Last week, four black feminists participated in a panel discussion hosted by the New School titled: “Are You Still a Slave? Liberating the Black Female Body.” The talk– an in depth discussion about the influence of imagery and narrative on our culture and its role in creating our actual reality– went on for almost two hours. Yet, out of all this, the media reduced trenchant analysis into a sound byte, pitting one black woman against another: “Feminist scholar bell hooks calls Beyonce a terrorist.”
I encourage you to watch the whole talk. I know you probably won’t, because, as I wrote, it’s two hours long. I didn’t intend to sit through it all myself, but I was so excited and fascinated by what these women were saying, I couldn’t stop listening to them.
These 4 women are creating new narratives and images, beyond woman as victim, sex object, slave. The discussion about Beyonce, specifically her Time cover where she’s shown in her underwear (which totally bummed me out as well when I saw it– why, why, why, the issue is about the most influential people and she’s practically naked, do you know how few women make it to the cover of Time?) is a few minutes of a larger, important talk about women, power, and the nature of reality.
Here’s how bell hooks began the discussion:
Part of why I’m so excited and proud to be here today is that I’m up here with black women who are all about redefining and creating a different kind of image, liberating the black female body
Not a fan of “12 Years a Slave,” hooks says:
If I never see another naked, enslaved, raped black woman on the screen as long as I live, I’ll be happy.
YES! I could not agree more. I am so sick of watching women get raped. After the talk, someone in the audience challenged hooks, saying she felt conflicted about hooks’ reaction to “12 Years:’
we still need to have those conversations about rape and violence on stage…how can we have those conversations, the role of slavery and colonization on women’s bodies? Can we make space for both?
Here’s how hooks responded:
Because we have been so saturated, I mean, I think one of the big lies that’s going around is, “Oh, we never talked about slavery, oh, we don’t have images of slavery.” We had “Roots” and more “Roots,” and there’ve been all these different books and productions, so that I think of that as a kind of myth building thing when people say, “Oh, we don’t have images.” Notice I didn’t say I don’t want to see anything about slavery. I don’t want to see those same tropes over and over again.
hooks speaks about some narratives that involve slavery she’d like to see, for example, when John Wollman and the Quakers met and decided they could not support slavery and believe in the god they believed in, that in fact, they owed back wages to slaves.
that would be an interesting film for me… more interesting to me as an image, as an idea than the repetitive image of victimhood, and I think that they’re all kinds of images and stories out there that could bring us into a different level of understanding.
hooks was making exactly the same point about Beyonce. She was referring to the repetition of sexualized images of women and how the inundation is an assault on our brains, especially for kids:
I see a part of Beyonce that is, in fact, anti-feminist, that is assaulting, that is a terrorist, in especially terms of the impact on young girls. I actually feel like the major assault of feminism in our society is has come from visual media… The tirades against feminism occur so much in the image making business…What I’m concerned about constantly in my critical imagination is why is it we don’t have liberatory images that are away from, not an inversion of, what society has told us, but our own sense of: what am I looking like when I am free?
That, right there, is what my whole blog Reel Girl is about. What does gender equality look like? Do we have any idea? Where do we see it, even in the fantasy world? If we can’t imagine it, we can’t create it. There is no good reason for the fantasy world– especially the fantasy world created for children— to be sexist, to put males front and center again and again, while females are literally marginalized and sexualized, stuck on the sidelines if they get to exist at all. To repeat, hooks says:
The tirades against feminism occur so much in the image making business
hooks wants new images. She says:
I would never want my child to see “12 Years a Slave” because it’s the imprint of the black, female body as victimized.
