Femme Feminism, or Exactly How “Pretty” Hurts

I’m using a Bey reference in the title not because I am going to write about Bey, but because all of the discussion surrounding “Lemonade” is what inspired this post.

A few days ago, iconic black feminist bell hooks posted a critique of “Lemonade” to her blog, and, since then, Bey supporters and detractors have been going back-and-forth about whether hooks was “right” or “wrong” to read the video as she did.

I don’t think you can ever say that a person’s interpretation or opinion of a piece of art is “right” or “wrong,” but I did have this to say about hooks’s blog post (on Facebook) after I read it:

Beyoncé is a pop star, not a feminist activist or scholar.

The work that bell hooks accuses her of not doing is not necessarily her work to do.

As she says, rather condescendingly, at the beginning of the piece, her job as a pop artist is to sell product. That she incorporates even a modicum of thoughtfulness into what she makes to sell is what I think gets people so excited about her product, since so many other artists make a lot of mindless shit.

So, yeah, [“Lemonade”] is flawed. As is most shit that humans make. And bell’s critique makes valid points about how it’s flawed.

But it also reeks of bitterness. Because Beyoncé’s music gets a level of attention that bell’s scholarship never has and probably never will. It’s made more “important” by the public. But that has more to do with the public’s conditioning and ignorance than anything else.

People don’t want to be educated or enlightened for the most part. They want to be entertained.

I happen to think Beyoncé does this well.

But bell can certainly disagree. She’s a wise woman. She says “Beyoncé’s representations of life can’t stand as truth.” And she’s right.

Everyone has their own truth. That a lot of black women’s runs perpendicular to Beyoncé’s story and artistic narrative is a happy coincidence that makes her a ton of money and fans and gives her fans a ton of validation and enjoyment.

That bell’s [truth] doesn’t necessarily run perpendicular to a lot of black women’s is unfortunate.

That her work is grounded in theory, though, rather than experience or emotion–doesn’t nullify the worth–however little–of Beyonce’s work.

Nor does it nullify the worth of bell’s.

The way I see it, hooks’s critique of “Lemonade” is a scholarly version of what many bloggers have to say about the work and Beyoncé as a feminist figure:

She can’t be taken seriously as a feminist because she engages so consistently and deeply with the male gaze and issues of cis-hetero love and sexuality.

Because she is aesthetically and ideologically femme.

It is just as Zeba Blay writes in her piece on Huffington Post:

“If you’re a fan of Beyoncé’s, and if her work resonates with you, it’s obviously frustrating to see Beyoncé’s feminism constantly questioned and critiqued, labeled as a gimmick or a shtick. Too often, Beyoncé’s feminism seems to be held to a higher standard than her white counterparts (the Taylor Swifts and Miley Cyrus’s of the world).”

And though bell hooks engages in similarly unfair criticism, I agree with Blay that “From hooks’ essay ha[ve] come important discussions about the ways in which we underestimate femme feminist women [and] . . . what we should (and shouldn’t) expect from our feminist pop cultural icons.”

I have already written about the latter issue on this blog (here); now, I want to write about femme black feminism. Or maybe I’m writing about feminism, period.

Either way, I just want to express a little about how oppressive it can be for feminists that are femme – women that want to look a certain way.

In a second blog post written in answer to Beyonce, in which hooks refutes claims that she is anti-“femme,” hooks writes:

“Throughout my career, I have insisted that we decolonize the black female body and celebrate its diverse manifestations. When anyone suggests I am anti-forms of feminine beauty, they are misguided. Highly critical of sexist defined notions of beauty, I can openly declare that I am against all forms of beauty that uphold systems of domination (race, sex, class, sexuality). Those who judge my appearance as existing outside a norm world of femininity must believe that femme glamour is only present in those who don traditional markers (makeup, big hair, stilettos, dresses).”

This sounds good, but the thing is–the definition of “femme” centers on traditional and even stereotypical representations or enactments of feminine beauty and sexuality.

The word is used to describe lesbians that look like and play a sexual role that is similar to cis-hetero women, and it is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a lesbian who is notably or stereotypically feminine in appearance and manner.”

So people aren’t incorrect when they define “femme glamour” as the embrace or appearance of traditional markers like make-up, heels, and dresses.

My argument here is that they are also not anti-feminist or failing at feminism.

To me, femme feminism–black, white, or otherwise–is understanding that, yes, you have been conditioned to characterize “femininity” and womanhood in certain ways–ways that were conceptualized by men and can feed into patriarchy and paternalism–but you can destabilize these characterizations by looking how “they” may want, if you want, and/but acting like you want. Being “feminine” on your own terms.

