- Erotica or Thanatica?Black Feminist Criticism on the Ropes
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. 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. As a second-year graduate student in Religious Studies, I critiqued his reading of T. D. Jakes as a feminist (more on that later), a critique that he vigorously challenged. 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's 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 [End Page 163] 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's 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 antifeminist/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's Woman Thou Art Loosed must go, Jakes's antifeminist/feminist...