As Beyoncé opens the flood gates, steps out of her baptism, and emerges onto the streets, she leaves a less-than-perfect New Orleans and enters a new, constructed portrayal of a topic New Orleans in what is most obviously a Hollywood set. It is garnished with set props and extras to give the illusion of reality. It is a dream. What makes it most idealistic are the bright pastel colors, the bustling locals, and the seemingly gratuitous smile she dons as she struts through the town with a baseball bat, smashing car windows and fire hydrants on her way. This feels like a safe space. Beyoncé’s actions feel cathartic. And although it does look very constructed, something about this place feels real…and liberating. To many, Lemonade is an epic anthem for black feminism, but for others it is not quite so much.
bell hooks, a popular black feminist author, wrote a rather abrasive critique on Beyoncé’s Lemonade. In the first paragraph of the critique hooks refers to Lemonade as “the business of capitalist money making at its best—” a “commodity,” created primarily to exploit black female bodies for capital gain. In terms of “Hold Up,” hooks suggests that Beyoncé’s actions in the scene is simply a fantastical exhibit of black female violence and rage—which hooks later dismisses as the antithesis of positive change for black women.
Although there are a few contentions I have with bell hooks’ critique of Lemonade, it is perhaps most fitting to narrow the scope to just two: hooks’ argument on exploitation of black female bodies and black female violence disrupting progress for black women and black feminism. What is perhaps less apparent, but rather prominent in the subtext of hooks’ critique of Lemonade is the lack of recognition towards Beyoncé’s humanity. hooks reads Beyoncé’s “Hold Up” as a glamorization of black female violence. However, what hooks fails to acknowledge in her critique is that Beyoncé is not solely a vessel in which to establish calls to action. Lemonade is still an artful portrayal of Beyoncé’s experiences and identity. “Hold Up” is a reflection of that.
“Hold Up,” and on a larger scale, Lemonade, is so relatable to its viewers (particularly black women) not because they actively wish to embody the same things Beyoncé narrates, but because these ideas become palpable thoughts, often without an outlet. The setting of “Hold Up” reinforces this idea, such that its utopian and idealistic design denotes its misplacement in the real world. That is, it doesn’t exist. The scene is not actually real. Beyoncé is not actually smashing windows, surveillance cameras, and fire hydrants. It is simply a dream. This harkens to the core undertones of “Hold Up”: the complete liberation of black women is a fantastical dream, as long as they exist within spaces dominated by a Eurocentric patriarchy. To dismiss this as a glamorization of violence is a severe oversight and a dismissal of Beyoncé’s humanity.
Additionally, bell hooks is asking quite a lot of Beyoncé’s work in Lemonade. Simply put, Beyoncé cannot single-handedly liberate black women. Beyoncé cannot single-handedly end racism. Beyoncé cannot single-handedly end the patriarchy. Beyoncé cannot single-handedly end the pain and suffering from generations of oppression. And Lemonade was perhaps not intended to do anything remotely of the sort. Lemonade and “Hold Up” are delineations of the struggle that black women face at the intersection of blackness and womanhood. bell hooks’ dismissal of Beyoncé voicing this struggle is lacking. In this critique, hooks’ outlook on the current state of black feminism as it relates to works like Lemonade seems to be rather narrow.
Lastly, it seems as though bell hooks is forcing Beyoncé into a box which restricts black women from employing violence to combat the patriarchy. Many times over, bell hooks maintains that violence will not lead black women to self-love, self-realization, and the like. However, this critique seems to tip toe into a realm of respectability politics. It is difficult to assert a single solution to an issue which has yet to be resolved, much less an issue which can and does affect many different people in many different ways.
hooks also states that Beyoncé’s “sexualization” of violence in “Hold Up” is a result of commodification and capitalism. This poses problems for me because it seems to reject the ownership of sexuality that Beyoncé embodies in “Hold Up.” Sexualization of black women by external sources is especially prominent in patriarchal society. Part of what makes Lemonade so captivating is Beyoncé’s assertion of her sexuality, whether subtly or overtly. What makes this even more impactful is to witness this just a couple years after Beyoncé gave birth to her first child. As Beyoncé reclaims her sexuality and resists “postpartum re-virginization” in Lemonade it is very interesting to see bell hooks’ oversight in acknowledging it.
Anger, violence, and jealousy are all very tangible phenomena which Beyoncé navigates in “Hold Up.” It is a microcosm of the entire Lemonade visual album such that it explores Beyoncé’s humanity and offers a deeper insight into the status of the black female identity in its subtext. It is personally slightly disheartening to witness a project like “Lemonade” be met with such scathing critiques from prominent black feminists like bell hooks, however, it is also reassuring to see that Beyoncé continues to make strong and impactful statements on such a large scale. And something tells me that, especially after getting snubbed at the Grammy Awards, Beyoncé won’t stop making statements anytime soon.