Erotic or Thanatic?: Black Feminist Criticism on the Ropes – The Feminist Wire

Erotic or Thanatic?: Black Feminist Criticism on the Ropes

Reprinted from Palimpsest: A Journal on Women, Gender, and the Black International, with SUNY Press.

Update: Final copy now available in Palimpsest: A Journal on Women, Gender and the Black International: Liberations Across Boundaries, Vol. 1, Issue 1, Spring/Summer 2012.


Erotic Revolutionaries: Black Women, Sexuality, and Popular Culture. By Shayne Lee. Lanham, MD: Hamilton Books, 2010. 145 pages

Upon my first reading of Shayne Lee’s Erotic Revolutionaries: Black Women, Sexuality, and Popular Culture, I couldn’t help but think that this self-anointed “prince of third wave feminism” set up a straw woman, namely black feminist academics, as the sex police, adherents to a conservative and repressive politics of respectability in order to work his hustle.  Having gained little traction in the fading academic star system and failing to enter public intellectual territory, perhaps he found black feminist academics to be the low lying fruit ripe for the picking?  Is this “prince” who dispenses advice about subversive scripts for black female sexual agency really a leering “frog” in disguise?

Full disclosure here. Shayne Lee and I have a gnarled history.  He ran me down when I was a second-year graduate student in Religious Studies when I critiqued his book on T.D. Jakes (more on that later).  And more recently he sent me a text message after he was allowed to preview this review in order to offer an author response in this forum.  Needless to say, he didn’t like the contents and so cautioned me:

I strongly suggest u read the book carefully to rewrite the review. My response will expose each and every hole. . . . It won’t be pretty, I can promise u that. It’s obvious no one taught u the format of good book review. I hope u learn it fast bc my response will indicate your gross flaws.

Presumably, a “good book review” is one that praises rather than thinks critically about Lee’s work.  Nevertheless, the zeitgeist of black feminism and my fondness for bell hooks’ important text Talking Back: thinking feminist, thinking black, propels me to choose the latter.  Erotic Revolutionaries, coupled with Lee’s first book, T. D. Jakes: America’s New Preacher, presents an interesting brand of feminism, what feminist theologian Sarojini Nadar and professor of psychology Cheryl Potgieter duly call “formenism.”[1] A close reading of these texts show Lee upholding Jakes, the industrious religious icon whose gendered insights are very much wedded to a politics of respectability, as a feminist on one hand, and in Erotic Revolutionaries, doing a fancy-footed slide (pummeling black feminists on the way) to change course on the other. Lee has either evolved or devolved depending on your perspective.

To be sure, his reading of Jakes and black feminists is puzzling.  Lee notes one as both progressive (in spite of respectability politics) and sexist, and the other as retrograde and illiberal (because of respectability politics).  Black feminists get the short end of the stick while Jakes enjoys the fruit of nuance.  To be fair, Lee highlights some of Jakes’ sexist overtones.  However, he negates the politics and dangers of reading women in terms of some imagined sense of innate femininity, relationality, softness, weakness, or beauty, or worse, interpreting them in terms of a problem.  In Woman Thou Art Loosed, Jakes constructs women as agents “gripped” by a “spirit” that makes them emotionally and psychologically ill, hurt, desperate, manipulative, destructive, abusive, obsessive, clingy, selfish, insecure, gullible, weak, and promiscuous.[2] In short, women are problems that have forsaken their “God-given femininity” and thus need changing (i.e. loosing).

In a section entitled, “Jakes the Feminist,” Lee asserts: “In light of women’s ongoing political struggle for spiritual leadership, an analysis of Jakes’ message to women should begin by acknowledging that in many ways he is a feminist who has given unapologetic support to women pastors.”[3] Perhaps anticipating feminist backlash for such a claim, Lee ultimately consecrates Jakes as an anti-feminist/feminist who endorses gender essentialisms while also empowering women.  Lee ultimately errs on the latter side.  He sees Jakes as fighting patriarchy because he supports women preachers—even if this support develops within a limited Jakes orchestrated paradigm that does not see women and girls as equal subjects, treats them as objects of beauty, and enforces politics of respectability.  This reading is not innocuous.  Lee’s work on Jakes is insightful for reading Erotic Revolutionaries.  While the politics of respectability that are undeniably bound up with Jakes’ Woman Thou Art Loosed must go, Jakes’ anti-feminist/feminist nuance shows up in varying intervening spaces in Erotic Revolutionaries.

