Much has been said about Beyonce referring to herself as “King”. Most of the conversation around her decision to do so has fallen into two camps: Beyonce is reaffirming patriarchy by referring to herself as a “King” or Beyonce should be allowed to call herself whatever she wants. I recognize that both camps make a legitimate argument, but I would like to merge them. I don’t think that it is an either/or matter as some others do.
This isn’t Beyonce’s first time at the gender-bending and gender non-conformist rodeo. In my opinion, Beyonce has always been drawn to masculine expression. In the videos for her songs “Lose My Breath” and “Upgrade U’, Beyonce dawns men’s clothing and mixes feminine expression with masculine expression. She can be seen dipping into a swagger that we traditionally associate with maleness and masculinity.
On her 2008 album, “I Am Sasha Fierce”, one of the first singles off that album is titled “If I Were A Boy”. In this song Beyonce lyrically imagines what it would be like to be a male. Even though the song sticks to mostly to patriarchal notions of manhood. However, it once more represents Beyonce’s seeming fascination with masculine identity.
Historically speaking, Beyonce isn’t the first woman to refer to herself as “King”. Pharaoh Hatshepsut, an ancient Egyptian woman, ruled as a man. A National Geographic article explains,
“Early reliefs show her performing kingly functions such as making offerings to the gods and ordering up obelisks from red granite quarries at Aswan. After just a few years she had assumed the role of “king” of Egypt, supreme power in the land. “
It is absolutely true that historically women have often had to situate themselves into masculinity and maleness in order to be taken serious. Given that patriarchy is the prevailing social concept in many of our societies, it makes sense that the female quest for power and legitimacy has often relied on women embracing a masculine gender expression.
However, it can also be said that gender non-conformity has consistently been one of the ways that we dismantle patriarchy. By recognizing that gender roles aren’t fixed, rigid, and impenetrable we challenge the patriarchal notions that tell us otherwise.
Every feminist has a past, and every patriarch has a future. I am a witness to the potential for radical transformation!
This picture is being passed around the internet as proof of T.I. being a good father. I have to disagree though. Honestly, T.I. was a horny young boy at one point, too, and I am pretty sure that he has done and said worse to other people’s daughters. One need only listen to his music to see that he has said far worse. T.I. comes off as the typical patriarchal father who is less interested in his daughter’s disrespect, and more interested in his male ego and beating his chest. It has always struck me as odd that certain men don’t want their daughters and sisters to be treated the SAME way that they treat other people’s daughters and sisters. I’m sorry, but T.I. isn’t impressing me in this instance. He can keep all that patriarchal male bravado.
“Seemingly innocuous words often have a profound charge depending on how and by whom they’re used. Tom knows, surely, how problematic it is to use the word “boy” to refer to an African-American. It’s not a curse word in most contexts, but when used by a white person to refer to an adult black male, it’s steeped in the long and painful history of racism in America. What many men fail to understand is that accusing a woman of being insane or of engaging in reprisals merely because she’s expressing forceful disagreement has an equivalent ugliness. If that seems hyperbolic, google the word “hysteria.”
All of this behavior reflects two things: men’s genuine fear of being challenged and confronted, and the persistence of the stereotype of feminists as being aggressive, wrathful, “man-bashers.” The painful thing about all this, of course, is that no man is in any real physical danger on the internet— or even in real life — from feminists. Women are regularly beaten and raped — even on college campuses — but I know of no instance where a man found himself a victim of violence for making a sexist remark in a feminist setting! “Male-bashing” doesn’t literally happen, in other words, at least not as a result of arguments over feminism. But that doesn’t stop men from using (in jest or no) their own exaggerated fear of physical violence to make a subtle point about feminists.” – Hugo Schwyzer
I have an ongoing interest in using music, particularly popular music, to examine the systems of inequality that so plague our world. For the past few days, the song “Trading Places” by Usher has been on my mind. The song, about a heterosexual male and heterosexual female “swapping roles,” so to speak presents this act as one of transformation, but in reality it is an act of inversion, relying heavily on gender stereotypes.
In this essay, I would like to examine the tendency for us to see acts of inversion as acts of transformation, and the way that we lazily rely on gender stereotypes.
Patriarchy as a system is one that hinges on male domination, and as a result it relies on a number of gender stereotypes to shore up its existence. For example, we are told that women can only do x, y, z, and that men can only do t, u v. Oftentimes, we do not even notice our complicity in the system, but Usher’s song provides an opportunity to examine some of the many stereotypes we hold about men and women.
Usher’s “Trading Places” is something of a patriarchal manifesto, but it fancies itself as transformation. But, in patriarchy, trading places is not transformation.
