-735-2.
- Witness. 2006. 
- With Amalia Mesa-Bains, Homegrown: engaged cultural criticism. Cambridge, Massachusetts: South End Press. 2006. ISBN 0-89608-759-X.
- Belonging: a culture of place. New York: Routledge. 2009. ISBN 978-0-203-88801-8.
- Teaching critical thinking: practical wisdom. New York: Routledge. 2010. ISBN 978-0-415-96820-1.
- Appalachian elegy: poetry and place. Kentucky Voices Series. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. 2012. ISBN 978-0-8131-3669-1.
- Writing beyond race: living theory and practice. New York: Routledge. 2013. ISBN 978-0-415-53914-2.
- Happy to be nappy. Chris Raschka (illustrator). 1999. ISBN 0-7868-2377-1.
- Homemade Love. New York: Hyperion Books for Children. 2002. ISBN 9780786825530.
- Be boy buzz. New York: Hyperion Books for Children. 2002. ISBN 9780786816439.
- Skin again. Chris Raschka (illustrator). New York: Hyperion Books for Children. 2004. ISBN 9780786808250.
- Grump groan growl. Chris Raschka (illustrator). New York: Hyperion Books for Children. 2008. ISBN 9780786808168.
- hooks, bell (1993), "Black women and feminism", in Richardson, Laurel; Taylor, Verta A., Feminist frontiers III, New York: McGraw-Hill, pp. 444–449, ISBN 9780075570011.
- hooks, bell (1996), "Continued devaluation of Black womanhood", in Jackson, Stevi; Scott, Sue, Feminism and sexuality: a reader, New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 216–223, ISBN 9780231107082.
- hooks, bell (1997), "Sisterhood: political solidarity between women", in McClintock, Anne; Mufti, Aamir; Shohat, Ella, Dangerous liaisons: gender, nation, and postcolonial perspectives, Minnesota, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 396–414, ISBN 9780816626496.
- hooks, bell (2004), "Selling hot pussy: representations of Black female sexuality in the cultural marketplace", in Richardson, Laurel; Taylor, Verta A.; Whittier, Nancy, Feminist frontiers (5th ed.), Boston: McGraw-Hill, pp. 119–127, ISBN 9780072824230. Pdf.
- hooks, bell (2005), "Black women: shaping feminist theory", in Cudd, Ann E.; Andreasen, Robin O., Feminist theory: a philosophical anthology, Oxford, UK; Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, pp. 60–68, ISBN 9781405116619.
- hooks, bell (Summer 1986). "Sisterhood: political solidarity between women". Feminist Review, special issue: Socialist-Feminism: Out of the Blue. Palgrave Macmillan via JSTOR. 23: 125–138. doi:10.2307/1394725. JSTOR 1394725.
- hooks, bell (Spring 1989). "From Black is a Woman's Color". Callaloo. Johns Hopkins University Press via JSTOR. 39: 382–388. doi:10.2307/2931578. JSTOR 2931578.
- hooks, bell (Summer 1989). "Feminism and Black women's studies". Sage: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women. ERIC. 6 (1): 54–56.
- hooks, bell (February 1990). "Future feminist movements". off our backs, special issue: Celebrating 20 Years with OOB. off our backs, inc. 20 (2): 9. JSTOR 25797204.
- hooks, bell (September 1990). "Postmodern Blackness". Postmodern Culture. Johns Hopkins University Press via Project MUSE. 1 (1). doi:10.1353/pmc.1990.0004.
- hooks, bell; Julien, Isaac (1991). "States of desire". Transition. Indiana University Press on behalf of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University via JSTOR. 53: 168–184. doi:10.2307/2935186. JSTOR 2935186. "Critic bell hooks and British filmmaker Isaac Julien on sex, style, and cinema."
- hooks, bell (Summer 1991). "Micheaux: Celebrating Blackness". Black American Literature Forum, special issue: Black Film Issue. Johns Hopkins University Press via JSTOR. 25 (2): 351–360. doi:10.2307/3041692. JSTOR 3041692.
- See also: Oscar Micheaux
- See also: MacKinnon, Catharine A. (Fall 1991). "From practice to theory, or what is a white woman anyway?". Yale Journal of Law and Feminism. Yale Law School. 4 (1): 13–22. Pdf.
Fresh lemonade is my drink of choice. In my small Kentucky town, beautiful black, brown, and white girls set up their lemonade stands and practice the art of money making—it’s business. 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.
Viewers who like to suggest Lemonade was created solely or primarily for black female audiences are missing the point. Commodities, irrespective of their subject matter, are made, produced, and marketed to entice any and all consumers. Beyoncé’s audience is the world and that world of business and money-making has no color.
What makes this production—this commodity—daring is its subject matter. Obviously Lemonade positively exploits images of black female bodies—placing them at the center, making them the norm. In this visual narrative, there are diverse representations (black female bodies come in all sizes, shapes, and textures with all manner of big hair). Portraits of ordinary everyday black women are spotlighted, poised as though they are royalty. The unnamed, unidentified mothers of murdered young black males are each given pride of place. Real life images of ordinary, overweight not dressed up bodies are placed within a visual backdrop that includes stylized, choreographed, fashion plate fantasy representations. Despite all the glamorous showcasing of Deep South antebellum fashion, when the show begins Beyoncé as star appears in sporty casual clothing, the controversial hoodie. Concurrently, the scantily-clothed dancing image of athlete Serena Williams also evokes sportswear. (Speaking of commodification, in the real life frame Beyoncé’s new line of sportswear, Ivy Park, is in the process of being marketed right now).
