Black women are, it seems, damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Our collective singleness, independence, and unsanctioned mothering are an affront to mainstream womanhood. But a high-profile married black woman who uses her husband’s name (if only for purposes of showbiz) or admits the influence her male partner has had on her life is an affront to feminism.
Wilson says that in the context of pathologized black womanhood and black relationships, Beyoncé and the Knowles-Carter clan “counter a narrative about our families that has been defined by the media for too long about what our families must look like and how they’re comprised.” Black women’s sexuality and our roles as mothers and partners have been treated as public issues as far back as slavery, even as family life for most citizens has been viewed as a private matter. Our nation’s “peculiar institution” treated human beings—black human beings—as property. And so, black women’s partnering—when and whom we partnered with and the offspring of those unions—were at the very foundation of the American economy. According to Jackson, “People would talk about black women’s sexuality in polite company like they would talk about race horses foaling calves.”
Like critiques of her sexed-up performances, response to Beyoncé’s recent pregnancy illustrates that black female bodies remain fodder for public gossip. Even with the devotion of mainstream media (especially the entertainment and gossip genres) to monitoring female celebrities’ sexuality, “baby bumps,” and engagement rocks, the speculation about Beyoncé’s womb stands apart as truly bizarre. Almost as soon as the singer revealed her pregnancy at the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards, there was conjecture—amplified by a televised interview in which the singer’s dress folded “suspiciously” around her middle—that it was all a ruse to cover for the use of a surrogate.
The HBO documentary, which chronicled her pregnancy, failed to quiet the deliberation. Gawker writer Rich Juzwiak proclaimed, “Beyoncé has never been less convincing about the veracity of her pregnancy than she was in her own movie…. We never see a full, clear shot of Beyoncé’s pregnant, swanlike body. Instead it’s presented in pieces, owing to the limitations of her Mac webcam. When her body is shown in full, it’s in grainy, black-and-white footage in which her face is shadowed.” There is, in this assessment, a disturbing assumption of ownership over Beyoncé’s body. Why won’t this woman display her naked body on television to prove to the world that she carried a baby in her uterus?
The conversation surrounding Beyoncé feels like assessing a prize thoroughbred rather than observing a human woman, and it is dismaying when so-called feminist discourse contributes to that. Feminism is about challenging structural inequalities in society, but the criticism of Beyoncé as a feminist figure smacks of hating the player and ignoring the game, to twist an old phrase.