The song begins, “I know what you’re used to, We’re gonna do something different tonight.” The song really does believe that it is a transformation of gender stereotypes, rather than a mere inversion, but the subsequent lyrics of the song tell the true story, and reveals that places are being traded, but the mentality is one still rooted in gender stereotypes. In many relationships, particularly those that see themselves as challenging gender norms, the physicality changes, but the mentality stays the same.
Let’s examine some of the places that are traded in Usher’s world of gender stereotypes. The song continues, “You’re gonna come over and pick me up in your ride.” In the patriarchal imagination only men do the picking up on dates. Apparently, that is a man’s role, and the inversion of this is to have the woman do it. “You’re gonna open my door, and I’m gonna reach over and open yours.” Now in my mind, opening doors is a gender neutral act, but in the patriarchal imagination, one heavily populated by gender stereotypes, only the man opens doors.
In the second verse of the song, the song takes on a troubling narrative that relies all to heavily on gender stereotypes of men and sexual violence. Usher sings, “Girl, now take me home and get up in my pants. Pour me up a shot and *force* me to the bed.” Not only do these lyrics rely on dangerous gender stereotypes about men and sexuality, but they also tacitly support a culture of rape that imagines sex as an act of force, rather than an act of consent and mutuality.
As the song goes on, the gender stereotypes continue to roll off the assembly line. In the patriarchal world of gender stereotypes, men take out the trash while women wash the dishes, women iron clothes while men mess them up.
It’s fascinating, but not entirely surprising, that in the 21st century we still rely on these very primitive gender stereotypes about male and female behavior. I may be naive, but I would like to believe that opening doors, washing dishes, and picking up someone for a date are all gender neutral acts. Are these acts really the province of one gender, rather than the other?
I think it is most telling that the song repeats the refrain “I’m always on top, tonight I’m on the bottom.” I have long held the belief that viewing relationships as a top/bottom affair is a very destructive notion. In a relationship based on mutuality, there is no top/bottom or front/back, but rather two, or more, who are walking alongside each other.
I encourage those in relationships, of any sexual orientation, to look beyond gender stereotypes to a horizon that is rooted in gender transformation, rather than gender inversion. Our lives are worth more than the stereotypes we insist on defining it by. I would suggest that the answer isn’t trading places, but removing the need for their to be a “place,” to begin with.
“I do not need magic to change the world; I carry all the power I need inside myself already: I have the power to imagine better.” – J. K. Rowling
When I accepted a job as a sixth grade world history teacher, I knew that I was entering territory that had been occupied by many critical educators before me. I knew of the possibilities of education when it was melded with critical consciousness, and I was eager to partake in those possibilities, possibly extending them further.
I entered the education field with many tools at my disposal: an education from Florida A&M University, the full support of my family, my lifelong commitment to the field, and a true love for the subject that I was teaching. But, I knew that the goal that I had in mind for education would require something else, and that I would have to call upon my critical imagination to make that goal a reality. Spells would not be needed for the work that I was undertaking, but I did know that my critical imagination would serve me well in this endeavor, and, so, I entered the classroom with a commitment to feminist principles. I would as bell hooks says, educate out of a love for male and female being, refusing to privilege one over the other.
I have witnessed the opening of many doors on my journey as a feminist educator. Early on, I was given the opportunity to teach an elective class along with the content area course that I was required to teach. I conversed with many friends about the nature of the elective course, and what I wanted it to be, and with the encouragement of fellow feminist educator, Darnell Moore, I decided that I would teach a course on Media Studies as my elective. I truly felt that by interrogating the media, I would be able to bring a feminist ethics into the classroom in ways that are both interesting and liberating.
My journey as a feminist educator began on August 22, 2011. I’ll admit that I was a little nervous upon entering the classroom, and choosing to do the work that I was setting out to do. There are many people in the field of education, many of whom love it dearly, but there are few people educating for critical consciousness, and thus I knew that the work that I was about to undertake would be both risky and dangerous. For one thing, we are a society that deeply mistrusts and undervalues the critical capabilities of our students. We shield our students away from thinking critically about race, gender, and class, in the hopes that their ignorance of these issues will somehow make them more capable of confronting them. So, I dealt with the nagging insecurity that I would be misunderstood and misjudged for believing in the critical capabilities of sixth graders, for thinking that the 11 and 12 year old mind was as, or more, capable of confronting the deep questions plaguing our world today. Would sixth graders appreciate bell hooks? Would an 11 year old understand Toni Morrison? These were questions on my mind, and ones that I have been able to answer as the months have gone on.