Erotic Revolutionaries is a slim, but tantalizing volume divided up into nine snappy chapters, plus an introduction and epilogue.  The book is more descriptive and prescriptive than interpretative, glosses over history and cultural studies rather than deeply engaging them, and thus demonstrates the limits of Lee’s sociological insights when it comes to the finer feminist literary, historical, and political tools needed for solid black cultural criticism.  He argues that black academic feminist discourses on black sexual politics are overdetermined by black respectability politics formulated at the turn of the twentieth century.  While politics of respectability may have been resourceful then, particularly given the context, contemporary circumstances both enable and demand something different, namely, a new sexual discourse that is both empowered and sexy according to Lee.

He asserts:

One must step outside the corridors of academia to find black women pursing bodily pleasure with a sense of entitlement, or celebrating sexualized women as assertive and strong.  Prominent pro-sex works invariably arrive from black feminists outside of the academy like Audre Lorde and Jewelle Gomez (and their intellectual successors Rebecca Walker and Tara Roberts), while black feminist scholarship is virtually devoid of sex-positive classic texts.  Regarding sexualized female bodies, black academics consume themselves with detecting patriarchy up to its old tricks again, attentively unearthing oppression but seldom advocating agency, autonomy, and pleasure.  While black feminist scholars patrol the airwaves for degrading images of women, African-American women in popular culture recommence a legacy of insubordination against the politics of respectability.[4]

Hoping to “flip the script” for and on black academic feminists, he turns to his “erotic revolutionaries,” women who express lived feminisms through proactive, sexually expressive performances, for example, singers Janet Jackson, Beyonce Knowles, and Jill Scott, video vixen Karrine Stephens, urban fiction writer Zane, tennis phenomenon Serena Williams, local talk show host Alexyss Tylor, Christian evangelists Ty Adams and Juanita Bynum, comediennes Sommore and Monique, and former supermodel Tyra Banks.

Lee holds that each produce subversive sexual scripts that disorient gendered doubled standards while simultaneously disrupting operating respectability codes in black academic feminist (and other) sexual discourses.  While he does not name any names or critically examine specific texts, streams of thought, or explicit points of contention, Lee hones in on black academic feminists and suggests that dismissive tendencies, characteristic of the group, are passé.  Gone are the days of emphasizing the projection or uncritical display of historical stereotypes.  Interpreting these “erotic revolutionaries” (and others) as passive, hyper-sexualized objects of male desire, or oppressive plays on the Jezebel trope, both conscious and unconscious, is no longer “feminist chic.”  In vogue is seeing these actors as liberated agents who subjectively and purposefully write their own uninhibited sexual scripts.

Lee posits that their attention to personal pleasure and displeasure, and explicit articulation of sexual longings, complexities, and vagina power, provide new and assertive scripts, which present feminism as strong, smart, edgy, ambitious, socially conscious, and independent[5]—while simultaneously sexually empowered, explicit, entitled, objectifying, sensual, transparent, “lustful,” “girlie,” and “freaky.”[6] His chapter, “Serena and the Power Chicks” (and their “sweaty female bodies in bras and tiny spandex shorts”[7]) is telling, not just because he refers to them as “sex symbols,”[8] “hot,”[9] “babes,”[10] or even “finely tuned machines,”[11] but because of the unequivocal arousal of a creeping sexualizing male gaze, and glaring ahistoricism that implicitly undergirds much of Lee’s brand of feminism.

In his discussion about the WNBA’s uniforms in comparison to the sport of women’s tennis, Lee asserts:

Tangential to the competitive performance, women tennis players often wear sexy outfits such as short skirts and fitted tops, which allow fans to delight in the aesthetic pleasure of seeing gorgeous ripped bodies as they run and dive across the court. Given the visual affection for women’s tennis, one wonders whether the WBNA might consider taking a page from women’s tennis by trading in those unflattering baggy uniforms for more sleek, form-fitting outfits which accentuate their beautifully toned athletic bodies. It might be argued that such attention to aesthetic detail would likely allow women’s basketball to give the NBA a run for its money as well. Being beautiful and sexy and being taken seriously as elite athletes is not a zero-sum game.[12]

Had Lee done a viewing of the documentary Out for a Change, he would have known that women basketball players experimented with his suggestion and found it wanting.  They objected to the skimpy uniforms because they felt the uniforms gave the game a burlesque show quality.  They wanted the focus to be on their sportswomanship.  Lee would probably attribute the WNBA players’ objections to complicity with respectability politics.  Yet, the entire point of feminism is that women should have choices and opportunities.  And these black female athletes made a different choice.