Again, totally agree. Obviously, “12 Years” isn’t a movie for kids, but I see endless books and movies, supposedly feminist ones where girls are mocked for being girls, then they rise above it and prove everyone wrong. Fuck that. I hope in children’s media I never have to read about or watch another girl dressing up as a boy, fighting or cooking “as good as a boy can,” from Mulan to Tamora Pierce to Elena’s Serenade to endless Minority Feisty. The reason this trope is awful for girls– and boys– is because before your child can understand the narrative, she needs to understand sexism. Instead of having Colette in “Ratatouille” give a whole speech about male dominated kitchens, why not make a movie with a female top chef and her best friend is a female talking-cooking rat? Audiences will buy that a rodent can run a three star restaurant but not a female? Like hooks says, we are saturated with this same old, same old. If we weren’t, it would be a different story (ha.) The slavery narrative in all its forms has its place, but we need a break. It’s too dominant. There are many other stories to tell.
By the way, hooks walks her talk. She wrote Happy to be Nappy for kids in 2001, and in this discussion, she says she includes it in her most important, favorite works.
Another speaker on the panel, Shola Lynch, is a filmmaker whose most recent production is a documentary about Angela Davis.
In referring to her film as “a political crime drama with a love story at the center,” she reframes Davis’ narrative. Next, Lynch is making a movie about Harriet Tubman, who she calls an “action heroine.” Can you believe there hasn’t been a movie about Harriet Tubman? Lynch says that even though Tubman’s story is true, people don’t “believe” it. The same phenomenon happened with the Davis movie. About selling that film, Lynch says:
So then I have conversations where somebody’s like, “Oh, it’s a great film as a documentary, but the only reason I would support it is I have to know who the main male characters are because it’ll be flipped to be a narrative, women’s stories don’t sell”… Her story is true, but not possible. People don’t believe it. But it’s all true.”
Talking about why she would rather make movies about heroes than victims, Lynch refers to “symbolic annihilation:”
Symbolic annihilation is two things: not seeing yourself, but it’s also seeing yourself only denigrated, victimized etc, and what that does to you. We can talk about all the things that denigrate us, but I’d rather shift the camera, shift my gaze, and look for the images and the people and the places that feed me. I really do think, you talk about children, the more we create our culture, our cultural images– the books you write, the films I make, the alternatives, that these are artifacts that live, and they speak to people whether we’re there or not, bodies of work, and that is critical. I want to give one example. My daughter, she’s 4. She’s never known me not working on the Angela Davis film which took 8 years. She was so excited when I could show her the trailer. ..The trailer is like 2 minutes long and she watched that trailer over and over and over again…She would point out all the characters, she loved going ‘That’s Angela’s mom.” So she created Angela’s family and a sense of community just by watching this thing over and over again. But that’s not what I wanted to share. So she’s a little girl, she wants to be a princess, I’m trying to convince her she wants to be a warrior princess, that’s blonde and poofy and glam. She woke up one morning and her hair was all out, just like, you know, big, out, out, out. Usually it’s like, “Oh mom, my hair is too puffy.” This morning, after watching the trailer over and over again, she said, “I have Angela Davis hair.” So I thought I was making this political crime drama with a love story at the center etcetera, etcetera, etcetra, but I was also making another image for young people to see and to perhaps relate to. And I was blown away, because I can tell her she’s beautiful all day long. I’m her mom, doesn’t count. The more we create the alternative universe which then becomes the universe.
Another panelist, writer Marci Blackman, echoes Lynch’s point:
My characters are the people who I grew up seeing every day who I don’t see, not just in literature, I don’t see them on TV…They weren’t there in the worlds that I was inhabiting when I would sit and go to the library and read, so I decided I wanted to write them, and I wanted to write people like me who I wasn’t seeing in the books either. I wanted to create these characters and put them out there, and I think what you say about self-representation and putting it out there to count as a counteract against these other images.
(This happens to be the second blog I’ve written about this talk. The earlier blog was all about Marci Blackman, who spoke about how she was stopped and searched by TSA agents because they couldn’t tell if she was male or female. No media outlets that I know of covered that discrimination story either.)
hooks ends the talk with this statement:
The journey to freedom has also been so much about the journey of imagination, the capacity to imagine yourself differently, counter-hegemonically, and that’s why the imagination is so important because Shola imagined Angela Davis in a different way from the images we had of her. That imagination of oneself, I would like us to end on that note and people can speak about creativity, because it is striking to me and I didn’t think about this when we were putting the panel together that for each of us, creativity and the uses of imagination have been what led us into the freedom we have. It has been what enhances my life every day. To be able to think and create and leap and jump beyond where I feel like we have been told, theoretically, intellectually that we should go.
