Being a feminist is not about how you look, but what you do
Actresses Kerry Washington (Olivia Pope), Taraji P. Henson (Cookie Lyon) and Viola Davis (Prof. Annalise Keating) are breaking precedent by playing Black main characters in hit prime-time network television series. Does that make them the embodiment of Black feminism in today’s pop culture?
Rutgers University Assistant Professor Dr. Brittney Cooper, University of Louisville Women’s and Gender Studies Associate Professor Dr. Kaila Story, Ohio State Women’s Gender Studies Assistant Professor Dr. Treva Lindsay, and authors Dr. Yaba Blay and Joan Morgan recently discussed this as featured panelists at the March 12 El-Kati Distinguished Lectureship Panel, established and named for retired history professor Mahmoud El-Kati, at Davis Auditorium at St. Paul’s Macalester College. The panel was entitled, “Black Feminism in Today’s Pop Culture: Pleasure, Desire, Purposeful Transgression.”
Washington’s Olivia Pope character has shown America that Black women are desirable, noted Story. Pope, as “an object of affection,” is a rare sight on American television, said Lindsay. “I don’t ever remember as a kid or when I was little [seeing this] unless I was watching exclusively a Black film or television show where I saw Black girls or women as objects of somebody’s affection.”
“She’s got both [men]” wanting her, added Morgan. “That makes us real uncomfortable, because I think we are controlled by the controlling image on what we think of that expression of desire.”
“It is still very revolutionary to have Black women talk about pleasure, desire and sexuality in a way that’s not shameless,” said Lindsey. “If we see a Black woman having sex, or wanting sex in a particular way, we are supposed to judge her. We have been so socialized to only see Black women in controlling images.”
“I do wonder why people are so uncomfortable with desire,” added Cooper. “We get to see Black women have sex on TV three times a week,” she joked.
Blay, an assistant Africana Studies professor at Drexel University, asked if there is a clear definition of “Black feminism.” She is the author of “(1) ne Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race” and was named to the 2014’s The Root 100 as a top Black influencers.
She said she didn’t see herself as a feminist until after she read Morgan’s When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: My Life as A Hip Hop Feminist (2000) while attending Temple University. “For me it’s about reclaiming a type of humanity that we’ve been not given access to. We need permission [as Black females] to be human.”
Story says she “declared” herself a feminist while in college at DePaul. “I was the only Black girl women’s studies major for my first three years.” But because she refused to act and dress like fellow feminists, “Somehow I was doing feminism wrong,” recalled the professor. “I was much more hard core” than the young White feminists at the time, she added.
The professor later told the MSR, “We are trying to bring humanity back in Black feminism, and trying to show [that] you don’t need to be a particular type of woman to act a particular type of way or be a professional intellectual to believe in or advocate for feminism.”
It isn’t what a Black feminist looks like “but what we do,” stated Morgan. “Beyoncé is an example — you can be a feminist and still have desire and pleasure. There is not one way to be [a feminist].”
Cooper purports that the singer might be the real-life embodiment of Black feminism. “I think she’s a radical feminist,” she pointed out. “She’s taken a feminist flavor the last five years.”
The panelists all agreed that the singer has been unfairly criticized because she “declared” her independence through her songs: “We hate on artists because they aren’t always political, but when they begin to talk the language, then we say they don’t have it exactly right,” said Cooper.
“Why does this very beautiful, self-selectively blonde [woman], make us uncomfortable and irate with each other? She has this way of polarizing feminists,” added Morgan on Beyoncé.
Macalester American Studies Associate Professor Duchess Harris was among the mostly female audience in attendance: “It’s not very often you get to hear Black women who identify themselves openly and publicly as feminists,” she said, adding that she enjoyed the back-and-forth dialogue between the panelists. “They do have a very connected sense of who they are in relationship with each other.”
Audra Robinson, a sales and marketing manager from Brooklyn Park, says, “This meeting definitely helped shape a dimensional idea of what Black women are and what we can be.”
El-Kati later told the MSR, “I didn’t know these great minds” before the panel. “They were excellent, well-trained minds. We witnessed a spirited intellectual exercise…about Black feminism. We need that voice, and I am all for that voice.”
“Pop culture has made me a better Black feminist,” said Cooper. “I care about Black women. I care about Black people. I care about our lives.”
“I believe that Black feminism has to be a movement that is self-critical,” said Morgan.
Lindsey noted that some see feminism “as if all women are the same,” which she quickly pointed out “simply isn’t true. None of us claims to be a perfect feminist or [to know] what that looks like. We are all flawed.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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