Joseph Klett, University of California, Santa Cruz
Is Beyoncé a feminist? And why is this a good question to pose in an undergraduate social theory course?
The answer to the second question is revealed in how students answer the first: of course Beyoncé is a feminist! Students implore: did you not see last year's MTV Video Music Awards? Beyoncé performed on stage in front of lights that spelled out the word “FEMINIST” in huge letters. Why question this self-identification by one of the most powerful and well-recognized women in popular music?
“Well,” other students might say - perhaps with some prodding by the instructor – “let’s think about this.” Beyoncé put “FEMINIST” in bright lights, but does “Queen Bey” fit the definition of feminism as presented by theorists like Dorothy Smith?
As heads in the lecture hall begin to nod in the other direction, a third perspective emerges in the crowd. Beyoncé’s last tour was called the “Mrs. Carter Tour.” This identifies her foremost as the wife of Shawn Carter, better known as Jay Z. Does it matter that she is a black woman crafting this message? Another student, anticipating Patricia Hill Collins’ elaboration of feminist theory, asserts that race is a context that imposes different expectations on women in society. Is Beyoncé not challenging expectations of black women when she promotes her equal partnership with Jay Z?
Posing the question “Is Beyoncé a feminist?” demonstrates the value of using popular culture for teaching social theory. The question challenges us to reconsider our seemingly self-evident nomothetic concepts: what does it mean to be a feminist? As a critical theory, feminist theory is not just descriptive. Feminist theory is also normative in the sense that it urges theorists to reflect on the ways that they apply the term “feminism” to empirical evidence. If we employ Smith’s concept of standpoint, what other perspectives emerge that problematize Beyoncé’s calls for “equality?” Can there be gender equality without political or economic equality? And what, if anything, changes when we consider Beyoncé’s intersectional identity as a black woman?
While such theoretical issues may all be illustrated using empirical examples from academic literature, there is added pedagogical value in tapping into more readily available illustrations.
First, popular culture is widely accessible. As Smith herself implores us to do, we must locate theory where we are in the world, instead of solely where we want to be. And rather than recreate the social world anew, we – the sociologists – must also locate students where they are. Neither students nor instructors need consume Beyoncé’s music in order to know Beyoncé’s story: what arguments in popular media may lack in theoretical rigor, they make up for in abundance.
Second, popular culture helps demystify social theory. Examples from popular culture help students recognize theoretical concepts in the wilds of their everyday lives. Especially for students begrudgingly fulfilling a theory requirement, the use of familiar examples can bring theory down to earth in ways that spur debate not only between students and instructors, but also among classmates, friends, and families.
Third, popular culture is a source of empirical data in its own right. Icons like Beyoncé play a unique role in society. Students can inquire into the nature of this role, and consider how an icon can change the very symbolic system in which he or she operates. It is of course important to distinguish “Beyoncé the social actor” from “Beyoncé the social icon” – and making these distinctions can generate fruitful theoretical questions in the classroom. In this sense, popular culture provides more than pedagogical expediency; it provides theoretical opportunities all its own.
I would like to offer some advice for those who have trepidation about theorizing in the world of popular culture.
First, popular culture is not the same thing as youth culture. Younger students may seem better versed in the stuff, but this does not disqualify you from offering your own perspective. Students might resent you for forcing a beloved icon under the analytical lens; more likely, though, they’ll appreciate you for connecting theory to something they already care about. Subsequent examples will find them even more ready and willing to engage.
Second, be respectful. Before mobilizing popular culture in your theory lessons, check your own opinions and biases on the examples you select. Students are more receptive if you approach Twitter and the Kardashians with the same equanimity as you do civil infrastructure and the Medici. You’re entitled to an opinion; but it’s best to get this opinion clear in your own head before you subject this material to analysis. Only then can you develop a complex object of conversation that allows multiple perspectives to emerge in the classroom. More to the point, this is simply better pedagogy. By allowing students to think widely about a topic before they focus their theoretical lens, you may end up doing more than simply applying theory to the social world: you may also help them see how theory-building works in practice. Steer the middle and you will find a very productive discussion.
Does this mean that you need to consume more pop culture yourself? Yes. If this seems like a burden, know that you need not search far to find plenty of good material. Aside from the news media you’re already reading, magazines like The New Yorker, websites like Slate, and shows like The Daily Show are established outlets for theoretical exegesis. My personal favorites include satirical sketch programs like Key & Peele and Inside Amy Schumer (both on Comedy Central). The ASA’s own Contexts is also a great resource for terse analyses of popular culture. Even better, find the blog of a sociologist who specializes in popular culture, and check it regularly. On the topic of Beyoncé, for example, websites like Colorlines (www.colorlines.com) and Racialicious (www.racialicious.com) provide excellent scholarly analyses.
Using popular culture to teach social theory does not require sub-specialization. In an oft-cited interview in Vogue, Beyoncé is quoted as saying, "That word [feminism] can be very extreme... but I guess I am a modern-day feminist. I do believe in equality." She follows this assertion with the sentiment, “But I'm happily married. I love my husband.” Show your students what you find interesting about these statements, and they will show you how relevant popular culture can be for teaching theory in the classroom.