At the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards, Beyoncé stood on stage in front of a global audience of millions, and declared herself a feminist.
It was one of the year’s most powerful images — and also one of its most controversial. The backlash came as swiftly as the praise; and many critics wondered whether Beyoncé should be “allowed” to call herself a feminist in the first place. (You can probably guess where HelloGiggles stands.)
Ultimately, the moment sparked a greater debate about intersectional feminism; what the word “feminist” really means; and how Queen Bey would factor into the movement. But years before Beyoncé stopped the world with her feminist declaration, one professor at Rutgers University was already shedding light on the politics of the pop star. Kevin Allred’s class, Politicizing Beyoncé, sought to use Bey’s life as a jumping off point for exploring issues of race, gender, and sexuality; using a syllabus of black feminist writers to help guide the course. Unsurprisingly, the class was very popular — yet after five successful years, The Guardian reports that Rutgers has decided to cancel it.
“Behind the scenes, they told me that because so many people wanted to take it, it was detracting from other courses,” Allred told The Guardian. “But beyond that, I have seen a larger issue with Beyoncé intervening in academic debates and black feminism in general.”
Both students and teachers are rightfully disappointed by the news — especially because the university’s decision seemingly ignores all the good the class was doing. Historically, minority women have fallen to the wayside in our pursuit of gender equality. But rather than leave WOC out of the conversation and the classroom, it is essential we lift them up — and Politicizing Beyoncé was doing just that.
After all, gender equality isn’t equality at all if it’s achieved at the expense of those deemed “unworthy” — whether due to race, class, ability, or otherwise. And while Beyoncé was Allred’s way of piquing students’ interest, the root of his class hoped to tackle how WOC fit into the feminist movement. Ever since Beyoncé dared to suggest her feminism with her surprise self-titled album, she’s been policed and relentlessly critiqued on an arbitrary scale of how a feminist should act. This fits into a much greater narrative of holding women — especially black women and women of color — to a different set of standards if they hope to be taken seriously.
“I wanted to teach a course grounded entirely in black feminism,” Allred told The Guardian. “There are a lot of ways to teach that information, but I thought using Beyoncé would bring a younger and more engaged audience. I think she’s a good lens for the material, because she is a prominent black woman and the only artist putting feminist messages explicitly in her music.”
“She’s dropping all these pieces and asking us to unravel her message,” he continued. “There is so much to work with.”
Not everyone agreed with Allred, however — and as he goes on to explain, when he was first designing the class, he received just as much pushback about Beyoncé as he did about the black feminists he hoped to teach. That Rutgers ultimately canceled the class implies that they believe both are unworthy of academic discussion — when that’s definitely not the case. Even if Bey hadn’t proclaimed herself a feminist, we think pop culture has an important place in academia; and Beyoncé, in particular, is a major touchstone for things much bigger than her music.
Here’s hoping the university reconsiders its decision next semester.
(Images via Giphy, Shutterstock.)