Beyoncé, Sex Terrorist: A Menace for Conservatives and Liberals Alike

By Noah Berlatsky

Hating Beyoncé unites all Americans!  Or so it seemed last week, anyway. From the right, Fox pundit Bill O'Reilly used a segment of his show to express shock at Beyoncé's video "Partition," in which she presents herself having sex in a limo with her husband while name-dropping Monica Lewinsky. From the left, feminist scholar bell hooks, speaking on a panel at The New School in New York City, took issue with Beyoncé's Time magazine cover, in which the singer posed in her underwear.

Though they're coming from different points on the political spectrum, hooks and O'Reilly’s concerns were remarkably similar. According to O'Reilly, "Teenage girls look up to Beyoncé, particularly girls of color. Why would she do it when she knows the devastation that unwanted pregnancies. … Why would Beyoncé do that?"  Hooks, surprisingly, seems to agree. "I see a part of Beyoncé that is, in fact, anti-feminist—that is, a terrorist—especially in terms of the impact on young girls," she said. O'Reilly sees himself as defending conservative family values against a corrupting mainstream entertainment industry; hooks sees herself as a radical fighting against "imperialist, white supremacist capitalist patriarchy." But both are worried about the effect of Beyoncé's sexualized body on young girls, and both see that effect in violent terms—as "devastation" and terror.

At the same time as they talk about the brutalizing effects of Beyoncé's nudity, both O'Reilly and hooks capitalize upon it. O'Reilly's segment on Beyoncé (featuring a politely exasperated Russell Simmons, who had hoped to talk about his book) includes numerous sultry images from the video, undoubtedly because some Fox New producer figured that showing semi-nude images of Beyoncé would appeal to viewers, whether because of prurience or moralism or both.

For her part, bell hooks was first skeptical that Beyoncé had control of the image on the Time cover, and then (when Janet Mock assured her that no one is putting out Beyoncé covers without Beyoncé's approval) suggested that Beyoncé "is colluding in the construction of herself as a slave.” I think hooks has good points about the cover overall; Beyoncé is presented as child-like and vulnerable in a way that fits with images of black women as disempowered, available for men, and abused. "It's not a liberatory image," as hooks says. But libertory or not, it's Beyoncé's image hooks herself is using, just as it's Beyoncé's image O'Reilly deploys to generate moralistic panic. Hooks was speaking in an academic setting, and the Time cover was not shown, but still, Beyoncé's sexualized body functions in her argument as prop, one that effectively amplified hooks’s words and ideas.

When you talk about Beyoncé, people listen—which is why hooks's comments about the singer have gone viral, while the rest of the discussion (which included author and activist Janet Mock, filmmaker Shola Lynch, and author Marci Blackman) has largely been ignored. O'Reilly, hooks, and certainly me, exist in a media environment where people will click on anything having to do with Beyoncé, especially if it is something having to do with Beyoncé and sex. If you can add violence in ("devastation" "terrorist"), you've got the trifecta of profitable attention.

I don't mean to question the sincerity of O'Reilly's concern about media sexualization, nor to suggest that hooks wanted her comments to go viral. But intentionally or not, they both end up using Beyoncé's body to broadcast their message of a more conservative or radical world. Moralizing against sex is sold, like everything else, via sex. At the same time, of course, outrage and rebellion is a big part of what celebrities have to sell, as Thomas Frank has noted. If the ever-savvy Beyoncé ends up as a part of O'Reilly and hooks's marketing strategy, then their various forms of anger and condemnation are definitely part of hers as well.

O'Reilly and hooks share one more point of critical agreement: They both seem unable, or unwilling, to consider Beyoncé as an artist. O'Reilly expresses outright skepticism that her video should be seen as art. Hooks speculates that Beyoncé's appeal is not just her beauty, but her money—completely leaving out the possibility that people might be interested in this musician because of her music.  

There does seem, then, to be some difficulty in thinking of Beyoncé as an artist making art while at the same time thinking of her as a body, to adorn videos, or magazine covers, or someone's argument. That's unfortunate, because if she is seen as an artist who's speaking for herself, what she says is quite pointed.

The video for "Partition" starts off in an elegant mansion, with Beyoncé sitting demurely a table, radiating a repressed-librarian heat. So the pressure to be respectable is, itself, part of the eroticism. Is that Bill O'Reilly sitting across the table with his back to the camera, nose behind the newspaper, oblivious and/or harrumphing? Or is it bell hooks—for whose pleasure Beyoncé, quite aware of the dynamics of slavery and black women's representations, thank you, elegantly drops a napkin, summoning a white servant to come scurrying and pick it up? The video is a fantasy about steamy married monogamous sex, which works deliberately to make O'Reilly's conservative values look sexy and illicit. It's also a re-imagining of black female eroticism as linked to power rather than subservience, which turns hooks's respectability politics into a self-aware sensual tease.

Not all of Beyoncé’s art is necessarily great or thoughtful. But certainly on the topic of sexualization and power, she has something to say.  So if people are going to rather helplessly use her body to further their own agendas, it seems worth remembering that every body has a person attached—and that that person is not just an object of analysis and scorn, but, potentially, someone who can offer a critique herself.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/05/beyonc-sex-terrorist-a-menace-for-conservatives-and-liberals-alike/362085/