Influential writer/intellectual bell hooks boldly stared down the easily agitated Beyhive this week when she labeled Beyoncé a "terrorist" during a panel discussion titled "Are You Still a Slave?" at New York's New School.
After the conversation turned to the potential harm done by Beyoncé's appearance (specifically her underwear-clad appearance on a recent cover of TIME), trans activist/writer/thinker Janet Mock noted how inspired she was by Beyoncé's recent single "Partition" when finishing her book. Effectively shutting Mock down, apparently because her experience of Beyoncé differs, hooks said that she sees "part of" Beyoncé as "anti-feminist," "assaulting," and "a terrorist especially in terms of the impact on young girls." hooks went onto explain, "The major assault on feminism in our society has come from visual media and from television and videos," and then she talked at length about the T-shirt of herself that she was wearing. You can watch her entire explanation in the video above.
Point taken about unreasonable standards of beauty and how they tend to celebrate whiteness, but the your-hero-is-a-terrorist swipe smacks of condescension. It also seems very reductive to state outright that Beyoncé as an ideal is bad for the world. Beyoncé herself grapples with this repeatedly and in many layers on her recent self-titled album on which "Partition" appears—she loathes the concept of perfection while clearly striving for it in every flawlessly executed step.
"Terrorist" also sounds like trolling from one of the most influential thinkers of our time, whose language is echoed by far lesser minds in the name of social justice and branding all over the internet, but whose actual name pops up much less than it used to. hooks went on and on after saying the word "terrorist," but never quite returned to that point to really illustrate the specific terrorism of Beyoncé. Pretty hurts, but is it seriously terrorism?
Elsewhere during the talk, hooks doubted Beyoncé's role in cultivating her own image for the TIME cover. When Mock challenged this, hooks concluded that "from my deconstructive point of view…she's colluding in the construction of herself as a slave…it's not a liberatory image."
She went on:
Would we be at all interested in Beyoncé if she wasn't so rich? Because I don't think you can separate her class, power and the wealth from people's fascination with her that here's a young black woman who is so incredibly wealthy…one could argue even more than her body, it's what that body stands for, the body of desire fulfilled that is wealth, fame, celebrity—all the things that so many people in our culture are lusting for, wanting. Let's say if Beyoncé was a homeless woman who looked the same way, or a poor, down and out woman who looked the same way, would people be enchanted by her? Or is it the combination of all of those things that are at the heart of imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy?
At the very least, this undervalues Beyoncé's virtuosic talents as a performer. If Beyoncé were a homeless woman, she wouldn't be homeless for long because upon seeing her act, people would say, "Damn, get her a record deal," and she would get it. Yeah, her wealth is notable and undoubtedly aspirational, and yeah it's even acknowledged on BEYONCÉ, particularly in its visual component (opulence abounds, and "Partition" is her twist on the in Paris trope). But affluence is a leitmotif on an album of bold, unmissable themes about agency and sexual comfort and risk-taking and, yes, feminism. Focusing on Beyoncé's money seems at least willfully askew, if not out of touch.
hooks also said this thing about society's relationship with trans people and issues, referring directly to Mock:
We're really into trans right now. People will tell me, "Ooh yeah," y'know it's like the ordinary people…it's almost like they flipped the hate channel and it turns onto the voyeur channel and the isn't-it-interesting, isn't-it-cute, isn't-it-fascinating channel but nothing is really changing there, that is opening up, that is saying we want to hear from Janet Mock talking about many aspects of culture.
I mean, was hooks sitting on panels next to Mock 10 years ago? Five years ago? Before this week?
hooks talks, and it sounds pretty, but I'm not sure how well it all holds up. An essay from her on Beyoncé's specific terrorism could clarify.
You can watch the entire discussion—nearly two hours of it—below.