It’s impossible for me to recount all the classroom experiences I have had over the past few months, but there have been many occasions of joy and reverie in my feminist classroom. I wasted no time in getting my students to think critically about gender, race, and class. After an initial breakdown of the five categories of the media, I had my students’ list terms and phrases that they felt were associated with each category: film, TV, movies, radio, and newspapers. These categories generated many responses, and thus began our journey.
One of the first things I did was a feminist educator was to train my students to be critical consumers of the media. I utilized Channel One news, to teach my students how to analyze, and not just be entertained by, the media. I had to model this behavior for my students, and, so, I showed them what kinds of things to look for. Was their racial diversity among the anchors? Were the anchors dressed in stereotypical colors or clothing to go along with their gender? How was class inserted into the shows? My students are now very adept at analyzing the news, and all aspects of media.
In one particular incident, Channel One news anchors repeatedly referred to the viewing audience by using the supposedly gender neutral greeting “Hey guys.” I asked my students whether or not they felt that “hey guys” was a gender neutral greeting, and while some of them thought it was, many other challenged the notion. Male and female students were quick to point out that one gender should not have to accept being ignored. One female student noted that she is not a guy, and didn’t want to be called one, either. I sent an email to Channel One news producer Dr. Paul Falkner letting him know that while my students and I enjoyed the newscast, we did not appreciate the privilege of one gender over the other. I shared the email with my students, and showed them the follow up response that I got from Channel One news. We were excited to see the show change its language, if only momentarily. Current broadcasts continue to struggle with using gender inclusive language, but my students remain critical of each occurrence, and always make note when an anchor refers to men and women as “guys.”
I and my students have tackled many issues in our Media Studies class. We have discussed the JC Penny’s T-shirt incidents, Occupy Wall Street, the death of Libyan dictator Gadhafi, the use and misuse of power, violence, homecoming queens, school bullying, media stereotypes, and much, much more. All of these issues have been better illuminated by the foregrounding of race, gender, and class consciousness into the classroom. We have been able to do more than scratch the surface of issues, but to truly interrogate them with a critical eye.
Most recently, I have been guiding my students through film, and allowing them to critically dissect the way that race, gender, and class are communicated in films directed toward children. PG films like The Incredibles aren’t usually thought to message our children about race, gender, and class, but they do. My students noted that Frozone’s wife had a stereotypical Black woman’s voice. My students noted that Helen aka “Elastigirl” spent the majority of the film doing housework. My students noted that there was a lack of racial diversity in the film, and that all of the cops were men. Their findings could go on and on. I want to note that these are critical discoveries they are making with their 11 and 12 year old eyes. Their young minds are keenly aware of the way that gender, race, and class are being messaged to them.
As a feminist educator, it is not enough for me to focus solely on gender. I strongly believe that systems of domination work in accordance with each other to marginalize our lives. My focus, as a feminist educator, has to be on race, gender, class, sexuality, religion, and disability. I have to make critical interventions in the classroom concerning a number of issues, and the work is never done.
Just recently, I had a student remark that she was going to paint her dog’s nails, but then thought otherwise because it is a male dog. I encouraged my student to consider that a female dog wouldn’t necessarily be any more interested in having its nails painted either. The student came to understand that we can’t make assumptions about gender that not all boys and girls like the same things, and that is why gender stereotypes are so dangerous.
I’m sure many are wondering how my student’s parents feel about the work that I am doing in their students educational lives. I am pleased to say that I have received support and affirmation from my student’s parents. One of my coworkers, who have a son in my class, awarded me for the school’s “academic achievement” award, given to an outstanding classroom teacher who shows passion for the subject, and encourages students to make real-world connections with what is being learned. She noted the work that I am doing in the media studies class as one of the main reasons for giving me this award. I have had parents tease me about their homes becoming locations where all sorts of stereotypes are recognized, named, and challenged.
I feel very fortunate to be doing the work that I am doing. I know that some people search an entire lifetime looking to do the passionate work they were put on this earth to perform, and I am glad to say that I am performing my work at the age of twenty-three. I trusted in my imagination, I listened deeply to my critical voice, and I made a commitment to education. I never once doubted that my sixth graders wouldn’t be able to grasp the concepts we discuss, or that they wouldn’t be interested in the work that we do in our class. In my opinion, the mind is more fecund at their age, and, thus, more open to interrogating topics of race, gender, and class. I think we truly do ourselves, and our nation, a disservice by making students wait until college to discuss the topics that they are more than capable of discussing in middle school. My students have shown that they are capable, and countless other students around the country have as well. I am proud to be among the ranks of the world’s feminist educators, and I hope to continue to doing the powerful and necessary work of feminist education. New narratives are being written in education, and I intended to continue being one of the writers.