Hadley Freeman, telling Beyoncé she’s not helping feminism isn’t helping feminism

Right now, I am not, strictly speaking, “helping feminism”. Indeed, if you knew which café I was sitting in to write this, you’d say I was complicit in all sorts of badnesses. An absence of active feminism-helping is just the tip of the iceberg. All the same, by ‘fessing up to this, I am at least making a show of solidarity with Beyoncé, who currently stands accused of having let the sisterhood down.

In an article in today’s Guardian, Hadley Freeman tells the singer / entrepreneur / superstar that “being photographed in your underwear doesn’t help feminism”. Got that, Ms Knowles? You’re dead fit and everything, but the sight of your scantily clad form is not promoting gender equality. To be fair, I’m not so sure Beyoncé ever thought that it was, but Freeman’s told her all the same. Cue lots of gleefully sexist CiF comments about how feminism’s all gone to pot and women are confused and anyhow, don’t those girls who go on slutwalks claim to be helping feminism? Ha ha! That’ll teach ’em.

Freeman is respondong to a piece in GQ in which Knowles says the following:

Equality is a myth, and for some reason everyone accepts that women don’t make as much money as men do. I truly believe that women should be financially independent from their men. And let’s face it, money gives men the power to run the show. It gives men the power to define value. They define what’s sexy. And men define what’s feminine. It’s ridiculous.

Well, I kind of agree with that. I don’t think rampant individualistic capitalism is the key to everything, but money is a dominant source of power and the fact that so much of the work women do is either unpaid or paid less is an issue (although on a personal level, it’s not my issue. My partner recently asked me whether I worried about which of us earned the most. I said I didn’t care as long as one of us earned loads. Got that, Wish Fairy?). Beyoncé can big up her version of feminism and I have no real beef with it. It’s a damn sight better than the lyrics of Independent Woman, for starters.

Freeman is concerned, however, that the singer’s views appear alongside seven photos “in which she poses nearly naked” (the Guardian helpfully links to these shameful pics. At least, I think it does; the free wifi in this café doesn’t consider them to be fit for my viewing). To Freeman, this is a contradiction:

I never fail to be amazed at the high profile, often A-list women who celebrate their professional success by posing near naked on the covers of allegedly classy men’s magazines, such as Esquire and GQ, and these covers are, to my eyes, becoming increasingly close to porn. […] It’s one thing to submit to this attention-seeking nonsense if you’re a C-list reality TV desperado trying to get on the cover of Nuts; it’s another if you are professedly one of the most powerful women in the entertainment business who has no need of such tactics. Knowles rightly hates the fact that women are humiliated by being paid less than their male counterparts. But they are similarly humiliated by being fed the message that it doesn’t matter how successful, powerful or smart you are – all that matters is how sexually available you are willing to make yourself look.

So a slap on the wrists for you, Beyoncé! It’s one thing for other women to do it – pathetic C-listers, for instance – but you don’t have to. Therefore you are complicit in the humiliation of womankind via the semiotics of a patriarchal society (NB I’ve no idea whether that last bit makes sense, but I thought it sounded good).

The thing is, I don’t really get what Beyoncé – or the C-list celebrity or the porn star or anyone else for that matter – has done wrong. I mean, I get the complicity argument. I understand that if women are only presented with a limited range of ways to be, it’s not helpful for those who have the chance to do something different to merely reinforce this sense of limitation. But who is obliged to be different first? And why? Whose complicity is most worthy of condemnation? We are most of us pretty complicit in oppression – both our own and that of others. However, there is overlap between what we’re doing because we genuinely want to and what we’re doing because we feel obliged to fall in with the patriarchal party line. I am sitting here wearing Clinique Almost Lipstick in the shade Lucious Honey. I don’t really know why, on a deep, visceral level, I am wearing it. But I’d hope people would give me the benefit of the doubt before calling me a beauty myth sell-out (not least because the Clinique stuff was a Christmas present off my mum and it would upset her if it made people mean to me. Just sayin’).

Some women over- or under-dress as their only means of accessing personal power. You might live in a culture where covering up “for modesty” is the only way you’ll be able to leave the house to get an education. By doing so, you’re reinforcing the patriarchal “modesty” message for all other women, but should this really be held against you? Presumably not. But then at what point do we tell women “no, you’ve earned enough now. You’ve learned enough. Now you have to be responsible for the rest of womankind and the messages they receive. And no, just using words isn’t enough. Cover up, but not too much. Maybe a nice cardi will do?” I’m sorry, but true equality is not achieved via enforced cardigan-wearing. Besides, some women just like not wearing much or, conversely, wearing loads. Can we not just let them?

