Pop Stars like Beyoncé Leading the Conversation About Feminism: A Discussion Between Two Concerned Scholars

Co-authored with Donna Y Ford, Ph.D. Vanderbilt University, author of Recruiting and Retaining Culturally Different Students in Gifted Education, Mother, Grandmother, and Advocate for Racial Justice

For the record, we both acknowledge Beyoncé's talent and appreciate why so many people, and women in particular, are applauding Lemonade, and perhaps seeing themselves in it. That's not our issue or focus. The impetus for this conversation was a post on Facebook discussing feminist scholar bell hooks' response to Beyoncé's visual album, Lemonade. While hooks offered numerous positive statements about the album, she also raised serious concerns about Beyoncé's ideas regarding gender equality and feminism, some of which we will take up in our conversation. We had both also noticed that feminist scholars, and Black feminist scholars in particular, were actively promoting Lemonade and suggesting its potential use in college courses. The combination of this rush to promote Beyoncé's latest work, as well as bell hooks' important critique, spurred a conversation about the societal value placed on pop stars' reflections on social issues as compared to scholarly reflection. It is here that we begin this conversation as two women scholars, across race.

Patricia Leavy: As a feminist scholar who has written and lectured about feminism and gender inequality for many years, I'm less troubled by the content Beyoncé's Lemonade than I am by how it has overtaken the conversation of feminism. It's actually not specific to this album but ever since Beyoncé stood in front of a sparkling feminist sign, she has been a major player in the conversation surrounding gender inequality. It isn't a question of whether she is well-suited to represent feminism, but rather, an issue that no one person should come to overtake a multi-generational and global movement. It is the response to pieces of art like Lemonade. To be clear, Beyoncé is not alone in this. For another example consider Madonna, particularly in the late 1980s and 1990s. Cultural conversations about feminism and women's sexuality centered on the pop star. Videos such as those for the songs "Express Yourself " and "Justify My Love" became lightning rods for conversations about women's sexual autonomy. "Madonna Studies" quickly popped up across universities. What Beyoncé and Madonna have in common is that regardless of the intent behind their art, they are firmly located in commercial culture, cashing in on their representations of these issues.

So Beyoncé, a pop star, serving as a quasi-feminist role model, is not itself entirely new. I use the word "quasi" because one of the issues is what kind of feminism is she portraying? As bell hooks pointed out in her May 9th piece "Moving Beyond Pain"-- a response to Lemonade-- Beyoncé's version of feminism does not truly challenge patriarchal power. As hooks noted, Beyoncé is merely representing one interpretation of feminism. Consequently, it bears significant differences from the interpretation of feminism espoused by many leading scholars. While hooks is an example of a highly successful and well-known scholar, most who publish and teach in the area receive little recognition and few material rewards. This is disconcerting. It also goes back to the impetus for this conversation, our concerns that scholars are promoting Beyoncé's work more than they are promoting each other's work. There is an irony with women, and women of color in particular, who are systematically disadvantaged in the academy in terms of both recognition and material rewards, promoting a mega rich superstar's work, more than they generally promote each other's work. This is by no means to imply that feminist scholars do not promote each other's work but if you spent any time on social media since Lemonade dropped there is no comparison to how many scholars have posted and re-posted about this work, discussed incorporating it into classes, blogs and other opinion pieces. Our colleague, Dr. Claudine Candy Taaffee recently received her PhD from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign noted how we need to support each other in the "dark holes of the academy." She also noted that in her own work she tries to be "sensitive and respectful" to those younger than her, especially younger Black girls, for whom Beyoncé's message is powerful and meaningful. This brings me to what I think one of the biggest issues is: talking about the roles of artists and scholars in society.

I am not someone who does not see the value in the arts in relation to social issues. Quite the contrary. Although I am a trained sociologist I am actually an advocate for arts-based research which involves scholars in any discipline adapting the arts in their research, partly to make it more engaging and accessible to the public. In short, I fully appreciate the value in arts. This does not mean that artists and scholars have precisely the same role in society. When it comes to topics like feminism I think artists, such as Beyoncé, are well positioned to provoke conversations. They can bring issues into the public foreground and inspire people to talk about them. However, scholars can provide the substance for those conversations. Scholars have done the work to contribute meaningfully to these conversations, and fill in the many holes that may be left when art and commerce are the main priorities.

I know you have a lot of thoughts about this, including issues pertaining to how scholars of different generations may view these issues and how difficult it is for women of color in the academy to get their due credit.

Donna Y. Ford: So much of what you have written resonates with me - the contradictions and tensions are real and leap off the pages in the various writings (and discourse) regarding feminism through an artistic lens and a scholarly lens. The critiques are creating a 'feminist artist' versus 'feminist scholar' debate that is rather divided and divisive. I wonder how both can be united for the larger good? bell hooks' critique of Lemonade is justifiable and she should not be thrown under the bus or have her views discounted as hatin' on Beyoncé. It bothers me that a feminist scholar should now be negatively interrogated for doing what scholars do - critique, and offer food for thought and alternative perspectives. This is not about who is right and who is wrong, but rather, it is about how can we be in alignment on how females are portrayed in the work we do.

You mentioned how artists in earlier generations contributed to feminism (for good or bad), so this is by no means new. What I am seeing is a generational divide, and that is definitely where I am situated. I have been very vocal about the pros and cons of how certain songs and dances (e.g., twerking) are anti-feminist and promote, especially in impressionable minds, the opposite of feminism as I see it. I often wonder, can feminist artists promote the same message without being scantily clothed? How would that sell, literally? Where does feminism support getting back at a man with a vengeance? It is legitimate to ask: "What exactly is Beyoncé inspiring our young Black girls to be?" As bell hooks states, Lemonade is full of feminist contradictions.

