The Beyoncé Conversation: Feminism, Black Women and The Presumption Of Sexual Agency

The Beyoncé Conversation: Feminism, Black Women and The Presumption Of Sexual Agency
 

It's been a while since I've posted a substantial essay, but I wanted to stop in and talk about an issue that's very important to me as a black, sex-positive feminist. That is, sex, obviously; specifically the sex that black women are or are not having, and how the conversation about their sexual agency keeps getting derailed.

As I've written about several times now, (herehere and relatedly here) conversations about sex and sexuality become very different when you are talking about a black body. This is because of the historical context of the negative sexual stereotypes that were applied to those bodies in order to dehumanize, subjugate and ridicule them, and elevate white (female) sexuality in the process. Black men were uncontrollable, brute savages who would rape a white woman as soon as look at her, and black women were lascivious whores, always searching for a dick, unrapeable by their very existence.

The loaded racist history of these still prevalent tropes leaves black women especially, in a misogynoirist double bind. Either we deny our sexuality entirely in order to be considered respectable and worthy (not so coincidentally placing ourselves firmly into Mammy territory), or embrace our sexuality, as all women should have the right to do, and be seen as a confirmation of negative black sexual stereotypes. In effect, our choices as sexual beings are wrapped up in a lose-lose catch-22 that denies our agency from the outset, and punishes us for trying to exercise it. All the while, black women's bodies continue to be used to ridicule our very existence and deify white female sexuality.

So what does this have to do with Beyoncé? Everything.

It's been a whirlwind year for Mrs. Carter; from her Superbowl performance, to her worldwide tour, to her surprise album, to her performance at the Grammys. And in all of that, there's been a constant refrain that her feminism somehow needs policing because of her refusal to shy away from sexual imagery, especially in light of the highly sexual content of her new album. The prevailing sentiment seems to be that her sex is "commercial" sex; designed only to titillate and arouse. Her sex is performative. Her sex is solely for the benefit of an adoring, and presumably paying, audience. I call bullshit:

For whatever (very racist) reasons, people, many of them claiming to be feminist, are really,really  uncomfortable with the idea that a beautiful, successful, powerful black woman might WANT to be sexual. From the predictable reactions to Beyoncé at the Superbowl, to the reactions to Beyoncé's GQ photoshoot, to the reactions to Beyoncé's album, to the reactions to Beyoncé's performance at the Grammys, it became clear that the problem wasn't Beyoncé, but rather Beyoncé being sexy. As she talks about in Part 5 of her documentary embedded above, Beyoncé spent a lot her career "playing it safe" sexually, because she felt a responsibility to keep things clean for her fans. In the process, she felt like she was never able to fully express every side of her personality; including the part that likes to get freaky with her boo-thang in the back of a limo.

So here we have Beyoncé, a hyper-visible, successful, billionaire black woman and entertainer, one half of one of the top-earning couples in the world, explicitly detailing how she came to the decision to "let her freak flag fly" for this album. Here Beyoncé tells us specifically her motivations for moving in a more sexually explicit direction. Here she explains how she has always felt obligated to leave that part of herself on the cutting room floor.

And then we have people insisting that Beyoncé's sexuality is nothing more than an overplayed ploy to capture male attention.

What upsets me most about shallow critiques like this is that these "accusations" for want of a better word always operate under the assumption that black women do not have any sexual agency, or that any show of sexuality is a confirmation of racist stereotypes. There is never any room left in the conversation for the possibility that the motivation behind a display of sexuality comes from within. It presumes that all female sexuality is in pursuit of the male gaze. This idea is the single biggest problem that I have with Rashida Jones' assertion that pop stars need to "stop being whores." Her limited worldview doesn't allow for the women who choose to be overtly sexual because it is the way they are most comfortable expressing that side of themselves. The issue becomes "you're not being sexual the right way; the modest, decent, lady-like way." But that's bullshit. There is no "right" way to be sexual, and a woman, (even a black one!) has a right to be sexual in any way that she so chooses.

What Beyoncé learned in her journey to (black) feminism is what she consequently taught all the black women who jammed out to Partition in the days after her album's release: to be carefree, to be sexual, to eschew stereotype threat for personal choice is to live radically. As @jaythenerdkid says in a series of tweets storyfied here:

 

"For a black woman to be immodest by CHOICE and not coercion is thus a radical act, because it re-empowers and re-centers her desires. [...] It is radical to exist sexually while black."

 

In certain feminist circles, there is this idea that sexuality and feminism don't mix if you're not white. White women are given a presumption of sexual agency that isn't afforded to their black counterparts. A cursory glance at the media treatment of stars like Miley Cyrus and Lily Allen versus Rihanna and Nicki Minaj proves this. Just look at one publication's treatment of Miley Cyrus and Nicki Minaj, and their individual choices to wear revealing clothing.

 
 

White female celebrity's expressions of sexuality are often seen as empowering and feminist, whilst black female celebrity's expressions of sexuality are deemed offensive, lewd, inauthentic, and stemming from the powerful hand of someone higher up the food chain. The word "puppet" tends to get thrown quite a bit. Even Oprah Winfrey, self-made billionaire, builder of an entire media empire and all-round Queen of the World, can be reduced to her naked body at the whim of a white consuming public. After everything she has accomplished in her career, Oprah, with all her achievements, is nothing more than fodder for one racist designer's publicity stunt as a fat, black woman on a dress.

 
 

But the thing is, white ladies have so many sexually liberating role models in mass media. We as black women, have a right to our own too, especially because we need them so much more. The truth is that the way the media interacts with Beyoncé is just an easily identifiable case study that spotlights the way we interface with black women's sexuality on a larger scale.

Still not convinced? I challenge you to ask yourself this question: 

What does sexual agency in the public eye look like?

Which pop stars are being sexual on a world stage because they want to be, and not because they're being forced to in order to sell records? If all the examples you come up with are white, you've proved my point. As I say in my essay on Sexual Exploitation and Black Female Celebrities, where I focus on Rihanna and Nicki Minaj's respective "stripper anthems" and explain why I find them each to be quite feminist and empowering:

 

"That conversation is about the distinction between the exploitation of black women's sexuality for the (white) male consumerist gaze, and a black female celebrity's reclamation of her own sexuality on her own terms. For whatever reason, there seems to be some difficulty in grasping the concept that the most significant difference between these two scenarios is agency, and the way in which the presence or lack of agency determines how a display of sexuality is to be perceived and received."

"[...] To say that a black woman being sexual or expressing sexuality in public is automatically equal to "exploiting themselves" is to deny them agency. White women claiming their sexuality has always come to be seen as and accepted as revolutionary (see: Lady Gaga, Madonna). People (and white feminists) hail that act as progressive. But for a black woman (and all women of colour) to do the same, it is treated as dirty and crass. There is a very distinct racialized reaction to the two scenarios."

 

We are never going to be able to move past this conversation until we acknowledge that black women have every right to feel and be sexual. They have every right to be seen as human first, and sexual second, instead of the other way around. Most importantly, black women deserve to be seen as sexual on an individual basis, and not have to combat the racist sexual stereotypes forced upon her foremothers. So what's the difference between owning our sexuality and letting others exploit it? 

Agency.

The difference is freedom from negative consequence or pushback regardless of how one chooses to express that sexuality. The difference is choice. The difference is personal motivation. The difference is the ability to control the boundaries about how your expressions of sexuality are packaged, presented and consumed.

I'd say Yoncé fits the bill.