Beyoncé ‘feminist’ Ms. magazine cover earns mixed reviews

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Beyoncé is the controversial cover girl for the Spring 2013 edition of the esteemed Ms. magazine, a 42-year-old publication with plenty of feminist cred. The cover art is Beyoncé in an asymmetrical pink dress with a silver shimmery strap and the headline “Beyoncé’s Fierce Feminism.”

Some question the motives of Ms. magazine and say that the mag only has the pop star on the cover to boost sales. Having Beyoncé on the cover of pretty much any magazine is a no-brainer for an editor. But beyond increased sales for the magazine, the Beyoncé cover story is sparking discussion about the intersection of race and gender and more specifically about the notion of “respectability politics” that seems to only apply to women of color.

That in itself is a worthy discussion and does not at all detract from Ms. magazine’s core mission of providing intelligent and hard-hitting feminist political analysis.

Who said you can’t be sexy and a feminist?

Ms. magazine’s Facebook page contains comments that are representative of the other reasons why Beyoncé is a controversial choice for a feminist magazine cover story. Many people, simply do not see Beyoncé as a feminist even though she has labeled herself as such.

“If she’s wearing stripper outfits, dancing like a stripper for men, and calling women “b*tches,” she’s not a feminist. Despite what the so-called “third wave feminists” are claiming, feminism is NOT whatever the hell you want it to be,” said one commenter.

Comments like that harken to the notion of respectability politics and the more general discussion of whether or not you can be overtly sexy and still be a feminist. For black women, whose portrayals in media over the years often toggled between asexual Mammy and hypersexual Sapphire, any and every famous black woman is automatically given the added responsibility of “representing” for her demographic.

Is it empowering to see a multi-millionaire strut around in six-inch heels and barely-there outfits while belting out the latest “you go girl” anthem or is Beyoncé a (literally) glittering, in-your-face example of how far away we are from attaining feminist ideals in this country?  Can a woman who says “girls” run the world in one song and tells bitches to bow down in another truly be considered a feminist?

Read the story before you comment

Another commenter on the Ms. Facebook page chimed in as a peacemaker. “The cover will provoke conversation and debate, which could be good, or it could just go down the endless cycle of name-calling: “Slut!” “Slut-shamer!” “Puppet to men’s domination!” “Uptight, close-minded jealous has-beens!”

Is it possible we can have this debate WITHOUT the vitriol?” said the commenter.

Most of the commenters probably have not read the story. The typical Facebook page commenting pattern is to read a headline, don’t read the story and then make long-winded arguments about what is assumed to be in the story. For this piece in particular though, it’s worth actually reading it. Janell Hobson, the author of the cover story, penned a thoughtful, well-written, well-researched piece that brings in numerous opinions from academics and pop culture critics.

Additionally, a look at the Ms. magazine covers for the past decade or so reveals that Beyoncé is very much a departure from Ms. magazine’s usual cover aesthetics and the typical cover story. The previous issue was an illustration of a wire hanger for an article about abortion.  Author Alice Walker, a former Ms. contributor who coined the term womanism, resigned from the magazine in the 1980s citing the publication’s lack of women of color on the covers.

Regardless of the personal opinions on whether or not Beyoncé in particular is a feminist or if Ms. magazine is somehow sullying its name by having a pop star on the cover, the fact remains that the story has started a conversation amongst a diverse set of interested parties and that is a good thing.

Follow Demetria Irwin on Twitter at @Love_Is_Dope.