Black American cultural theorist bell hooks’ distinguished contribution to sociology has been to unearth the intersecting issues of cultural difference, race and knowledge within feminism. Starting out as a literature professor, hooks would go on to challenge cultural studies in the early 1980s with books such as Ain’t I A Woman?: Black Women and Feminism and Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre. Her work shows how women of colour have been marginalised by power structures in society as well as by White feminists who purport to speak about the universal struggle of all women. hooks argued that mainstream feminism silences experiences of race, ethnicity and class.
For the past three decades, hooks has explored the representation of race in popular culture, and how this affects social relations and public education. In the seminal Cultural Transformation video series, from 1997, bell hooks explains the importance of critical thinking for women in general, as well as for racial justice. Her work has been adopted by feminists and cultural theorists around the world. Let’s take a look back at this work and its prevailing resonance two decades later.
“Simply put, feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression… As all advocates of feminist politics know, most people do not understand sexism, or if they do, they think it is not a problem. Masses of people think that feminism is always and only about women seeking to be equal to men. And a huge majority of these folks think feminism is anti-male. Their misunderstanding of feminist politics reflects the reality that most folks learn about feminism from patriarchal mass media.”
A new film is in development which documents the rise of American rappers N.W.A. The Straight Outta Compton bioepic casting call came under heavy criticism for being racist, as the casting agent was asking for four different “classes” of “girls,” which were organised around skin tone. I argue that the casting call is not simply racist; it is also sexist, and reflecting colonial relations. The focus on lighter skin tone of Black women as an ideal of beauty has a long and profoundly damaging history. This racist ideology continues to the present day and problematically positions darker skin tones as less beautiful, and attaches additional stigma to Black women. As we’ll see in this casting call, even in a film about successful Black men, being a “dark” Black woman is analogous to being “out of shape,” unattractive and poor. There is an interplay between racism and class in this “colour code” which is further implied in the casting call, through the focus on hair. By stipulating that the “beautiful class” of women should have straight hair, and that the less desirable “classes” have weaves, there is a racist, sexist and class exclusion at play that penalises Black women’s femininity.
Even though many advocates of feminist politics are angered by Sandberg’s message, the truth is that alone, individually she was no threat to feminist movement. Had the conservative white male dominated world of mass media and advertising not chosen to hype her image, this influential woman would not be known to most folks. It is this patriarchal male dominated re-framing of feminism, which uses the body and personal success of Sheryl Sandberg, that is most disturbing and yes threatening to the future of visionary feminist movement. The model Sandberg represents is all about how women can participate and “run the world.” But of course the kind of world we would be running is never defined. It sounds at times like benevolent patriarchal imperialism. This is the reason it seemed essential for feminist thinkers to respond critically, not just to Sandberg and her work, but to the conservative white male patriarchy that is using her to let the world know what kind of woman partner is acceptable among elites, both in the home and in the workplace.
bell hooks talks about Lean In as the antithesis of revolutionary feminism. She argues Sheryl Sandberg has offered a masculine vision of success that is measured by material gain and fitting in with dominant White male corporate culture. hooks argues while Sandberg may have some semblance of feminist spirit guiding her philosophy, she is not an advocate of feminist politics. People want a “positive” story and individual exceptionalism; they don’t want to hear about the obstacles that minorities face in everyday life. They don’t want to hear that people like Sandberg get ahead by fitting in to their environment and bending to the existing structure, rather than fighting against it actively.
hooks argues that Lean In is aimed at a very small, White group of already successful women, rather than presenting a model for altering the system to allow diversity to flourish. Click below to listen.
Read bell hooks expand her argument on why “powerful White male-dominated mass media” gave Sheryl Sandberg so much attention.
Several recent articles recreate the ever-popular idea that beauty aesthetics are based on biological imperatives. The premise of this argument is false – beauty, sex, gender and the social consequences of their related biological processes are not pre-determined. This line of thinking lumps the complexity of human experience and sexual expression into a uniform category and it provides the false impression that nothing can be done to change human behaviour. Sociology can help unpackage how and why so-called “common sense” ideas about beauty become established as commonplace knowledge. Contrary to what mainstream culture may have us believe, beauty ideals can be challenged and transformed. Beauty-based discrimination is not natural nor is it unavoidable.