I was born in 1961, so I am not part of the Hip Hop generation. My favorite music is soul and neo soul; not Hip Hop or Rap. I like a few Hip Hop and Rap songs, as long as they promote justice of some kind and do not demean females and do not promote the adultification and criminalization of males. Yet, I am learning why so many resonate with this genre. So when this younger generation gets caught up in the music world and its impact, I am curious, clueless, and frustrated at once. I'd rather read or write a book. I could care less about reality shows (replacing the likes of soap operas from when I was a child), where we are let into the homes (and bedrooms) of artists and little is left to the imagination. Some viewers end up living vicariously this way, losing sight of their own reality as they get lost in others. It is called acting fueled by capitalism -- I see through the hyped arguments, fake drama, and more to garner viewers, ratings, and the almighty dollar. But this is me, and like bell hooks, I am entitled to own and express myself, and that includes disagreeing with famous artists (and authors).

I know we are focusing on Beyoncé and Lemonade, but I can't help but think about the recent death of Prince as well. I saw fans closing businesses, canceling classes, and leaving meetings when learning about his death. I was perplexed. Some are still mourning. I felt a sense of loss about this gifted artist, but did not grieve and kept it moving, so to speak. My deadlines were still due, bills still had to be paid, workshops had to be conducted, classes had to be taught, and assignments had to be graded. For some, this seems harsh; I consider it reality. I am from a different generation where I mourn the loss of, for example, a major politician and author; one whose work is changing laws and policies.

I am just different from this generation and what it means to be a feminist. I am not influenced easily by social drama; too much hype and money seems to be the driving force. Too many find their 'self' in others rather than in themselves. If I were maybe 10 years younger, I might have a different take on this. But I think not. No disrespect... but I am from a different generation. Nothing Beyoncé does will change my life. And nothing I do will change her life.

Patricia Leavy: I do think there are generational issues that are challenging for feminist professors /scholars. As Dr. Taaffee noted, she attempts to embrace both the viewpoints of her younger counterparts, as well as her own. This is tricky in practice, but important. For years many feminist researchers tried to fight the objectification of women's bodies in popular culture by males. Feminist musical artists, I'm thinking of examples like Tori Amos and Patti Smith, battled for the same--a place in pop culture with their clothes on. Now a younger generation of feminist scholars and activists raise serious questions about "slut shaming" and questioning why women shouldn't be able to use their bodies and express themselves as they see fit and for their own financial gain. Enter artists like Miley Cyrus and her infamous "twerking" and advocacy for "free the nipple" as well as others who have written and spoken on the topic, such as Amanda Palmer. As a progressive movement, it's important that there are multiple feminisms, and that they continue to evolve. Older ideas need to be challenged by newer ones, but that doesn't mean the newer are necessarily the only truth. I think these artists serve us all by shining a light on topics that require meaningful conversation. Scholars then need to enter those conversations in significant ways. I'm thinking of your last comment that Beyoncé does not change your life nor will you change hers. Wouldn't it be great if you did change her life though? I applaud her commitment to some brand of feminism. However, I think if you choose to wear and promote the label, you need to do the work too. I certainly wouldn't expect a commercial artist at her level to get formal education in the area, but there is much one can learn from reading books on their own. The same could be said for others, such as Taylor Swift, who also gets a lot of mileage out wearing feminism like it's a new trend. I mean no disrespect. I believe these women are committed to their interpretations of feminism. But just as feminist scholars who once fought to keep women in pop culture clothed now need to seriously interrogate the issues of "slut shaming" that may result from that position, so too musicians who choose to promote their ideas of feminism have a responsibility to do some homework and direct the spotlight at experts who can further these conversations. If it's about the issues and not purely self-promotion, share the stage to strengthen the substance of the message.

Your final thoughts?

Donna Y. Ford: As I digest what is trending, it is clear to me that much is polemic and becoming a battle of hooks versus Beyoncé, with the most outspoken portraying hooks attacking Beyoncé. I also wonder what would be trending had Beyoncé critiqued bell hooks' work.

Music can bring people together; it can also do the opposite, as with Lemonade, as one of many examples. There is a lot of energy invested in controversial songs that I think could be placed elsewhere - on real issues, like battling hunger, abuse, sexual assault, homelessness, illiteracy, and other large social ills. I understand the power of all art forms, music included. But, frankly, I would like to witness more regarding how music and artists with millions of followers and capital are effecting changes regarding social injustices. What law has changed? What policy has changed?

Artists, like authors, can play roles of change agents by investing in real issues and in practices that tackle and change policies and laws. Musicians have the following and clout, so I'd like to see such an investment. I'd like to see more artists use their social and economic capital to improve the lives of others. It happens, but not enough. The books hooks has written are most powerful, but will never sell like songs, and I wonder how many from younger generations know her or have read her work. I have. Clearly, you have too. I have also listened to young, contemporary artists - there is often no choice given how viral it goes. The older and younger generations must find a way to come together for a common good. As you stated, if it's about the issues and not purely self-promotion, share the stage to strengthen the substance of the message.

For more information about Dr. Ford please visit http://www.drdonnayford.com/

For more information about Dr. Leavy please visit http://www.patricialeavy.com/. Her latest book, Blue, is available on all major online book retailers.