Why We Shouldn't Be Afraid To Critique Beyoncé

We all know Bey slays, but commentary like bell hooks' moves the conversation forward.
A scene from "Lemonade."
A scene from "Lemonade."

On Monday, feminist thinker bell hooks published a blog on her official website, discussing Beyoncé's latest visual album, "Lemonade." And in true bell hooks fashion, the essay was full of as much praise as biting critiques of Beyoncé's work.

"[Lemonade is] all about the body, and the body as commodity," hooks writes.

"This is certainly not radical or revolutionary."

This isn't the first time hooks has taken issue with Beyoncé, of course. In 2014, during a talk at The New School with author and activist Janet Mock, hooks denounced the singer's sexualized persona, describing her as "anti-feminist."

There's much to challenge in hooks' critiques of Beyoncé and her work. Her issues with "Lemonade" and Beyoncé's feminism as a whole seem to hinge on the idea that Beyoncé does not offer any definitive resolutions on how to end the patriarchy or sexualized violence against black women, as if art is only valuable if it offers solutions rather than ask questions.

While many have praised "Lemonade" for its imagery centered on black women, hooks is not as impressed, writing: "This radical repositioning of black female images does not truly overshadow or change conventional sexist constructions of black female identity."

But as journalist and activist Janet Mock eloquently pointed out in a Facebook post, hooks accusation that Beyoncé's focus on the black female body is "not radical" but rather reductive simply "echoes dismissal of femmes as less serious, colluding with patriarchy, merely using our bodies rather than our brains to sell, be seen, survive."

The gut reaction to bell hooks opinions on Beyoncé, especially for a younger generation of feminism, is to completely dismiss them. But here's the thing -- even if you don't agree with hooks, as many of us don't, critiques like hers are vital. If you're a fan of Beyoncé's, and if her work resonates with you, it's obviously frustrating to see Beyoncé's feminism constantly questioned and critiqued, labeled as a gimmick or a shtick. Too often, Beyoncé's feminism seems to be held to a higher standard than her white counterparts (the Taylor Swifts and Miley Cyrus's of the world).

“Too often, Beyonce's feminism seems to be held to a higher standard than her white counterparts.”

But what hooks emphasizes is that critique, even of our idols, is vital. It furthers the conversation. It forces us to be discerning, to question even as we celebrate Beyoncé's accomplishments and contributions. From hooks' essay has come important discussions about the ways in which we underestimate femme feminist women, about the roles that capitalism and consumerism play in Beyoncé's work, and about what we should (and shouldn't) expect from our feminist pop cultural icons.

Crucially, what the dialogue between hooks and Mock demonstrates is that we can intelligently debate and disagree without beefing. As Mock pointed out, she and hooks are close friends and have both privately and publicly debated Beyoncé's merits in the past. We can enjoy Beyoncé's work, even stan for her, and still be critical of her as an artist. Beyoncé has (kind of brilliantly) cultivated an almost saintlike, can-do-no-wrong persona. And yet, past the gut reaction of "Slay, queen, slay!" whenever she drops a new project, there is so much more.

We already know Beyoncé slays. Going beyond that is so much more compelling.

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