I was delighted when bell hooks called Beyonce a terrorist. It isn’t because I have any particular scorn for the deified star, or that I actually think she is threatening, but more so it was simply a treat to see hooks getting some attention. And after all, calling a beloved celebrity in America a terrorist is, sadly, at the very least, newsworthy.
But I was let down, almost immediately, as it became another missed opportunity for much needed cultural scrutiny. The coverage was reduced to banal clickbait headlines, “Beyonce—a Terrorist?” and feminists calling other feminists bad feminists. Meanwhile, Bill O’Reilly, per usual, moralized sex for the conservative right. And The Atlantic, somehow thought it a good idea to try and compare hooks to O’Reilly, which was a goddamned travesty.
Nobody cared to give the black feminist who taught at Yale the time of day. Nobody cared trace her arguments. Jezebel tried to do this and failed, and then called her the old aunt at the dinner table. hooks is a philosopher who has written some 30 books. A far cry from your aunt.
Before getting into why all of that is an issue, let’s first ask this one question: who in the shit is bell hooks? bell hooks, intentionally not capitalized, is the pen name for Gloria Jean Watkins. A black feminist and critical theorist, her work analyzes the intersections of capitalism, race, and gender through a postmodern framework. What this means, in the vein of Hennessy Youngman, is that bell hooks doesn’t give a fuck who your daddy or mommy is, and what they taught you. It’s actually best you throw that knowledge in the trash to understand cultural theory, anyway.
Let’s walk through some of hooks’ arguments as to why she might see Beyonce and when I say Beyonce here I don’t mean Beyonce Knowles, the woman, is a terrorist, I’m talking Beyonce as a brand as a product of hostility. When hooks said that Beyonce, “is colluding in the construction of herself as a slave,” just who is she accusing Beyonce of colluding with? A racist capitalist consumer culture, that’s who.
Rich Juzwiak at Gawker wished for hooks to write an essay on Beyoncé’s “specific terrorism.” Well, luckily hooks has an entire book of essays called Black Looks: Race and Representation, and one essay in particular stands out as useful here: Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance. hooks says,
“The commodification of Otherness has been so successful it is offered as a new delight, more intense, more satisfying than normal ways of doing and feeling. Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes ‘spice,’ seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is white culture.” (21)
What hooks wants us to recognize is that the entertainment industry, this applies to apexcelebrities especially, is bound at the hip to a capitalist consumer culture, a culture which hooks believes is racist. In the quote above, hooks is arguing that black identity is not being embraced like it is claimed to be and that Beyonce is not empowering women, but rather she is selling a commodified black identity. Black identity, according to hooks, has become the “spice” that makes the normalized, perhaps even stale, white identity something more endurable. hooks is critical of Beyonce and other black artists (especially blackmale artists) because they are selling an identity to,
“Masses of young people dissatisfied by U.S. imperialism, unemployment, lack of economic opportunity, afflicted by the postmodern malaise of alienation, no sense of grounding, no redemptive identity, [who] can be manipulated by cultural strategies that offer Otherness as appeasement, particularly through commodification.” (25)
The consumption of the Other’s identity is a cultural phenomenon that hooks calls, eating the other. Given that Beyonce reaps the benefits from this consumption, she is indeed in collusion with the commodification of black identity, which hooks might equate with an act of terrorism. Given the history of black culture in America, she may not be all that off in doing so. Or, perhaps you believe in myths of progress that, “things are getting better.”
So we know because of Marx that commodities are not simple objects people buy and consume. They are more complex than that, complex enough that an entire race of people can become commodified. What hooks says Beyonce is then—intentionally or unintentionally—selling is, not only an identity but also an experience of Otherness, an experience people consume to become, breaking through the boring white identity that has flourished ever since the 50’s. The systems of power that create fixed, static identities, coincidentally, hooks calls, ‘a terrorizing force’ (22).
In this vein, hooks has the ammo against Beyonce for taking part in the commodification of “blackness.” Maybe it’s not Beyonce’s fault that everybody wants to eat her. But hooks wants us to embrace black culture, however in a racist, capitalist consumer culture, we are not embracing blackness at all, we are eating it. According to hooks,
“Currently, the commodification of difference promotes paradigms of consumption wherein whatever difference the Other inhabits is eradicated, via exchange, by a consumer cannibalism that not only displaces the Other but denies the significance of that Other’s history through a process of decontextualization” (31).
This is precisely why she sees Beyonce (again, not her as a self, but Beyonce: the brand, the icon) as hostile. And it is not only Beyonce that hooks is critical of; she says this about other black artists,
“Work by other black artists that is overtly political and radical is rarely linked to an oppositional political culture. When commodified it is easy for consumers to ignore political messages. And even though a product like rap articulates narratives of coming to critical political consciousness, it also exploits stereotypes and essentialist notions of blackness (like black people have natural rhythm and are more sexual).” (34)
Even if you disagree with what hooks has to say about the current climate of culture and entertainment, we can at least now engage with her arguments and take it upon ourselves to reflect, to be critical. And not reduce her to the old aunt at the dinner table. hooks ends her work much better than I, and what you’ve read is hardly my work, I’ve just guided you through why, using hooks’ logic, she is right in seeing Beyonce (and many others) as hostile. Here is what hooks is afraid of, and I think we should all be wary,
“The overriding fear is that cultural, ethnic, and racial differences will be continually commodified and offered up as new dishes to enhance the white palate—that the Other will be eaten, consumed, and forgotten.” (39)
For as enlightened as America claims to be, we still do not know how to embrace much of anything. However, we are All-Stars at buying, selling, and seeking pleasure in things, and only then feeling guilty over not enjoying it quite enough.