What is in our heads is not necessarily the same as what is in yours
by: Dominique Millette
This is a long-delayed essay on Things Kicking Around in My Head, inspired by a tweet about the most recent U.N. proposition to decriminalize all aspects of prostitution. It’s a divisive issue even in contemporary feminism. The main trigger that prompted me to put my thoughts down on paper, however, wasn’t prostitution, but a reference within that article to bell hooks calling Beyoncé a terrorist, way back when.
When I first heard this quote, my reaction – undoubtedly like that of many women – was “Huh?”
Then I got upset.
My reasons for getting upset are complicated. The gist of what I understood bell hooks to be saying was that Beyoncé was capitulating to patriarchal standards of beauty and, therefore, complicit in a latter-day subservience rather than an agent of empowerment.
I may be wrong about what bell hooks actually meant, but I know many women believe that when celebrities appear to conform to prevailing social beauty standards, whatever feminist message they embrace, this is the behaviour of the co-opted, of the sold-out traitor. This woman is catering to male fantasies. She is betraying feminism.
In response to this viewpoint, I’d like to tell a story.
Remember when Rihanna appeared in a completely sheer dress in the summer of 2014? The dress was flapper-style. Because I’m a heterosexual woman and a history buff, my first thought was: “I bet you that’s a reference to Josephine Baker.” As it turns out, Rihanna wore the dress on Josephine Baker Day.
Most reactions to her wardrobe choice, predictably, did not centre on any historical or cultural references. The main debate seemed to be about Rihanna seeking attention and male approval by being overly sexual. Exactly none of the several articles I perused about the dress flap made any mention of who Josephine Baker was, and why she had her very own day in the United States of America, the land that broke her heart before raising her up – the day itself being a fact of which I was ignorant, and which piqued my curiosity. Why would a dancer who gained fame in France have a national day in the United States? Clearly, there was something I didn’t know about Josephine Baker. And indeed, after I did some reading, I learned a lot.
Josephine Baker was more than a dancer. In that role alone, she embodied the possibility of acceptance, admiration and fame in a black woman’s body, something elusive in the resolutely segregated America of the 1920s where black entertainers were forced into demeaning caricatures of themselves in order to merely survive. The portrayal of Josephine Baker in Paris was the first positive image she had seen of black culture, however rife with stereotypes it was. Beyond her cultural significance, Baker was also a spy, a hero of the French Resistance, a pilot of the French Air Force, and a civil rights activist who stood side by side with Martin Luther King on the day he delivered his speech proclaiming “I have a dream.”
As a white woman, I feel awkward discussing racism as if I knew anything about it; however, the story of Josephine Baker is a powerful one in many respects and racism is a big part of it, so to ignore any mention of it would be very odd. Misogynoir is a well-documented aspect of sexism as it is specifically directed at black women, and the Jezebel stereotype seems to apply to portrayals of Rihanna as much as of Beyoncé. To argue for respectability as a prophylactic against such bigotry seems doomed to failure; a notion which may merit further analysis in future.
Now, granted, in some circles – especially those exploring issues of the colonialist cultural legacy in Africa – Josephine Baker is controversial. In her most famous stage role, she danced naked except for a barely-there skirt made of ersatz bananas, designed by a Frenchman who’d likely never set foot anywhere south of Gibraltar. Baker hailed from St-Louis rather than any African country, a fact which to this day still irritates many a student of sociology. She was an American dancer who left school at the age of twelve to support her family, and was recruited to entertain white people in Paris, France, by appealing to their thirst for exoticism. To many people of African heritage, that makes her complicit in cultural appropriation. To many women, her exuberant nudity is evidence of her catering to male fantasies.
Despite this view of her, there is ample biographical evidence that Josephine Baker did not see herself as placating her audience by debasing herself. Who she was, in her own mind, is not what she is to those who judge her. This matters. It matters because as a society, we are so accustomed to according more weight to the critiques of women than to the self-concept of the women themselves. And this, itself, is the triumph of patriarchy and of kyriarchy in general. To me, this is the real terrorism which keeps us silent and afraid.
Perversely, a common reaction to women who feel and behave as though they have full sexual agency and complete control of their identities, sexual or otherwise, is to think: “poor deluded fool. You have no idea that what you are really doing is playing into the hands of the patriarchy/male fantasies/male constructs of female identity. If you do, you are deliberately throwing all women under the bus for the sake of your own advancement.” It never seems to occur to anyone that perhaps the deluded fools are really the people looking through the collective eyes of whatever men lay claim to our bodies and lives. It never seems to be part of the possible discourse that perhaps it is they who are wrong, and in fact, we should all look instead through the eyes of the women themselves, and believe what they tell us about their own lives.
I doubt very much that when a young woman walks down the street in a pretty, perhaps revealing dress, she does so thinking, “I hope some random guy ogles me, makes rude comments about my breasts and invites me to suck his dick.” What is she thinking? Do we even consider that she might have the right to feel pretty, desired, sensual, without “catering to men”? What if she has a sex drive? What if she would enjoy a beautiful man pleasing her? Does this mean any random man has the right to claim her sexual energy for himself? Does this make her a pawn of the patriarchy? Whose desires do we validate in our society? Who has the right to look, to feel, to judge, to want? Doesn’t the young woman have this right, as much as anyone looking at her?
Josephine Baker may not have known much about African culture – and neither did the most educated white European scholars of the day, judging by the encylopedias of the time – but she knew herself. She enjoyed performing. Whether her ethnicity was cast as a primal, vital force in opposition to the perception of a waning and weak French culture, whether the French reaction to her was racist even in its admiring acclamations, Baker appeared quite grounded in her enjoyment of herself, her body, her physicality, her sensuality and her identity. She found French stereotypes of her at times amusing, at other times ridiculous. In one belief she never wavered: the fight against racism. She was a staunch advocate of desegregation and refused to perform in her native United States in any segregated venues. She supported the civil rights movement and marched with Dr. King. Her greatest contribution to the fight against racism, however, is no doubt in the name of her adopted land, when she agreed to work against the Nazis in occupied France, risking her life smuggling hidden messages in sheet music and hidden Resistance fighters in her castle in the countryside. In remembrance of her heroism, her funeral in France was accompanied by a 21-gun salute.
I repeat: none of this was evident in any discourse about the dress Rihanna wore, in her tribute to Josephine Baker. What could have started a meaningful conversation about self-definition, and the multifaceted nature of human identity, was, instead, co-opted by a discussion of whether Rihanna is a slut.
What was in my head, and still is, is not what is in the head of Perez Hilton. I maintain that the world I see through my own eyes is as real as any world seen through the eyes of Perez Hilton, People Magazine columnists, or the 3,456 guys leaving comments on various websites who thought Rihanna should either cover up or suck their appendages. One day, I hope this will be obvious. Until then, I’m afraid the terrorism is not quite where some people think it is.