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Bell Hooks on Beyoncé: The Difference Between Being Sexualized and Embracing Your Sexuality

As a psychology major who minors in studies of sexuality, Riah has something to say about the various perspectives of feminism.

Feminism Then and Now

The title of this article may leave you with some questions. When I watched the video of bell hooks addressing Beyoncé and her behaviour for my social injustice class, I immediately was intrigued and quite honestly shocked.

For those of you who don’t know, bell hooks is a well-known feminist and someone I learned about in my Intro to Sociology course for her theories and ideas on feminism and intersectionality. This article is not to discredit her because I truly believe she is an accomplished woman who has done a lot of good for the feminist movement, and to be quite honest, I enjoy her candor and power. However, I am writing this to draw a connection between the ideology of feminism from the past and now.

Reading the title of this, you may think that obviously, being sexualized is different from embracing sexuality. Being sexualized is something that happens to you, and embracing your sexuality is a choice an individual makes. However, they do go hand in hand, as you could be sexualized while embracing your sexuality. (Even when you’re not). In fact, in the video I watched, bell hooks made that connection with Beyoncé, seemingly indicating that the way she acts and dresses is the opposite of feminism and that she is setting a bad example for young girls. (Other reasons besides her sexuality are also mentioned).

This personally struck a chord with me for many reasons. However, the underlying ones deal with the fact that I found bell hooks’ comment that indicated that Beyoncé was allowing herself to be sexualized to be (ironically) very patriarchal in nature. This whole snippet of the interview I saw had me draw some very strong conclusions between what feminism meant years ago and what it means now. It also shed some light on some issues that women need to work on when it comes to an idealistic future for feminism.

Sexualization: An Issue of Men

I like to believe in the concept of "liberal feminism," and although I realize that that means, in many cases, women are fighting for equality against men, in my mind, liberalism also largely includes this idea of doing what you want, which is not so much anyone else’s business.

I do understand that bell hooks is saying that because of Beyoncé's platform, she does get attention from a younger audience, who may perceive the way she dresses or the messages in her music in a different way. I think that bell hooks is correct about the fact that she does have a younger audience and that as young people are easily persuaded or more likely to copy a "model" when acting in their own life.

My opinion differs from hers, however, regarding this and a few other things. For instance, as much as I understand that Beyoncé can dress provocatively and may be painting an image for young girls, I do not think that she can control her audience or that she is depicting sexualization.

On the first topic: I do not think that she should necessarily have to change the way she acts to be a role model. I do know children pick up on things, but there are some celebrities that are role models and some that just simply are not, and that is more of a parent's job than the celebrity's job to monitor that. (Although, there are some severe cases of celebrities who act immorally and should not use their platform to do so, but that is completely different.) Anything less from Beyoncé would seem like a fake representation of her brand. (It should also be noted that I do not think she is a bad role model in terms of sexuality.)

Second: I have very strong opinions about sexuality and being sexualized. For instance, if you are sexualized, that is at the hands of a man. Whether you choose to be sexualized or not, you will be. That is because the woman, quite honestly, has no control over what a man thinks of her. If he decides to sexualize her, that could be when she is wearing slightly more provocative clothing or when she is not showing much skin at all. A woman being sexualized is never a woman’s fault, and for a well-known feminist and activist to say that Beyoncé is teaching young girls it is okay to act that way and to be sexualized, I have to completely disagree.

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Woman-on-Woman Hate

On top of this, I have an issue with women bringing other women down. To me, unity and acceptance are largely what feminism should be about. bell hooks addressed Beyoncé at one point as a terrorist, saying that she defied the idea of feminism. To me, bell hooks saying anything to that degree, about another woman, defies what I define feminism as. Why should she care what Beyoncé wears? Why should she care how much skin she shows? That is what men do. They care about things that have nothing to do with them. Woman-on-woman hate and scrutiny is the opposite of what is needed.

The Limitations of Being a Woman

Do not get me wrong; as mentioned above, I can understand bell hooks’ idea of wanting to protect the future of women and not wanting to give them a negative idea. To be completely honest, I have seen this mentality in my grandmother, who I believe would be about bell hooks’ age. It is this idea that women have to protect themselves from men, and women have limitations simply because of the way men are.

I understand the intention of the message, and I also understand that sometimes, women do have to do things to protect themselves. However, that is very clearly not equal rights. This is not what feminists fight for. We don't want to limit ourselves so that men can’t sexualize us. We limit ourselves, and they still will.

Female Empowerment

I think that to Beyoncé, to many other women, and to myself, sexuality is yours. You should be free to dress how you like and act how you like, and that is because it is your body. So many issues that women fight for when it comes to feminism deal with this concept. It is our bodies.

I feel like Beyoncé’s intention is to empower. To show love for the body you are in. To embrace it. To feel sexy. The idea that a woman wants to feel sexy, but only and always for a man, is a perfect example of patriarchal thought. It is ridiculous. A woman may want to look good and feel sexy for herself. She may want to preach the message of self-love and feeling good to others. To me, that is an aspect of what feminism is.

It seems insane to me that feminism could ever be this idea of hating on other women for doing what they please with their bodies and lives. Women have been fighting men who say such things, and now they have to fight other women? Women should be bringing each other up and showing acceptance.

Then and Now: Moving Forward

bell hooks quite obviously came from a different time, when feminism and women’s rights were in a different place. The ideology of feminism has changed and stayed the same in many ways, but it has grown with the times. Although it is clear that bell hooks and Beyoncé belong to different waves of the movement, they are still both very much a part of the movement as a whole.

They both should accept each other and each other's beliefs whether they concur or disagree because women bringing up women and allowing women to be who they are is just as much a part of feminism in my eyes as fighting for equal rights among men. How can we expect a change in equality if we ourselves, as women, are still stuck in the same poisoned mentalities that tell us we are not entitled to our own bodies, actions, and rights?

We can’t.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2019 Riah Marie

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