Lee’s penetrating gaze is informed by the work of Elizabeth Wurtzel (and others[13]) who argues that utilizing women’s desirability (i.e. their “pretty” and “pussy power”) for popular consumption makes women powerful and smart.[14] However, had he consulted Susan J. Douglas’ Enlightened Sexism he may have imagined sex positive feminism differently, as more than black women’s right to display how “freaky” and “girlie” they can be—for men.  Douglas defines “enlightened sexism” as a subtle, yet underhanded form of sexism that superficially celebrates female achievements while invalidating feminism in reality and thus, keeping women, particularly the young, in their place.[15] Specifically, enlightened sexism highlights women’s right to dress and act as risqué as they like, even like call girls, thus not only displaying sexual equity with men, but also women’s right to choose how and when to display their sex and sexuality—as powerful deciding subjects, not mere objects.

Douglas demonstrates that American media, for example television networks like MTV, BET, and others saw this as an opportunity and thus began highlighting the idea that [the] power [to get what one wants] is through sex and sexual display.  The underlying message is that power is achieved by catering to (and thus becoming an object of) male desire.  She holds that the rise of “enlightened sexism” led to the sexpert persona[16], one who empowers women to own their sexuality like their male counterparts, who she notes is “almost always white, young, heterosexual, slim, busty, beautiful, and middle- or upper-middle-class (i.e. the media’s target demographic)…ideal for the age of enlightened sexism because she is a hybrid of empowerment and objectification.”[17] While the sexpert gives advice on gaining sexual power, what is ignored is the simultaneous acquiescence to male/female desire and other power-laden requirements within a patriarchal context, which blocks potential leveling.  Ultimately, women come to believe that they are in total control while they are more likely participating in an inequitable transaction—not because their sexual proclivities are left unmet, but because there is a price for them to pay.  However, context metes out costs differently, usually according to gender, race, class, sexuality, power, ethnicity, location, profession, age, etc.  Lee’s sex-positive feminism, which is a little too dependent on third-wave white feminist sexual liberalists, misses this altogether.  T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting’s Pimps Up, Ho’s Down: Hip Hop’s Hold On Young Black Women provides a sustained analysis on how race functions differently in sexual liberalism that would have been useful in his analysis.

In short, a working class black woman dancing in a local strip club in the backwoods of Mississippi or the 8th Mile area of Detroit, performing the same stage routine as Janet Jackson (or Brittney Spears), is going to get a different response.  Although the woman may feel both empowered and sexy as Lee might argue, she faces a set of consequences made allowable by historical circumstances that are unlikely for Jackson (and especially Spears), and improbable for her male counterparts.  That is, the sexual liberalism of everyday black women and girls, dissimilar to Lee’s “erotic revolutionaries,” is often (mis)read as “ho-ing.”  Further, most lack the benefit of having someone guard their bodies, or safeguard their space, integrity, and humanity, either materially or symbolically.

What Lee is touting as sexual power and agency is mock power[18], an illusion of power and choice, both of which function within history and context.  Moreover, power, choice and what one finds revolutionary is not reducible to sex, beauty, and desirability.  Power highlights women’s right to bodily integrity, equity, human fulfillment, individual decision-making, and radical subjectivity, regardless.  Revolution denotes rebellion against phenomena attempting to subvert these aims, including but not limited to the production of alternative sexual scripts that detail what is erotic or revolutionary for black women, thus attempting to regulate what is in vogue versus what is not.

To this end, Erotic Revolutionaries is un-emancipatory for black women—not because of Lee’s gender but because of his politics.  Akin to Jakes, Lee’s feminism waxes and wanes too easily between patriarchy and pornotropic gazing, is historically anemic, and too dismissive of dissenting positions.  Nevertheless, while Lee is no Michael Awkward, David Ikard or Mark Anthony Neal when it comes to black male feminism, there is hope.  I suggest he go back to the lab and read some black women historians—not just the two articles by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham and Darlene Clark-Hines[19]—but Elsa Barkley-Brown, Tera Hunter, Deborah Gray-White, Nell Painter, Tiffany Ruby Patterson, Anastasia Curwood; then move on to some Hortense Spillers, Mae G. Henderson, Toni Cade Bambara’s The Black Woman, and the Combahee River Collective; seriously engage bell hooks, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, Gwendolyn Pough, and Tricia Rose rather than glum on to their analyses, and Patricia Hill-Collins’ Black Feminist Thought and concepts of intersectionality—after all she is a sociologist.