For some women, so-called “sexist defined notions of beauty” are oppressive, yes. These women should feel empowered to refute these notions of beauty, and feminism should definitely be a means of attaining and exercising that power.

But, for some women, wearing make-up–for example–is something they want to do.

They’ve read all of the tracts; they totally get that their natural beauty is sufficient; they understand the capitalist plot behind pawning off a standard of beauty that requires women to buy copious products to maintain it; but they still want to wear make-up.

I am one of these women. When I was younger, I wore make-up because I thought I looked underdeveloped and “plain” without it. Now, I wear it for artistic effect. I like a bright red lip drawing attention to the pleasing shape of my mouth. I like black eyeliner emphasizing the shape of my eyes. I like to contour my cheeks and play up my blessed, beautiful bone structure.

I like my face without make-up, but I like my face with make-up. I like looking different every day. I like playing with colors and types and intensities of shimmer on my skin. It’s fun for me.

I like wearing make-up, but I don’t wear heels for health reasons. I don’t like dresses because I don’t like having to think about how far apart I spread my legs when I’m sitting. I don’t like thongs because they’re uncomfortable. I like perfume, but I don’t like lacy underthings. I like jewelry, but I don’t like gems. I like flowers, but not on my clothing or bedclothes.

Yes, I do consider what I look like to men when I get dressed and “do” myself up every morning. Because I sleep with men. Because I love men. Because I want to be attractive to men. I am cis-hetero. I am a sexual being. I am a romantic. I am human. I want to connect with men. Not at the expense of my humanity, freedom, dignity, or health, but still.

And I should be able to want that–to feel that way about men–to look the way I want–without being accused of missing the “point” as a feminist.

And let’s not pretend that non-femme women don’t create certain appearances in order to be considered sexually attractive, too–at least in part.

Let’s not act like they’re wrong, either, for wanting to be considered sexually attractive.

Or simply wanting to like the way that they look. Or feel comfortable in their own skin.

Because, shit, we all do.

I think that’s the bottom-line.

We are all just seeking to feel comfortable as the people we are.

Feminism is supposed to be a vehicle for that, as I said. Not another dictatorial framework that makes us feel bad about ourselves as women or as people.

For me, feminism is the exact opposite of that. It is about having the choice to be whatever type of woman you want and demanding that your choices be respected.

I wrote, on an earlier version of this blog:

My fundamental belief is that women should be allowed to do the things that make the most sense for their lives, as long as they are legal and ethical, without being blocked by government actions, unfair laws, cultural expectations and/or attitudes, unhealthy relationships, or unwise decisions.

I’m talking about something as simple as a black woman wanting to relax her hair or wear it natural to something more serious like a woman (of any race) opting to terminate a pregnancy, have a baby without being married, or adopt a child with her lesbian lover . . .

[Feminism, for me, is] not anything other than living the type of womanhood I need to live . . .

[It] means speaking truth to stereotypes and myths of blackness and womanhood. Working to be empathetic, supportive, and respectful of other women in my everyday interactions.

My ethic is loving myself as deeply and religiously as I can; respecting, supporting, admiring, and honoring other women as much as I can; respecting, supporting, admiring, and honoring men as much as I can; and fighting against all things that violate my freedom of being as hard as I can.

It’s loving myself and others in useful thinking, plain English, and everyday action.

Here’s the thing, though: When I say I don’t want to be blocked by cultural expectations, I don’t just mean patriarchal expectations.

I also mean I don’t want to be blocked by “feminist” imperatives that I refute certain standards of beauty in order to prove that I’m a feminist or even just an intelligent or self-aware woman.

When I say I seek to fight against all things that violate my freedom, I also mean notions of feminism that equate traditional cis-hetero “glamour” with superficiality, ignorance, and, ultimately, disempowerment or weakness.

Ms. bell writes:

One can critique modes of glamour and still appreciate glamour. It’s not a binary either or world. That is why we have a feminist politics that works to liberate the female gaze, so we need never choose who is more committed to being beautiful. Truly, it is more essential and relevant to ask ourselves in what ways do how we live and work manifest commitment to justice and feminist politics.

It reads like she is assuming that a liberated female gaze will not see beauty in femme-ness because its origins are patriarchal, but, fuck it, I do.

When I was in grad school in Chicago, I had a lesbian professor that regularly asked these snide little questions about my relaxed hair (at the time), heels, make-up, and regular visits from my boyfriend every time I came to her office. 

