I recently thought about explaining womanism (feminism) to my toddler niece. Given her age, I would probably say something like, “Feminism means that girls can do anything boys can do.” Of course when she’s older we’ll have more in-depth discussions about intersectionality and the role of women of color in the quest for equity but for now, I just want her to know that girls can do anything that boys can do.
Those were my exact thoughts when I discovered feminism. My coming of age in the movement wasn’t in the midst of being denied some right or liberty because of my sex. I found feminism behind a mic.
“You can cha-cha-cha to this Mardi Gras
I’m the dopest female that you heard thus far”
Long before a Women and Gender Studies minor in college, I discovered womanism through MC Lyte and Queen Latifah.
So why did MC Lyte appeal to me? She wore baggy clothes- I wore baggy clothes. She was brown-skinned, I was brown skinned. Her voice was deep and raspy; I always believed my voice was too deep to be “feminine.” But most important, Lyte was a rapper. Not just a female rapper– she was hard-core!
“My competition, you’ll find them in a hospital”
Lyte was hurtin’ ‘em with the mic! As a young female living on the South Side of Chicago, I needed to know that I had power, that I had agency, and that I could do anything the boys could do. So I did. “Picked up a microphone a pad and a pen.” Wrote raps until my older cousins eavesdropped and realized my female cousin and I had talent and let us into the neighborhood rap dynasty (Wolf Pack 4 Life!). That series of events most certainly played a role in my ability to adapt to the mostly male world of philosophy in college. Philosophy was just rapping in an academic setting. Heidegger and Rousseau was no match for cyphers with Magic 7 and Bullet (WP4L).
Reminiscing caused me to question why people think Beyonce (and celebrities like her) can’t do the same for young girls. Sure, there are some things to work out with today’s pop/R&B/Hip-Hop icons. Not every role model is perfect and we shouldn’t want them to be such. Perfect people aren’t relatable and that’s one of the most important factors to consider when attempting to reach the youth.
Fast forward and let’s examine a couple of things that MC Lyte didn’t/couldn’t give me.
- Comfort with my body. I was wearing baggy clothes because I had internalized other people’s ideas that I was too skinny.
- Comfort with my desire to be a housewife. (collective gasp among some of my friends) See, the fact is that I wanted–and sometimes still want–the traditional patriarchal construct of the ideal family– A husband, kids, white picket fence and a dog. (This is the part of my talk with my niece where I explain the difference in access to such with regards to race and the construct of Black women as laborers in both the public and private sphere.)
I certainly saw her as a role model but Lyte couldn’t be everything to me. If I had access to both MC Lyte and Beyonce when I was younger, I might have reconciled my desire to exist as a rapper and a wife and mother. Say what you will, Beyonce is very comfortable with both her body and her desire to be a wife and mother above all else. Instead, I felt I had to choose. Even as a college student, feminism forced me to choose. Wanting to be a sexy and nurturing housewife didn’t come across as options in the feminist movement. I remember thinking, “But I like wearing high heels! So what if they’re designed to appeal to men.” All I knew was that I was not a Birkenstock kind of chick. Of course I realized later that I could be both Lyte and Beyonce if I wanted to but look how long it took me to get to that point. So I’m not trippin’ on whether Beyonce is feminist by anyone’s standards. In many ways, she is an example that girls can do anything boys can do- in this case, top the charts, sell out world tours, do what they love as a career, have both a family and a career, make the Forbes list, dance, write, produce, act and influence millions of people.
So if my niece comes to me one day and says she wants to be like Beyonce, my only response will be to let her know that she can be Beyonce *and* MC Lyte if she wants which means she can also be like Beyonce and Michelle Obama if she wants to—at the same damn time.