Lemonade offers viewers a visual extravaganza—a display of black female bodies that transgresses all boundaries. It’s all about the body, and the body as commodity. This is certainly not radical or revolutionary. From slavery to the present day, black female bodies, clothed and unclothed, have been bought and sold. What makes this commodification different in Lemonade is intent; its purpose is to seduce, celebrate, and delight—to challenge the ongoing present day devaluation and dehumanization of the black female body. Throughout Lemonade the black female body is utterly-aestheticized—its beauty a powerful in your face confrontation. This is no new offering. Images like these were first seen in Julie Dash’s groundbreaking filmDaughters of the Dustshot by the brilliant cinematographer Arthur Jafa.Many of the black and white still images of women and nature are reminiscent of the transformative and innovative contemporary photography of Carrie Mae Weems. She has continually offered decolonized radical revisioning of the black female body.
It is the broad scope of Lemonade’s visual landscape that makes it so distinctive—the construction of a powerfully symbolic black female sisterhood that resists invisibility, that refuses to be silent. This in and of itself is no small feat—it shifts the gaze of white mainstream culture. It challenges us all to look anew, to radically revision how we see the black female body. However, this radical repositioning of black female images does not truly overshadow or change conventional sexist constructions of black female identity.
Even though Beyoncé and her creative collaborators daringly offer multidimensional images of black female life, much of the album stays within a conventional stereotypical framework, where the black woman is always a victim. Although based on the real-life experience of Beyoncé, Lemonade is a fantasy fictional narrative with Beyoncé starring as the lead character. This work begins with a story of pain and betrayal highlighting the trauma it produces. The story is as old as the ballad of “Frankie and Johnny” (“he was my man alright, but he done me wrong”). Like the fictional Frankie, Beyoncé’s character responds to her man’s betrayal with rage. She wreaks violence. And even though the father in the song “Daddy’s Lessons” gives her a rifle warning her about men, she does not shoot her man. She dons a magnificently designed golden yellow gown, boldly struts through the street with baseball bat in hand, randomly smashing cars. In this scene, the goddess-like character of Beyoncé is sexualized along with her acts of emotional violence, like Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” she destroys with no shame. Among the many mixed messages embedded in Lemonade is this celebration of rage. Smug and smiling in her golden garb, Beyoncé is the embodiment of a fantastical female power, which is just that—pure fantasy. Images of female violence undercut a central message embedded in Lemonade that violence in all its forms, especially the violence of lies and betrayal, hurts.
Contrary to misguided notions of gender equality, women do not and will not seize power and create self-love and self-esteem through violent acts. Female violence is no more liberatory than male violence. And when violence is made to look sexy and eroticized, as in the Lemonade sexy-dress street scene, it does not serve to undercut the prevailing cultural sentiment that it is acceptable to use violence to reinforce domination, especially in relations between men and women. Violence does not create positive change.
Even though Beyoncé and her creative collaborators make use of the powerful voice and words of Malcolm X to emphasize the lack of respect for black womanhood, simply showcasing beautiful black bodies does not create a just culture of optimal well being where black females can become fully self-actualized and be truly respected.
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.
Concurrently, in the world of art-making, a black female creator as powerfully placed as Beyoncé can both create images and present viewers with her own interpretation of what those images mean. However, her interpretation cannot stand as truth. For example, Beyoncé uses her non-fictional voice and persona to claim feminism, even to claim, as she does in a recent issue of Elle magazine, “to give clarity to the true meaning” of the term, but her construction of feminism cannot be trusted. Her vision of feminism does not call for an end to patriarchal domination. It’s all about insisting on equal rights for men and women. In the world of fantasy feminism, there are no class, sex, and race hierarchies that breakdown 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. But it is a false construction of power as so many men, especially black men, do not possess actual power. And indeed, it is clear that black male cruelty and violence towards black women is a direct outcome of patriarchal exploitation and oppression.
In her fictive world, Beyoncé can name black female pain, poignantly articulated by the passionate poetry of Somali-British poet Warsan Shire, and move through stages evoked by printed words: Intuition, Denial, Forgiveness, Hope, Reconciliation. In this fictive world, black female emotional pain can be exposed and revealed. It can be given voice: this is a vital and essential stage of freedom struggle, but it does not bring exploitation and domination to an end. 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. If change is not mutual then black female emotional hurt can be voiced, but the reality of men inflicting emotional pain will still continue (can we really trust the caring images of Jay Z which conclude this narrative).
It is only as black women and all women resist patriarchal romanticization of domination in relationships can a healthy self-love emerge that allows every black female, and all females, to refuse to be a victim. Ultimately Lemonade glamorizes a world of gendered cultural paradox and contradiction. It does not resolve. As Beyoncé proudly proclaims in the powerful anthem “Freedom”: “I had my ups and downs, but I always find the inner-strength to pull myself up.” To truly be free, we must choose beyond simply surviving adversity, we must dare to create lives of sustained optimal well-being and joy. In that world, the making and drinking of lemonade will be a fresh and zestful delight, a real life mixture of the bitter and the sweet, and not a measure of our capacity to endure pain, but rather a celebration of our moving beyond pain.