Imagination inspires reality inspires imagination in an endless loop. It’s magic. That’s the point bell hooks was making about Beyonce. If you still don’t get it, here’s one last quote from hooks and then watch the video for yourself.
We can gather strength from the diversity of people’s stories, the diversity of people’s imagination.
Update: I just saw “Belle.” It’s such a great film that has to do with everything I blogged about here. Please go see it! Read my review here: “Belle” most extraordinary movie of the year, take your kids!
Is the average movie goer watching movies about slavery and then somehow directly or indirectly, both empathetically and rationally, connecting it to modern day issues? Or are some just getting a good case of schadenfreude? It’s hard to say what one person does with the life of a story, but I can absolutely see that there is a point in the healing process where being reminded constantly of your ancestor’s abuses, and then seeing your society ignore your own, cannot be healthy. One of the things I really liked about Schindler’s List is when it came out, it came out as a conversation. I think some of the actors involved tried to put 12 Years a Slave into current context afterward, but it wasn’t marketed as being anything but entertaining; my guess is because there’s no money in doing it otherwise. And if 12 Years isn’t contextualized for the mainstream, then certainly movies like Belle, whose plight is absolutely relavent for black women today, but lacks the “entertaining” rape scenes, won’t be.
Also Miyazaki’s animated movies and comics have many wonderful, strong and complex female characters. Notably, there are female villains and heros, pacifists and generals. I would recommend for all kids.. and Adventure time is another great pick on TV.
I’m not sure I entirely get what Hooks is trying to say about “12 Years a Slave”. Specifically, is she implying that the director is nothing more than an exploitation hack using a façade of social-justice moralizing as an excuse to present titillating sleaze on screen? Also, as she herself points out, the issues of rape and sexual assault are still very important not just in the black community but society in general. How then are we supposed to discuss the issues if we can’t even bring them up in the first place, as she seems to be implying?
That said, I agree with Hooks on the subject of Beyoncé – she is setting a very poor example for young women everywhere by sexualizing herself and presenting it as being “empowerment”. (Not that she is the only one guilty of this, unfortunately.)
I actually did watch that video it must have been right before it hit the media because it was just two days later that I saw articles on bell hooks calling beyonce anti-feminist. I love bell hooks and I have just finished reading three of her books an look forward to more. She is absolutely right that making your own version of imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalistic patriarchy just to make money is not empowering or feminist. hooks has inspired me to write my own graphic novel that takes place in a world that is egalitarian, socialist, gender-neutral and where people actually care about each other. What the hell would that look like? It’s not a utopia because that would be unrealistic its just an alternative vision of the world as it could be if we all decided we wanted it that way.
Your graphic novel sounds amazing! I am so happy to hear you are writing it.
Excellent post, but now I’m curious. Did bell hooks mention BELOVED in this context? After all, BELOVED (based on a novel by an African-American Nobel Prize-winning author & written by a woman screenwriter) ends with its heroine going off to college… Sometimes I think I am the only person in cyberspace who remembers this: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120603/
I think I just responded to you on Reel Girl’s Facebook page, this is what I wrote:
Beloved is one of my favorite books. I don’t think she didn’t mention it on purpose, it was a live talk w 4 panelists and questions. Beloved was written in the 80s. We were not saturated yet. Beloved also has a female front and center, not like “12 Years” where the female is not the protagonist. Also, as you write Denver overcomes and goes to Oberlin. IMO Beloved is an important and beautifully written story. I’m trying to think how I would feel if it came out now, in 2014. I think it would not feel as fresh. I can’t remember if there’s rape (is Denver a child of rape?) I remember v. passionate love scenes with Sethe. Maybe I should re-read
Margot good points however I’ve seen you writing about the “I hope in children’s media I never have to read about or watch another girl dressing up as a boy, fighting or cooking “as good as a boy can,” from Mulan etc” approach multiple times and while I surely get it that it isn’t right to show sexism to a child I can only agree when it’s a young girl or boy.A girl that is 10 y/o or older I’m pretty sure she already knows well that sexism and gender discrimination exist in the world.
