An Open Letter to Rakhi Kumar, Beyonce-Hater: Your Feminism Is Not My Feminism
Dear Rakhi Kumar,
I write regarding your open letter to Michelle Obama, the subject of which is Beyoncé “My Surname Is Redundant But Here It Is Anyway” Knowles-Carter.
Beyoncé is usually a fairly uneventful topic to discuss because almost everyone agrees that she is a perfect human being with a superhuman abundance of talent and beauty, forcing the conversation on to more mundane matters. (Everything is more mundane than Beyoncé.) You, however, take a different view. You argue that Bey is destroying the futures of adolescent girls one jewel-encrusted, faux-nippled leotard at a time. You believe Beyoncé’s slutty outfits are degrading her — and, by proxy, all females — and you want the First Lady to stop publically admiring her. Beyoncé’s scantily-clad body provides a poor example for young girls, you say; shattering their dreams and luring them into the sex industry. It’s hilarious nonsense from outer space, but I’m barely paraphrasing.
I notice you’ve subsequently described your letter as providing a “point of view that flies in the face of popular culture.” It doesn’t. Your letter slut-shames and body-polices women, which is one of pop culture’s most stale routines. It condescends to women and girls and robs them of their agency, which is drearily pro-culture. Mainstream media outlets like Yahoo aren't in the counterculture game, and despite its “alternative media” facade, HuffPo isn’t either - which is why they were all too happy to promote your particular brand of socially-conservative and anti-woman feminism. “Anti-woman!?”, I hear you scoff, perhaps while tweeting a Voltaire quote from an upside-down Ayurveda yoga pose, “but my letter is all about SAVING women!”. Well, precisely, Rakhi Kumar, and here’s why it’s not helping:
You talk about women the same way sexists talk about women.
There’s nary a woman, or group of women, who you don’t patronise in your letter. You instruct “smart” “mum” Michelle Obama that Beyoncé “can no longer be called a role model” (your bold); you label girls and women in the music industry “no more complex than dolls”; you conflate sex workers with trafficked women and treat sex work as axiomatically demeaning (and “heartbreaking”); and you claim that Beyoncé performed the “the final degradation of her talent” by donning a sheer bodysuit.
Rakhi Kumar, who needs sexists when we have you to slut-shame women for “shaking [their] butts on stage” in that most reprobate attire, “high heels and sheer tights”? Who needs misogynists when you describe women engaged in sex work as “objects” whose humanity “can be forgotten”? Who needs hyperbolic right-wing conservatives when you describe as a “demonic myth” the idea that women can dress how they damn well like, for whatever reason? Who needs parody when we’ve got you calling Bey “a glowing ball of soullessness” who has “allowed her sexual identity to eclipse the genius of her spirit”?
You posit a nonsensical causal link between glittery body suits and sex trafficking.
After you’ve berated Beyoncé for her immoral dress sense and admonished the First Lady for supporting her, you slot in this jarring statistic of dubious relevance:
Remember that in the USA, the average age of a girl when she is trafficked for sex for the first time is 13.
At this point it’s unclear how exactly this relates to Beyoncé, but you go on to explain your logic:
Remember that she's often brought into the 'life' by drug dealers who promise her a celebrity lifestyle, clothes like the ones Beyoncé wears, and situations where she can live like Queen Bey.
WHOOPS! Here I was thinking that the interplay between sex work and forced labour was complex and multi-causal, involving structural factors like poverty, identity-based discrimination, and anti-migration policies! BUT IT’S ACTUALLY INCREDIBLY SIMPLE! Turns out pimps (or, as they’re also known, “drug dealers”!) are simply luring young girls into the game with sequinned knicker shorts and the “Single Ladies” video, and if Beyoncé would just put some damn clothes on, the sex trafficking industry would dissolve!
Sorry to snark, it’s just that I can’t seriously engage with your evidence-devoid theory. The anti-sex trafficking cause is already thick with moral panic, misinformation, and ill-informed, PR-boosting celebrity activists, and you’re cluttering the already-diminished discourse with further nonsense. This wouldn’t especially bother me if it weren’t for the fact that theories like yours spawn attitudes and policies that actively harm sex workers. You are ignoring the freely-available perspectives and requests of real-life sex workers because they interfere with your romantic notion of the Prostituted Woman as a forlorn, passive victim who needs to be saved. If you engage with sex workers before you form a view on what’s oppressing them, you might find that criminalisation and stigma are higher-priority concerns than mythical drug-dealing pimps wielding persuasive charm and Beyoncé’s hotpants.
You hold individual women responsible for systemic sexism.
