Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Core Response #4: Postfeminist Commodification and the Beyonce Conundrum

In her essay entitled “What’s Your Flava: Race and Postfeminism in Media Culture,” Sarah Banet-Weiser argues that “the contradictory media representations of girl power and urbanization function as a particular kind of politics and as such work to constitute audiences as particular kinds of cultural citizens” (223). Discussing how corporate media strategically employs “diversity” casting and images of “powerful” women to appeal to broader audiences and encourage consumption, Banet-Weiser illuminates the ways in which popular culture has constructed a view of the United States that assumes a postracial and postfeminist landscape - one in which the goals of the civil rights and women’s liberation movements have been achieved, and the critiques offered by these movements no longer need to be assessed. In this environment, race and gender are marketable and consumable traits, divested of their inherent political implications (203). The result of this postracial and postfeminist logic is that signifiers of race, gender, class, etc are construed merely as fluctuating traits among individuals to be celebrated, rather than as traits that are implicated in, by, and through larger structural forces of power. Consequently, critiques addressing inequalities between races, genders, etc, are  often construed as irrational and unfounded. The election of an African-American president assures us that the United States no longer has a “race problem,” and the existence of exceptionally successful women, like Sheryl Sandberg and Hillary Clinton, “proves” that women can “have it all.” Yet as Stefania notes in her post below, the images we are fed of these exceptionally successful individuals ignores the struggles (both historically and presently) women and non-white communities must overcome to even be afforded a slight opportunity at cracking through the many glass ceilings in their ways. And while a few individuals may be able to reach the top, communities of color continue to be disproportionally affected by socioeconomic inequality, the prison-industrial complex, hiring discrimination, and lack of access to the resources necessary to be upwardly mobile. 

Banet-Weiser’s connections between the postracial and postfeminist discourses in popular culture are particularly important, as debates over the “correct” way to practice feminism continue to take place within feminist circles, and these debates are made even more complicated when the history of racial subjugation is taken into account. One of the more interesting debates that has unfolded recently has been over Beyonce’s self-identification as a feminist, and what Beyonce’s image means for a liberatory feminist politics. Beyonce has received heavy critique from a number of (often white) feminists who see her sexualized performances as a misguided understanding of female liberation. They have argued that Beyonce’s image continues to cater to the male gaze, thus reifying patriarchal norms while masquerading as an autonomous choice of individual expression. However, a number of non-white feminists have asserted that Beyonce’s ownership of her own sexuality is radical for a woman of color. In a piece for Natural Hair Mag, freelance writer Aphrodite Kocieda (who holds an MA in Communications and Gender Studies and is the creative force behind the webseries Black Feminist Blogger), deconstructs the tendency of white feminists to criticize the sexualized performances of artists like Beyonce and Nicki Minaj as counterproductive to Black liberation. Kocieda notes a knee-jerk reaction from well-meaning white feminists to link sexualized imagery of African-American women to the history of slavery and colonialism, and the specific ways in which African bodies were objectified through these processes. The idea is that these images propagate the dehumanization of the Black body, but for Kocieda, these critiques deny any kind of agency to the artists doing the performing, and continue to conscript our understanding of Blackness through a white-centric gaze. Kocieda calls this “The Baartman Effect,” a reference to Saartjie Baartman, who was taken from Africa and displayed in "freak shows" because of her different body proportions. Kocieda defines The Baartman Effect as “the idea that black women’s bodies were only created when white people first saw them. We became socially and historically relevant through slavery, and because of that, we can’t possibly exist without the gaze of whiteness. Within this configuration, white people seemingly have the right to define black women’s images forever because they created them.”  

Herein lies the Beyonce conundrum: on the one hand, Beyonce’s status as a performer, whose body and image is commodified and sold by nature of her profession, risks reifying patriarchal norms by catering to the male gaze. This risk is further complicated (and perhaps even overdetermined) by her blackness and the still unresolved legacy of slavery, which makes the commodification of her physical body even more troublesome. At the same time, Beyonce’s unapologetic ownership of her own sexuality, and her agency in deciding when and how she will perform, arguably offers a radical rescripting of the production and distribution of the image of Black womanhood. As Professor Brittney Cooper commented to NPR, “[Beyonce asks] us to think about what it means for black women to be sexual on [their] own terms.”    

 In an article written for Salon, Cooper continues, “Beyoncé’s feminism, like all of ours, is evolving, offering her a language to understand what it means to be a black woman in this moment in history with the level of power, capital and sex appeal that she possesses. That she both embraces and grapples with the language of feminism so forthrightly is something worth applauding.  And what I learn from her and appreciate her for is that she provides a grammar for unapologetic black female pleasure in a world that only loves black women’s affect, verve and corporeality, when white women like Iggy Azalea, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus adopt and perform it.”  

In the postracial, postfeminist landscape, it becomes increasingly difficult to theorize what a radical anti-racist, feminist, and truly egalitarian project would look like. How do we begin to break free from the structures of patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism, and heteronormativity, when these structures continue to adapt themselves and appropriate commodified versions of feminism and diversity, masking their continuing existence? The Beyonce Conundrum is just one example of the (im)possibility of imagining what an empowered representation of Black womanhood would look like within the context of these hegemonic structures. 

-Eszter Zimanyi 

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