So the story of Mulan ,at least IMO, is fine for this age.In your post about the “movies for 10 y/o and up”
I also included the Asian live action version of the Mulan story Huā Mùlán/Rise of the Warrior from 2009 starring Zhao Wei in my recommendations.
It’s a great film for girls (and boys) age 10 and up and yes its about a girl dressing up as a boy to fight but that’s not a reason to not include it.My daughter saw it when she was 11,she was old enough. And its one of the super rare films where we see a woman commanding a whole army (2 others,also Asian are “An Empress and the Warriors” (with Kelly Chen ,my daughter loves this film!)
and the “Three Kingdoms” 2008 film with Maggie Q as Cao Ying, a female warlord who wears men’s clothing and armor.
Thanks as always for your thoughtful comments. I agree with what you’re saying about “Mulan” and I would show it to younger kids as well because there are so few children’s movies with strong female protagonists. I, personally, at age 45 am sick to death of the female dressed as male trope. I’m over it. I still like Tamora Pierce, if my daughter picked The Woman Who Rides Like a Man off the bookshelf– where it sits, part of me would be happy she is reading a story about a strong female protagonist with power and agency. I wish there were more narratives to choose from. It bothers me that the dominant feminist narrative seems to be the female struggling within the male dominated culture. I wish stories for children presented more fantasy worlds where gender equality exists.
Margot yes I understand and sympathize there are just not enough media/films etc for kids where gender equality exists.Anyway while not a film but a series I highly recommend The Legend of Korra .I’ve seen both seasons (“Air” and “Spirits”) and I consider it a must-see for girls (and boys of course) .Its full of great and powerful female characters and although a US production its heavily influenced by Asian animation (with frames drawn on paper by the animators of the South Korean Studio Mir).And I love it that Korra is a muscular girl (a bit like a teenage version of Wonder Woman) inspired by female martial arts fighters (esp Gina Carano).
TLOK has been a commercial success proving that you don’t need to have an animation show with a male (super)hero as the central character to be successful.
I was wondering, have you read any of Tamora Pierce’s more recent books? I’m thinking particularly of the Trickster duet and the Beka Cooper trilogy, though both are more YA than children’s, I think. Neither is set in a wholly equal world, because both are still in Tortallverse, but they’re much more about characters who happen to be female than about female characters, if that makes sense.
I haven’t read children’s books in years, but I do read a lot of YA, and I’m sitting here trying to think of a YA fantasy world with complete gender equality. And I can’t. There are some dystopias that do (Hunger Games, Divergent, Delirium), and some fantasy worlds that are better than the real world but not at 100% (Harry Potter – actually, I think in this one the world might be gender-equal, but the stories aren’t – and Throne of Glass), but I can’t think of a single YA fantasy world that is gender-equal.
The Shadowhunter world of The Mortal Instruments is a borderline example. In the first book it’s mentioned that female Shadowhunters have only been able to fight in the last generation or so, but later the author wrote a trilogy set in the Victorian era in which a woman was in charge of a Institute (the impression I got was that the Shadowhunters were far from equal, but they were still more equal than Victorian Britain as a whole), and more recent depictions of the Shadowhunter world show no difference between male and female Shadowhunters, with a woman being in charge of their society.
I don’t mind lack of equality if it’s part of an exciting and original narrative, but so often it feels like the author just hasn’t bothered trying to imagine anything other than the patriarchal world we live in, and if authors, whose very profession requires imagination, can’t do it, how can we as a society manage it?
Love this. Thank you for your eloquence in pointing out the pitfalls of the media we consume on daily basis and what it does and doesn’t do for our sense of freedom and sovereignty — of being female. I look forward to reading more of your work. Best, Lone