Next reread Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider with a focus on her essay, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” which discusses the differences between erotica and thanatic pornography.  And, if he can read Jane Fonda, a firebrand feminist with Black Power street cred, then he can certainly read Assata Shakur’s Assata and Elaine Brown’s A Taste of Power as well as Beverly Guy-Sheftall’s anthology Words of Fire and Paula Giddings’s When and Where I Enter.  Though this is just a beginning and the black feminist bibliography is vast, I suggest finally, he sit down and view Out for a Change, Aishah Simmons’ NO! and read Charlotte Pierce-Baker’s Surviving the Silence.  After all of this reading, he may then perhaps deliver a more cogent and informed “deliberately prescriptive sex-positive trajectory for black feminist thought and black sexual politics.”[20]

[1] Sarojini Nadar and Cheryl Potgieter, “Liberated Through Submission?  The Worthy Woman’s Conference as a Case Study of Formenism,” The Journal of Feminist Studies on Religion, Vol. 26 No. 2 (Fall 2010): 141-151.  “Formenism” is a concept for men that articulates a belief in the inherent superiority of men over women, which seems liberatory and harmless from the outset (because it relies on a power that is not forceful, and because it utilizes a patriarchal bargaining chip that pays a “dividend” of increased male responsibility in male/female social relations), yet is ultimately disciplinary (à la Michel Foucault’s notion of power) and dangerous because not only are men its chief beneficiaries, women’s well-being and fundamental freedoms are placed at risk.

[2] T.D. Jakes, Woman, Thou Art Loosed! (Shippensburg, Pennsylvania: Destiny Image Publishers, 1993), 14, 159 and 204.  These themes are central to several of Jakes’ texts, including his films.

[3] Shayne Lee, T.D. Jakes: America’s New Preacher: (New York, London: New York University Press, 2005), 126.

[4] Shayne Lee, Erotic Revolutionaries: Black Women, Sexuality and Popular Culture (Lanham, Boulder, New York, Toronto, Plymouth UK: Hamilton Books, 2010), xii.

[5] Lee, Erotic Revolutionaries, xiv.

[6] Lee, 17-22, 38-39, 41-58, 68, and 89.

[7] Lee, 59.

[8] Ibid., 61.

[9] Ibid., 65.

[10] Ibid., 65

[11] Ibid., 66.

[12] Ibid.

[13] For example, Jane Gallop, Camille Paglia, Maria Elena Buszek, Jessica Valenti, and Rebecca Walker.

[14] Ibid., 18.

[15] Susan J. Douglas, Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message that Feminism’s Work Is Done (New York: Times Books, 2010).

[16]This sexpert is very different from say Dr. Hilda Hutcherson, who to his credit, Lee’s gives props. Indeed, Hutcherson’s introduction to a broader audience of black women was through Essence—a magazine known for upholding black respectability politics. Hutcherson is a medical doctor and dispenses excellent advice about various issues relating to black women’s sexuality, including rape, incest, dysfunction, HIV-AIDS, and masturbation that directly runs up against that other model of erotic revolutionary Karrine Steffans, who Lee worships as a “goddess” of sexual liberation; it might stun Lee though to know that Steffans has sought her own redemption in the bath salts of black respectability politics via marriage, advocating certain kinds of sex only within the confines of marriage, and an explicit public directive to stop referring to her as “Superhead.”

[17]Susan J. Douglas, “The Rise of Enlightened Sexism,” On the Issues Magazine, (accessed January 31, 2010).

[18] See T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, Pimps Up, Ho’s Down: Hip Hop’s Hold on Young Black Women (New York: New York University Press, 2007), see chapters on “Groupie Love” and “Strip Tails.”

[19] Lee will of course tout a complementary letter from Darlene Clark-Hine he posted on Facebook. I would counter that Lee misses the nuance of good breeding, home training, a hallmark of respectability politics.

[20] Lee, xiii.