If Beyoncé were saying “c’mon girls, stripping off is intrinsically empowering!” I’d take issue with it. But that’s not what she said. I think we can be overly on our guard, maybe because 1990s lad mag culture did seem to be selling that as a rubbish pseudo-feminist message. Gail Porter on the Houses of Parliament was not a high point in the feminist struggle. Even so, these are matters of context and existing power relations (and it’s worth noting that however much money Beyoncé now has, she can’t buy herself out of a sexist world – and she clearly can’t buy herself out of getting condemned for posing in her underwear). So I’d say “Beyoncé, pose in your undies if a) you want to or b) this is the most practical option available to you career-wise, despite your misgivings about the overall underlying gender-based value judgements. And also, that thing you said about feminism – it was alright, really. Way more useful than Bootylicious.”

PS I now dare someone to write a response to this: Glosswitch, telling Hadley Freeman she’s not helping feminism by telling Beyoncé she’s not helping feminism isn’t helping feminism. And then maybe after that, GQ could write a feature on how that last person telling me I wasn’t helping feminism by telling Hadley Freeman she wasn’t helping feminism by … Honestly, everyone, I’m seeing a co-authored “not helping feminism” book deal on the horizon …

16 thoughts on “Hadley Freeman, telling Beyoncé she’s not helping feminism isn’t helping feminism

  1. I’m much more worried by the women who say they are not feminists, than I am by Beyoncé posing in her undies. And the women who say that other women who identify as feminists aren’t actually feminists (e.g. sex workers, kinksters, etc). Or that they’re “not doing feminism properly”.

    The only feminist critique of p0rn that has ever made sense to me is the one about it objectifying women, and making what we look like more important than who we are. However, I do care what I look like, cos I want to get laid. Simples. But I don’t want my appearance to outweigh every other aspect of me.

  2. Whose complicity is most worthy of condemnation? Why, how about someone who has the power *not* to strip off, but who does it anyway? You say Beyonce can’t buy herself out of a sexist world, which is true, but she can still refuse to strike a T&A pose.

    Beyonce *isn’t* explicitly saying “c’mon girls, stripping off is intrinsically empowering!” She is implicitly saying it.

    If what celebrities do, say and think wasn’t important, magazines wouldn’t be sold on the back of it. It’s not fair, in a sexist world, for the pressure to be on women *not* to conform to stereotypes, but the more they do resist the pressure to conform, the closer we are to a world where sexist stereotypes cease to exist.

    You seem to be saying “why pick on Beyonce, when there are others equally complicit?” Well, it’s better to light one candle than curse the darkness.

    1. Why conmden any woman for the choices she makes? Maybe Beyonce has a gorgeous body and thinks she looks great naked!

  3. Seems slutshaming 101 from the Guardian columnist, women can be themselves so long as the self presented is one I personally approve of. I think you can guess where I stand with that view.

    Great post.

    1. I agree. And I can’t believe that any woman can’t decide for herself whether or not she is a feminist, and if she decides she is, the, what? She has to dress like a man? Fuck that! I am a feminist, and I like to look feminine. I love pink lipstick, dresses, and heels. But my bookshelf would scare the shit out of a lot of people. Who’s going to tell me that’s wrong? No-one.

  4. I quite like the idea of enforced cardigan wearing. As an avid cardi fan I’d always look appropriate plus some people really do need to learn the benefits of a nice woolly cardi on a cold winter day x.x.x

  5. Gah. Why does it have to be analysed so thoroughly?
    At the most basic, simple level there is this superwoman, role model of quite possibly literally billions, who is well aware of equality issues, saying This Is What Women Do, How We Act, How We Should Be Seen. Putting herself in a place that naturally objectifies her, worse- invites men to have a look and a wank.
    But I know I wish there wasn’t so much feminist to feminist slating.

  6. What upsets me the most about this whole discourse is the fact that these ‘feminists’ are drifting so far off the point I think they can just be called squabbling fishwives. They have lost sight of their main, primary interest and have turned into high-school girls telling each other they not ‘good enough’ feminists. It’s completely counter productive and, at crux, embarrassing. Burchill and Moore need to learn to keep perspective; to understand that no, the west is not perfectly equal, yet. But we’re much further down the road than the majority of other nations.

  7. It would please me more than I can say if women could agree that stripping down to your smalls for a mag is not an especially empowering thing to do. I think you write a lot of good sense, and I mostly agree with Hadleys take on life too. Can we move forward and agree to feckin agree. Rather taking lumps out of each other. For chrissakes, it’s misogyny that’s the enemy, not slightly different interpretations of the same feckin issue. *sigh*

  8. Ever since Super Bowl here in the U.S. there’s been a massive slutshaming of Beyoncé, which, in my opinion at least, is itself “un-feminist.” I think one of the most shocking things I read claimed that because of Beyoncé’s measurements (which are very similar to *mine,* but whatever), she wasn’t a “real feminist.” I’m still pretty furious/revolted/confused by that one. Whether or not she is a “real” feminist (and I’m not sure who is holding this yardstick, either), people shouldn’t slutshame her. Are her skimpy clothes empowering? No, but I can’t say that they’re unempowering either — though I guess that I’ve never really worried about it. People can wear what they want, as far as I’m concerned. I know _I_ do.

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