It never failed. She would look me up-and-down at least once during any meeting we had, bite her lip as if she regretted having to do what she was about to do, and then ask “Do you always . . .?” And I always felt so belittled and angry in response.

It felt like she was passive-aggressively saying that a “real” scholar wouldn’t look the way I did or do the things I did.

But I earned straight As in my doctoral program. I earned an A in her course. I took German for the first time in my life, five days a week, for five weeks, five hours a day, and got an A. I was a brilliant and accomplished student, a skilled thinker, a dope-ass writer (naturally), a bad-ass femme, and a black feminist, all at the same time.

That she couldn’t imagine that I could be all those things at once was a reflection of her limited thinking, not mine.

She was stuck in a binary, in which one is either “glamorous” and frivolous or “austere” and serious.

She was thinking along the lines of the patriarchy–that a feminine woman is lesser somehow–without seeming to realize it.

(This is what I meant when I wrote “pretty hurts.”)

Despite what Professor X thought, though, I am not lesser because I am “feminine.”

I define “feminine”–or “femme”–for myself.

I have arrived at my definition after years of experimentation, too.

I absolutely went through phases when I wouldn’t wear make-up, I wore my hair faded, I wore dresses every single day, I bought all of my underwear from Victoria’s Secret, I wore baggy jeans and tennis shoes, I wore flannels, I wore clunky platforms, I wore sheer shirts and tight jeans, heels every day, earrings every day, decorative scarves, I got tattoos, I wore newsboy hats and blazers, and here I am.

I wasn’t just spit out by the “machine.” I understand the constructed nature of beauty standards–the way they are used to impose power–but I still reserve the right to like what I like. To do what I do.

My uniform right now is a tunic, leggings, and flats. I wear black, white, grey, and shades of blue only.

I wear peach perfume and a full MAC beat when I feel like it.

I have an afro that I’m trying to grow to astronomical lengths.

I don’t own one dress.

I paint my nails metallic black.

I get my eyebrows waxed on a regular basis. I shave my legs and pits.

I wear full-on cotton briefs because my ass is big and comfort-plus-coverage is my ethic when it comes to waist-down undergarments.

I wear underwire bras because I’m a bit self-conscious about my boobs (I’m a 40DD), but I still want them sitting up prettily when my boyfriend looks over at them. When I look at myself in a mirror.

I am a femme of my own feminist making–I do what I do because I choose to do it and not out of ignorance or coercion.

I grapple with what I do day-to-day and year-to-year and calibrate it–I make sure that whatever I am doing in the way of creating my appearance is, in fact, a choice and my choice–that I am doing it for my pleasure first and foremost.

It is essential to me to live my politics by looking how I want.

It is also essential to me that I be accepted–as a femme and feminist–by feminists that are not femmes.

Because I accept them. I embrace them.

And we’re supposed to be sisters . . .








5 thoughts on “Femme Feminism, or Exactly How “Pretty” Hurts

  1. Discussed this issue with my daughter and it ended up in an argument.
    I’m no Beyonce fan, but I do think in her own way she has done a good thing by using her celebrity to highlight some serious issues. Yes she is an entertainer and would seek ways to make her output stand out from that of her peers; but she has got people talking about blackness and how it is perceived by Blacks and other races. This is not a bad thing. One of my exes who is White, finally came to the realisation that he had fetishised Black women all his adult life, as he had exclusively dated Black women, (as I said, he is an ex…). This epiphany was a result of heated discussions about Lemonade and the issues it raises for review.
    I think some people expect too much from Beyonce; she has merely presented some songs and videos to show how she and her co-writers understand what they see happening in the world. She didn’t suddenly become an academic or philosopher or spokeswoman for all Black women, nor has she claimed to be any of those things.

    Some of the people shouting that Beyonce did not go far enough just remind me of feminists who look down on other women who choose to wear make up, pretty dresses and work at home looking after their families. It’s like “if your consciousness or feminism looks different to mine, then it’s not real and cannot be taken seriously”…which is just crap.
    We need to learn to accept each other’s expression of feminism and consciousness, and support each other without comparing levels or perceived authenticity.

    One of my cousins is the most militant feminist I know, yet when her boyfriend didn’t work for 18 months or so, and she was the only breadwinner in their household for that period; she saw no irony in the situation that saw her coming back from work, doing all the cooking, cleaning, etc., while her boyfriend just played video games all day and night; yet she was shouting about gender equality from the rooftops.

    Thank you for this piece, I’ve sent my daughter a link.


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