What Becomes A Feminist Most?

The flexibility of feminism...

The flexibility of feminism…

I’m going to start off by apologizing profusely to those readers of The Mad (political) Scientist that were hoping to see the 2013 People Who Need To Be Punched In The Face Awards as the first official post on our new WordPress.com site. The nominations have been made, the votes have been counted, and the Sluggos are all set…

But as I was getting ready to let you know who you, my readers, picked to get a figurative (not literal) punch in the face, I found myself involved in a discussion of feminism, feminists of color, and who gets to identify themselves as such….

Or at least that’s how it started. By the end of the day, I had read another piece that made me want to tell everyone having this discussion to shut the hell up…especially if you bought a copy of R. Kelly’s new album Black Panties. If that, or anything else from R. Kelly, is in your record collection, you don’t get to call yourself a feminist anymore. Period. I’m gonna need for you to shut your hypocritical pie hole.

(I like pie hole. I think I may use it more often.)

I’ll start from the beginning.

In case you’ve been in a cave in Afghanistan or pay no attention at all to pop culture, Beyonce’ released a new album on I-Tunes on Thursday. The magnum opus is only available on I-Tunes and includes 17 videos to go with 14 songs (!), many of which are apparently autobiographical. She released it without any studio promotion and because it’s on I-Tunes, directly to her fans. You’ll be able to find it at most record stores around the country on Dec. 20.

It’s actually not a bad idea on her part. Beyonce’ has already sold close to 900,000 copies worldwide and will be coming in to the Billboard 200 at Number One when it’s announced. My guess is that her promotional budget isn’t all that large on this and because she shot a lot of the videos while on tour, travel budgets weren’t that rough and tumble either.

While you expect a Beyonce’ album to ignite a lot of conversation, it’s only one type of conversation that’s kind of caught my interest: a conversation on feminism and women of color.

Editor’s note: I have not heard this album in its entirety, nor have I seen any of the videos in full. You can’t buy singles or individual videos from this album until Dec. 20. Since I don’t have the cash to plunk down on an album that will basically be a review copy for me, I’m not going to discuss the album itself at all. I will, however, be looking at the wider discussion of Beyonce’ and feminism that the album has initiated. So Beyhivers, stand down. I’m not in the mood and when we get to the second part of this piece, you’ll see why. 

I was at home watching a segment of the Melissa Harris-Perry Show on MSNBC when the connection between this album and feminism came up. Harris-Perry and her panelists made the argument that Beyonce’ stands as the entertainer’s “feminist manifesto”. Here’s the segment:

Now the main tune that everyone seems to have focused on in terms of giving Beyonce’ her feminist cred is a  tune that’s been referenced here on the M(p)S before, one we will refer to as The Song Formerly Known As “Bow Down”. For the new collection (I don’t know if I should call it an LP or a CD because you can’t pick it up terrestrially yet…) its been mixed with a speech entitled “Why We Should All Be Feminists” that activist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave as part of the TED Talks series and given a new title: “Flawless”.

So because I’m a glutton for punishment, and because Melissa Harris-Perry is someone whose opinion I respect a whole lot, I asked the question “Is Beyonce’ a feminist?” on my Facebook page during the latest East Coast Snowmaggedon Saturday night.

I think that the best initial response that I got to this question came from the lovely and talented Kellie C. Murphy, who blogs a lot about stuff like this. She said, and I quote, “Girl, just go stand outside right now with a key attached to a kite. You’ll go much quicker and easier…” She wasn’t totally wrong about that because,  let’s face it, Beyonce’ is the Third Rail of Black Entertainment. If you touch her, you will be electrocuted…

The answers I got were interesting…and also depended on your definition of feminism.

For the people who were in the “Beyonce’ is a feminist” camp, her new music is a feminist manifesto because it shows a woman who is using her ability to make her own choices to be a performer, a wife, a mother, and in the case of the song “Partition”, a woman who is willing to ruin a nice evening gown by letting her man get it a little messy in the back of the limousine. Anyone who doesn’t realize this is taking things a bit too seriously…or maybe academically…

From the Crunk Feminist Collective: 

“We need to stop acting like a radical feminist is the only kind of feminist to be. I mean look, I’m radical and committed to a robust structural critique. But I appreciate the good few liberal feminists in Congress who show up and actually fight for reproductive rights that can be on the books! As Meek Mill says, there’s levels to the shit. But newsflash – everybody didn’t go to college. So when women of color start waxing eloquent about how our grandmothers and mothers were the first feminists we knew and many of them would “never” use the term, I wonder then why we don’t understand Beyonce’s homegrown brand of feminism – one that honors female friendships, one that recognizes and calls out sexism and domination in her industry, one that celebrates the power of women. No, it ain’t well-articulated radical social justice feminism, but if you need a Ph.D. to be a feminist, then we’ve got bigger problems, folks. AND I’ll take a feminist that knows how to treat her homegirls before one who can spit the finer points of a bell hooks to me all day erry-day.”

