Feminism is a growing topic of public debate as campus activists continue to protest speakers from many different backgrounds. From radical lesbian feminist Julie Bindel to former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali to feminist scholar Christina Hoff Sommers, the suppressing of differing opinions and stifling of free and open debate now affects more than just conservative and libertarian voices.
While some credit this primarily to a culture of sensitivity and moral relativism, it is time to consider the possibility that this is an elite-driven structural problem within the feminist movement which drives scholars and activists to cannibalize one another. In order to see this in action, look no further than the treatment of artist and entrepreneur Beyoncé Knowles.
In a group panel at the New School, seminal feminist scholar bell hooks accuse Beyoncé of performing lolita on the cover of Time magazine, but hooks also characterizes Knowles as a “terrorist” — whose power is ultimately a derivative of the status, wealth and fame yielded by a “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” in exchange for Beyoncé’s submission. Authors Janet Mock and Marci Blackman challenge hook’s intentionally provocative critique and argue that the artist’s work demonstrates a “freeing” reclamation of an often problematic self-image. The generational and ideological divide exemplified by this exchange reveals a preference for neither inclusive thought diversity nor compromise.
The contemporary discourse around Beyoncé provides an ideal case study for which to examine feminist critiques in popular culture. Writer Devasksha Vallabhjee argues that in the music video of “Formation,” Beyoncé pays homage to “the people who have been marginalized from black protest action and are now coming to the fore: women and queer and transgender people,” while simultaneously being “unapologetic about her sexuality and her money.” Writer Dianca London takes issue with the latter, condemning the “Formation” artist as an enabler of both respectability politics and capitalism—as if either were an inherently negative.
Scholar Yaba Blay adds another unique perspective (i.e. fuel to the fire) in her analysis of “Formation” as a perpetuation of colorism and the “remnants of anti-Blackness” which pervade in contemporary New Orleans.
Feminist theorist Brittney Cooper succinctly summarizes the divide among her fellow Beyoncé analysts, of whom Cooper criticizes for collectively:
“asserting on the one hand that the Bey-haters are the stuffy denizens of respectability policing and declaring on the other that the Bey-hivers are uncritical embracers of a woman with deeply contradictory practices and politics.”
However, Cooper’s conclusions on the state of Beyoncé-related discourse are precariously optimistic, as this chasm may just be inviting a disintegration and diffusion of feminist power.
The current public conversations on Beyoncé thus show how this faux-inclusive “you do you” narcissism in millennial culture may have further poisoned popular feminist discourse. Earlier this year, a Washington Post article explored the findings of a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll and concluded that “the Post-Kaiser poll reflected feminism’s lack of political will or any visible momentum at the grass-roots level,” further suggesting that “whatever feminism is today, even those who identify as feminists would probably say it is not a revolution.” This stands in stark contrast to the work of the Black feminists in the Combahee River Collective, whose 1977 statement reads: “we know that we have a very definite revolutionary task to perform and we are ready for the lifetime of work and struggle before us.”
Contemporary feminist organizations like the Crunk Feminist Collective disregard the commitment and cohesive organization, instead advocating for “building a rhetorical community, in which we can discuss our ideas…debate and challenge one another, and support each other.” While this may seem lazily non-committing, the Crunk Feminist Collective contradicts itself in stating that “a crunk feminist mode of resistance will help you get your mind right [sic],” and eliminate what they ambiguously label as “‘correct’ or hegemonic ways of being.” The issue in claiming a space free of organizational goals is that it may obfuscate—rather than clarify—a social identity. It is clear that despite the self-interested media clamor over campus feminism, the feminist movement itself is losing rather than gaining power.
Researchers have recognized this and look for explanations for why feminism has become so watered-down, unpopular and inconsistent. For example, a published academic study in Frontiers in Psychology tests a “feminists-as-masculinized-females theory” and finds that feminist activists are physiologically and psychologically more masculine than the general female population. Therefore, most women may reject feminism because of its aggressively masculine activists.
It is also possible that the answer lies not in the average woman’s rejection of masculine women but in that woman’s rejection of mixed signals. It may be that these conflicting messages from feminist thinkers on Beyoncé may elicit more questions than answers. Feminist writer LaSha best exemplifies a popular answer to these many important feminist questions:
“Whether Beyoncé is a feminist or not is another argument for another writer and another time. I’m not keen on challenging women on their self-identification as feminists, nor do I confer the title upon them without them first having identified as such since it brings with it a myriad of restrictions and expectations.”
This narcissistically lazy litmus test of self-identification shares some blame for the confusion and disillusionment with the feminist movement. If a movement cannot agree on whether or not to accept arguably the most influential feminist in America what hope remains for further agreement? If you are in the vast majority of millennial men and women who do not identify as feminists do not fret because feminism truly seems to be tiring itself out.