Look, Rakhi Kumar, don’t get me wrong; I share many of your concerns. It genuinely sucks that women in the music industry have to jump through more hoops than their male counterparts to achieve half the recognition. It sucks that women have to capitulate to mainstream ideas of what’s sexy regardless of whether or not they want to. Trust me that I care deeply about trafficked women and girls. Trust me that I care deeply about young girls wondering how best to stay on the grind in this shitty, capitalist, girl-hating world.
But of all the people or institutions you could call to task over these issues — music industry executives and their money-hungry models, politicians and their discriminatory laws, advertisers and media outlets and the dim view of women they promote — the primary target of your ire is one individual woman: Beyoncé. One individual woman, herself subject to vile racism and rank misogyny; endless media scrutiny and ruthless body policing. One individual woman who, despite the odds, made it to the top of her game only to have you berate her for DOING FEMINISM ALL WRONG when she got there. You’re holding Beyoncé personally responsible for the sexist system she’s surviving in, and that strikes me as some victim-blaming horseshit.
You discredit women who use their bodies to get ahead in a way that smacks of classism.
In your letter you call for “a more refined, intelligent message” than the one Beyoncé is promoting; one that (emphasis mine):
[Engages girls] at the level of their intellect and potential because implicit in our message to them should be the acknowledgement that they are naturally brilliant and that we believe that they are capable of everything - without ever having to undress to achieve their success.
Tell young girls that they are more than that. Engage with artists who sing, dance, write, design, perform - but whose presentation centers on showcasing the brilliance of their brain, not their body.
Not everyone has the luxury of choosing a job that showcases the “brilliance of their brain”. Some of us will settle for a job which showcases the brilliance of our ability to put food in the fridge, even if it means “undressing” to do so. Some women need to use their bodies to get ahead. Some women want to. This doesn’t make them less than, and their choices are not incompatible with brilliance.
You’re discouraging people from being feminists because you make feminism seem so fucking austere and dull.
Let me tell you something embarrassing about me. When I was a late-teen first discovering feminism, I was attracted to your radfem, abolitionist model like a fly to shit. I was angry about sexism, and so were you, and it felt good to know that I wasn’t alone. I was starting to notice the way that sexism operated systemically, and you had a word for that: Patriarchy. I began to understand that being a good feminist meant abolishing the sex industry, which was oppressing us all, and rejecting femininity, because our brazilian waxes were shackling us. I felt like I’d taken the red pill; that if I could only convince women to stop participating in their own oppression then we could all be free. I cultivated a superior attitude and an aggressively unsexy personal aesthetic. I was just a kid, but I was cringeworthy.
I also really resented being female. At the time I chalked that up to having my eyes opened to the pervasive effects of sexism and misogyny, which are real and terrible, no doubt; but eventually I noticed that the particular flavour of feminism that I was consuming was making me relentlessly self-critical. There was a list of a million things I couldn’t do without feeling like I was letting down the cause: I couldn’t watch porn. I couldn’t wear high heels. I couldn’t call someone a cunt. Every time I put on liquid eyeliner I thought, “good one, Maddie, why don’t you just give the Patriarchy a blowjob now?” I felt limited and guilty all the time. I was bored.
The upshot is that I soon discovered better feminists models: sex-positive feminism, intersectional feminism, feminism which is actually pro-women. I don’t feel like I’m corroding the sisterhood when I listen to rap or paint my fingernails anymore; my porn folder is full and poorly concealed (bookmarks --> “porn”); and I use the word cunt on a daily basis, freely and advisedly. Feminism isn’t a cult; it’s a social movement for fundamentally cool and decent people. It shouldn’t be an onerous chore that makes women’s lives harder; shaming them and instructing them how to live. That’s what your model does, and that’s why it’s broken.
You don’t seem to be seeing the same Beyoncé we are all seeing.
Hey, Rakhi Kumar, you know Beyoncé’s not “under the management of [her] daddy and/or [her] husband”, yeah? That she doesn’t have a song called “Bow Down Bitch”, right? That even her actual song, “Bow Down/I Been On”, is not setting women back 50 years, okay?
I’m nervous we’re not even talking about the same person here. Is this who you mean when you say you see a “degraded talent”? You’re looking at this when you see “something dreadfully familiar and sad”? We’re definitely talking about this Beyoncé, right? That’s your “glowing ball of soullessness”!? Wow! Okay! I’m sad for you that you can extract no joy from this astounding megastar! Personally seeing Beyoncé perform turns my eyes into cartoon love hearts and my guts into jelly and my heart into a planet-sized orb and my nipples into jewels. It makes me want to rush downstairs and start pashing my LLB. It makes me want to donate my life savings to kickstart some girl’s maths degree. It makes me want to slip into a glittery leotard of my own and run down the street high-fiving every female-identified person I see. It makes me want to personally congratulate every woman and girl on the planet for existing.
Beyoncé is a powerhouse, a feminist, and a queen. If you can look at her and think “poor women, we’re ruined”, I can’t understand you and I never will.