(Maybe it’s a bias I picked up from spending so much time listening to the music of The Children Of The Corn, but I had a hard time getting past the Meek Mill section of this critique to get to the rest of it. When you shout out one of the Patron Saints of Rap Music Sexism, you kind of make it a slog…)

On the other hand, some feminists of color (and most traditional, read: “white” feminists) felt that calling Beyonce’ a feminist makes as much sense as calling me an astrophysicist. In their eyes, Beyonce’s brand of feminism is a corporate friendly one that advocates for her freedoms…and no one else’s.

Probably the most provocative essay I read on this came from the blog Real Colored Girls and it caught my attention because any essay that uses Pimp Theory as part of a critique on feminism is going to get the attention of a smart ass like me. The argument that the post “The Problem With BeyHive Bottom Bitch Feminism” makes is that…

Well, let’s let them say it…

“As womanists and black feminists, we have a responsibility to bring it with our cultural work which we will infuse, at all times, with an ethic of care and responsibility. The coontocracy of assimilationist corporate negroes is in full effect, riding for patriarchal capitalist agendas and having us believe that somehow Bey’s success is a step toward some dystopic vision of progress for Black women. There may be empowerment for some folks but by and large it is a false hope steeped in capitalism and individualism, supporting the escapist desires of rampant pornographic consumerism.”

(Can I tell you that “coontocracy” is one of my new favorite words now?)

 As I said toward the beginning of this piece, I can’t really talk about the good or bad of Beyonce’ because I haven’t heard all of it.
But I’ve been a feminist of color for a minute…and I’m a little concerned about the group of newly minted Feminist Beyhivers this album has spawned.
My question is, what happens when their new icon is no longer interested in female empowerment? What happens when Beyonce’, Blue Ivy, and Jay Z finally retreat to that private island that some of us wish they’d go to right now?

What I want my young sisters who are finally starting to embrace what women like Shirley Chisholm, Rosa Parks (didn’t know she was a feminist, did you?) and others have been fighting to get them to understand for years is that feminism is not a pair of Christian Louboutin pumps. It isn’t rolling around in the sand with your baby and your man. It isn’t million selling records. It’s a movement. It has been for a minute. It’s a fight to get poor women equal pay and the contraception they need to be able to choose when they want to have children. It’s making sure that they’re not scapegoated when they ask for help because some in society see their circumstances as problematic. It’s about making sure that they’re protected when they’re being abused and that their abuse is taken seriously.

In other words, It’s a marathon. Not a sprint. And it requires that you fight, really fight, for the sanctity of women and girls.

Some of us do that all the time. There’s an attorney named Gina McCauley who started a blog called “What About Our Daughters?” and has been known to go for the mattresses whenever young Black girls and women are threatened. There’s also folks like Sabrina Lamb, who got the folks at the Oxygen cable network to change their minds about a show called “All My Baby’s Mamas” featuring a rapper named Shawty-Lo and his band of baby mamas, by protesting, getting media attention, and showing the show’s advertisers the error of their ways.

But sometimes, feminists, even feminists of color, drop the ball. When Shirley Chisholm became the first woman to run for president, she was a woman alone. Unlike Hillary Clinton, whose partisans went so far as to say that Black journalists on the campaign trail were so in Barack Obama’s pocket that they received marching orders via telephone every morning when the former Secretary of State  ran for office in 2008, Chisholm was attacked on all sides with no support from the troops. When Michelle Obama was called a “baby mama” on Fox News, “fat” by Rush ‘Why haven’t you gone to Costa Rica yet?’ Limbaugh, and became the subject of a number of gorilla pictures by various right wing groups, the silence from feminists on her behalf was also quite deafening.

But none of that compares to how the group of girls who found themselves victimized by The Chickenhawk That Ate Chicago were treated…

She appears age appropriate at least...

