Beyonce’s declarations of feminism — and the ensuing conversations by those who label her “feminist lite” — have only added fuel to an ongoing discussion of modern-day gender studies, issues of black vs. white feminism, and how Queen Bey fits into it all.
That said, it’s no surprise that a University of Illinois at Chicago professor created a class on Beyonce and black feminist thought. “Beyonce: Critical Feminist Perspectives and U.S. Black Womanhood” challenges students to compare and contrast their knowledge of the superstar with classic black feminist essays by bell hooks, Angela Davis and others. And just like the Beyhive, it’s quite popular.
“It’s really new terrain,” says research assistant professor Jennifer Richardson. After releasing the class news in December, the department swiftly had to earmark several spaces for Gender and Women’s Studies students before the class filled up. Plus, there was some necessary weeding. “Before students got into the class, I had them fill out a form. It’s not a fan club. [I needed] to see they had some type of critical analysis.”
The first assignment was fun: Pick out Beyonce’s top songs of all time. From there, the class would analyze songs and videos within the black feminist rubric. “Survivor,” “Independent Women,” “Upgrade U,” “Flawless,” “Flawless remix” and “Pretty Hurts” all made the 16-song cut. Now, nearly a month into class, things are getting more difficult.
Everyone’s asking if Beyonce is a feminist, but Richardson says the reasons people are asking the question are more interesting than the answers. But first, let’s review some background. At last year’s MTV Video Music Awards, while wearing a bejeweled, bodysuit bustier, Beyonce stood before a giant sign that read “feminist” and the crowd heard a sample of a TEDx speech by writer Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie. Moments later, the star accepted a Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award , hugged her husband, Jay-Z and kissed her child, Blue Ivy.
Some were proud that a feminist could embody the same body as a sexual, man-loving, child-having, LGBT-supporting, God-fearing, millionaire-making pop star who represents black women. Others said, in part, that Beyonce didn’t qualify as feminist, because she represents unattainable, Euro-centric beauty standards, or because some of her imagery — including that as a mother and wife — buys into a some men’s view of what a woman should look like. And in December, Beyonce released an 11.5-minute video discussing all these things.
In part, she said:
I’ve always considered myself a feminist, although I was always afraid of that word because people put so much on it. When honestly, it’s very simple. It’s just a person that believes in equality for men and women. Men and women balance each other out, and we have to get to a point where we are comfortable with appreciating each other.
“Annie Lennox called her feminist lite,” explains Richardson, referring to the Anglo, blond-haired, blue-eyed British star of 1980s band the Eurythmics. [Lennox backtracked on that comment, but then followed up last fall by saying that “Twerking is not feminism.“]
And then there are the detractors who have famously challenged the Queen Bey. “They do not want to adopt what Beyonce is doing into their brand of feminism,” said Richardson. “Her image is political; she’s departing from her blackness in her physical aesthetic. Why does she look the way she looks? That brings us to a conversation about how aesthetics and celebrities are political and can black feminists alone be the lens that we look at her through?”
Rutgers University professor Kevin Allred has been teaching “Politicizing Beyonce” since 2010. His is the first Beyonce-specific class to garner mass media attention. Bey herself has acknowledged Allred’s class, and her management confirms that they follow his teachings closely.
“She says she’s a feminist. I think we should take her at her word,” Allred says. “There is a lot of racial stuff; the views of black feminists having to [for example] decide between the civil rights movement and feminist movement, and black feminists taking the lead. And now Mike Huckabee is criticizing her and people are saying she shows too much skin to be a feminist.”
Allred won’t post his syllabus online, though the class does have a website, www.politicizingbeyonce.com. Richardson, who is also penning a book on Beyonce, would not give this reporter her syllabus and won’t give the syllabus in its entirety to the class. Each week the students get a new reading list; there is no list of books to buy from the student store. That’s because in the university world, apparently ideas — including teaching methods — get stolen. Teaching Beyonce is a hot commodity.
“Gender and Popular Culture is one of our most popular classes, and so when Jennifer Richardson, our clinical research assistant professor, proposed the course on Beyonce during our course-planning process for this semester, we thought it would be a great opportunity for our students to think critically about the world around them,” said Jennifer Brier, the director of the gender and women’s studies department, via email. “This course, as with all of the gender and studies courses offered at UIC, is successful when students learn how to think and write critically about how and why gender matters and that gender cannot be understood in a vacuum, apart from ideas about race, class and sexuality.”
Richardson won’t answer whether or not she’s a Beyonce fan. But she will say this:
“I’m fascinated by Beyonce. There are songs of hers that are my jam that I love. But I don’t know that I appreciate everything that she seems to embody. However, what I love is how complex she is and that we are in a moment in popular culture where we get to actually see a dynamic, multidimensional black woman who everyone — no matter their age — knows. Like Michelle Obama, I think that’s a significant phenomena to examine.”
Adrienne Samuels Gibbs is a writer for The Chicago Sun-Times and can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Tweet her @adriennewrites