Race, Gender and Beyonce

Okay, deep breath… I’ve been procrastinating on writing this post for awhile because it’s complicated and because I’m a perfectionist and I like to get things right the first time. Though I also try to use this blog as a means to eradicate my own perfectionist tendencies so it’s about damn time I put this post out there…

I read this article, “For Feminists Who Resort To Racism when Slut Shaming is not Enough” on Ravishly about a month ago. In essence, the article is saying that some feminists, particularly white feminists, have been trashing Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj for the way they express their sexualities and saying that these actions make both celebrities anti-feminist. The Ravishly article calls these feminists out on this, pointing to the inherent racism there and underscoring the important fact that white feminists may not feel an alliance with all aspects of women of color’s feminism because our experiences with sexism differ depending on our race. Word. I totally agree with that.

But then the thing is, I also agree with some of what the white or dominant culture feminists are saying (and truthfully, maybe this is because I am a white feminist). And I’m going to attempt to articulate that here.

So first off, I want to say that I would never say Beyoncé is not a feminist. I mean, whytf would you say that when this happened?

Plus “Run The World (Girls)” is a badass song that to me, as a white woman, felt empowering and since hearing that song, I’ve thought of Beyoncé as a feminist and I appreciate that she brings the term and concept into pop culture. I really don’t know much about Nicki Minaj but if she calls herself a feminist, who am I to judge?

The only time I struggle with women calling themselves feminists is if they are deliberately and consistently using and degrading women to their own personal benefit, such as a madam or porn producer who doesn’t have her performers’ best interests at heart. But if a madam or pornographer do have their performers’ best interests at heart and the work is consensual and trauma-informed (considering that misogyny, sexism, white supremacy and racism are traumatizing to everyone, but especially to those who are oppressed by them) then sure, if they see themselves as feminists, why not? Anyways, as far as I can tell, neither Nicki Minaj nor Beyonce fall into the former category.

Because here’s the thing. The phrase “nobody’s perfect” applies to feminists too. We’re all human beings and in the case of misogyny, patriarchy and sexism, women are just doing their best to cope with it. And sometimes coping means doing things that make us feel good or even “normal”, even if they aren’t actually feminist things to do. I mean, I shave my legs, rarely leave the house without makeup and I love dresses and skinny jeans and boots. In my younger years, I was known to dance on bars, often to pretty anti-woman music and I also once had a friend take a picture of me, sitting on the hood of a car while wearing a short skirt and heels (yes, alcohol was involved in these latter occasions). But still, I was young and testing my own sexuality and for f- sake, trying to let loose for a second or two. But I’d hope that anyone who reads this blog would know I’m a feminist and that it’s understandable that I’ve done/do these things, given the overall context of our society.

As a woman, I have been told I want to and need to be pretty and sexy. And by golly, I’ve internalized that notion and maybe on some basic human level, I want to feel desirable to others. I’ve also internalized the societal concept of female beauty (which I really doubt has much to do with biology/basic humanity) and so, the closer I am in matching that ideal, the more attractive I feel. I don’t know that I’d say, for me, that feeling attractive is empowering. But feeling pretty makes me feel good and happy with myself. It’s certainly not the only thing that makes me feel good but it is a part of my self-esteem. Unfortunately, my physical appearance is probably a bigger part of my self-esteem than it should be, because physical appearance is crucial to a woman’s self-esteem as per patriarchy. And the reality is that I can put on makeup and a dress and look “nice” and feel good about myself but that I’m basing this sense of attractiveness off a straight, male’s definition of female beauty. The article on ravishly points out that the “male gaze” is based on patriarchy and is hetero-normative. And I say you’re goddamn right it is. But I mean, at this point in time do any of us, of any gender construct/non-construct or sexuality, really know what makes us feel attractive or to what genuinely turns us on? I mean, maybe to some extent. But I also know that my gender and sexual identities have been formed for me all of my life by the dominant culture, which is straight, white and male. I tend to doubt I have some biological predisposition to feel prettier when I wear eyeliner, mascara and a pushup bra. In fact, I’d guess if I were to travel back in time to the brink of human existence on earth, all done up with makeup and sleek clothing, I would terrify everyone I were to encounter. Suffice to say, I think modern female beauty standards are the direct result of patriarchy, homophobia and misogyny. But. But because of how I was raised and how I was socialized, making myself up this way does make me feel attractive and that does make me feel good. Do I dream of a day when women have less rigid and oppressive beauty and behavioral norms? Of course! But for now, this is what I have to work with and this is how I, as a straight white woman, cope with it. And as the Ravishly article points out how each woman copes (well they didn’t say “cope” but to me, that’s what it is) is going to depend on her race – and I’d add her sexuality and many other things based on her own unique set of experiences. And again, unless someone is deliberately and consistently hurting others, I’d say she’s just doing her best and if she is a feminist, she is an imperfect one which is perfectly fine. Because none of us are perfect at anything, feminism included.

And this is where I think dialogue is so important. Because as the Ravishly article illuminates on the one hand, you have women saying that every sexual act based on standard gender norms is for and by the male gaze and therefore perpetuates patriarchy and on the other hand, you have women asserting that saying something is based on the male gaze is actually what perpetuates patriarchy. But I think these two sides can meet halfway and that both have truth. Like I said, because of marketing and misogyny, it’s unlikely that anyone truly knows what sexy is. The mainstream beauty and sexual ideals are racist, sexist and hetero-normative but we all were brought up with them, so regardless of gender or sexual orientation, they influence us. And that makes sense. We’re influenced by these ideals because we’re human and we’re not perfect. It’s how things are right now in this moment. That is not to say we can’t change them. But. Change takes time and in the mean time, we have to cope to live and survive and thrive and however we need to do that, so long as we’re not hurting others, is okay. And really, as white women, we need to recognize that not all of our notions of feminism aren’t going to apply to women of color and vice versa. And that is okay and to be expected given the historical context of not just misogyny but also white supremacy.

So have dialogue. Know that coming from two different perspectives doesn’t necessarily mean one of you is right and the other wrong. You might just be coming from two different places. And as idealistically rosy as this may sound, I think we need each other in this quest for justice*. And that means listening to each other and for white women to make room for women of color and not talk over them or tell them they’re wrong. We need to recognize the racial dynamics that will come up in feminism. We need to recognize how our own privilege and racism impacts the way we hear and see women of color.

*The author of the Ravishly article says that white feminism is about equality and for women of color it’s about justice. I agree with this but I also think the quest for justice is something we, as white women, could benefit from. I mean, we’ve striven for equality but when have we truly sought restitution for the centuries of misogyny that defined women as property? For the ongoing misogyny that perpetuates rape culture and domestic violence? These issues impact all women and unfortunately, impact women of color more severely. So white women’s quest for justice will look different than women of color’s quest for justice. The quest of women of color for justice will undoubtedly be more complicated and involve fighting more entrenched systems and many other things I can’t adequately speak to as a white woman. Still, there are plenty of things white women can and should seek restitution for and perhaps we should acknowledge women of color’s quest for justice and credit them as we make our own.

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