She appears age appropriate at least…

On Monday while everyone was giving far too much thought to Beyonce’, I noticed a story from the Village Voice on my Facebook news feed. The story, done by Jessica Hopper, was an interview with Jim DeRogatis, the reporter that broke the story of what i’ll call R. Kelly’s Young Girl Problem.

While the subject matter caught my attention, I found the 11 times that the story had been shared by my Facebook friends even more interesting. When 11 folks in my circle of friends, a circle that includes journalists, activists, business people and even a few former pro athletes, are sharing the same article, it’s important. The number of share-ers has gone up since then.

And between the story itself, the legal documents, and the Chicago Sun-Times stories that had to be pulled off of Lexis-Nexis because they’re no longer a part of the newspaper’s archives, I made a decision. If you want to call yourself a feminist of any color in my presence, you’d better not be playing music from R. Kelly when you do it. I’d better not see a copy of Black Panties on your I-Tunes playlist.

That’s because we feminists let these girls down. Let them down hard. And I say this because this guy still has a career. If you’re gonna call yourself a feminist around me while dancing to “Step In The Name Of Love”, I’m going to invite you to go to Wrigley Field in Chicago and take as many seats as humanly possible.

The first that we as music listeners heard about Kelly’s proclivities was when Vibe magazine published a copy of the marriage license that he had gotten for himself and the late pop singer Aaliyah. The only problem with that is that at the time, Aaliyah was only 15 and Kelly was 27…

But a fax came to DeRogatis desk at Chicago Sun-Times that said that Kelly had been under investigation by the sex crimes unit of the Chicago Police for two years in connection with allegations that the singer had been going to his former high school and picking up young girls. He’d let them spend time in the studio with him or go to an event with him, and in exchange, he expected sex.

A lot of sex.

Sex in different ways…with different groupings…and with different kinks.

The videotape that featured Kelly relieving himself in a young girl’s mouth was on every bootlegger’s table in 2003. So we all knew about that and I even know a couple of people who’ve seen it.

But apparently that was the tip of the R. Kelly iceberg. There were other tapes. There were other girls.

One of them was forced to have an abortion. Another was so traumatized that she tried to kill herself.

All of them were young, Black girls. Girls who were probably told that if they said anything, they wouldn’t be believed.

The sad thing is, I can’t say that they were wrong to think that.

What’s always disturbed me about this case was the willingness on the part of the Black Community to blame the victims here. These girls were “fast”, as my Mom would put it. They knew what they were doing. They weren’t “really kids”. People need to let R. Kelly alone and let him live his life. They’re just hatin’…

It’s kind of heartbreaking to hear that kind of stuff when it comes to young women of color. But it wasn’t unexpected. My guess is that most of the female Children of the Corn I taught were young girls who got pregnant with the babies they were far too young to raise by someone who should have been told a long time ago that 15 gets you 20…

DeRogatis got that too. “The saddest fact I’ve learned is: Nobody matters less to our society than young black women. Nobody,” DeRogatis said. “They have any complaint about the way they are treated: They are “bitches, hos, and gold-diggers,” plain and simple. Kelly never misbehaved with a single white girl who sued him or that we know of. Mark Anthony Neal, the African-American scholar, makes this point : one white girl in Winnetka and the story would have been different. No, it was young black girls and all of them settled. They settled because they felt they could get no justice whatsoever. They didn’t have a chance.”

Now I hope to never have to say this again, but here it is: There is no such thing as a 15-year-old girl who deserves to have her mouth pissed into by a grown assed man. It doesn’t matter what color the girl is. It doesn’t matter how old she looks. She’s still 15. If you’re over 16 and you’re pushing up on a 15-year-old school girl, that is wrong. You are wrong. You shouldn’t be doing concert tours. You should be doing time.

 And yet, R. Kelly walks free. There’s nothing that we can do about that because the legal system of the City of Chicago has spoken. Kelly was tried and found not guilty of 14 counts of Child Pornography in 2008. (He was never tried for the rapes.)

I’m sorry, but that’s just plain unacceptable to me.

So I say to my fellow travelers in the Feminist Tribe, do you think that you can apply the considerable energy you’ve spend discussing whether or not Beyonce’ is a feminist into trying to get some justice for these girls, even if it’s symbolic?

Because you see, we owe them that. And the note has been overdue since 2008…

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