Postfeminism, Tzniut, and Queen Bey: An Open Letter to Rakhi Kumar

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Written by Melanie Beaudette. Melanie is a first-time Jewrotica writer. Graphic design by Margarita Korol.

[Note: This essay was written in response to an April 2013 essay by Rakhi Kumar, titled “An Open Letter to Michelle Obama: Beyonce is Not a Role Model”. The original essay can be found here.]

Rated PG-13Postfeminism is a difficult pill to swallow ­even for me, and I spent my graduate school career studying and, yes, defending it. Also known as “girl power,” postfeminism is comprised of the idea that women, feminine-identifying persons, and in particular girls, can “take back” (the fancy word is reappropriate) sexiness from the lecherous clutches of patriarchy, misogyny, and oppression (the non­fancy word is male power). For postfeminists, sexuality is very powerful.

Beyonce Knowles, the embodiment of strong female sexuality as a vehicle to success, is the archetypal American example of postfeminism (important to note is the fact that postfeminism has been critiqued for its close but increasingly further away proximity to hegemony ­ that is, social and cultural normativity). Beyonce is beautiful by mainstream standards, she is musically and entrepreneurially talented, and she openly expresses her sexuality while also maintaining a heteronormative model of traditional family life. In other words, for better or for worse, she embodies the mythical notion of the American Dream.

Rakhi Kumar, the author of “An Open Letter to Michelle Obama,” is not alone in her worry that overt sexual expression by young women is dangerous. However, there are two dangerous assumptions at play in Ms. Kumar’s letter to the First Lady: the first is shame surrounding feminine sexuality, and the second is what the author frames as an inextricable link between women’s and girls’ sexuality and rape culture.

Fortunately, her argument does not add up, and interestingly enough, the Jewish laws of tzniut help to bring to light just how detrimental her assumptions are. While employing different models to arrive at the same destination, tzniut and postfeminism both celebrate sexuality, instead of inherently linking it to danger, degradation, and the annihilation of any other positive quality that a young woman might possess.

First of all, let’s be clear: ­ the sparkly nipple­bearing outfit that Beyonce dons in the performance that has Ms. Kumar’s panties in a twist is provocative, but it is not, as the author insists, inherently evil. Ms. Kumar is intent on assuming that the flashy leotard represents “the final degradation of [Beyonce’s] talent,” willfully ignoring other aspects of the performer’s public persona, career, and personal life. In so doing, not only does Ms. Kumar dangerously (and misogynistically) insist that feminine sexuality is the sum of female subjectivity, but also that feminine sexuality is inherently negative. Through her assumptions she formulates the extreme fear of Beyonce as a role model, which also alludes to the fact that she believes that popular culture is omnipotent ­and that parents, caregivers, and young women themselves are located infallibly under its duress.

The laws of tzniut comprise, for both men and women (though we focus here on women), the ways that one conducts oneself in public: ­­ how we act, speak, and present ourselves. The way that these laws play out depend, of course, on what type of Judaism one practices; but regardless of which incarnation of tzniut one practices, the fundamental concept remains the same. Of utmost importance is the fact that tzniut is not associated with bodily or sexual shame, but rather with pride and the desire to protect and care for what is holy (the human body, human sexuality).

Tzniut reinforces the idea that sexuality is both important and positive, and also that women ought to be understood as holistic subjects, ­ judged not simply for our physical attributes but also and mainly for our other qualities, skills, and talents. Tzniut for some Jewish women is most visible as modest dress, ­ but for others it may be in our actions, words, or demeanor. Tzniut does in fact create a boundary between the physical self and the rest of the world: ­ it is intended to allow a woman to thrive without concern for judgement of her physical self, and also so that she might be in control of her own body, sexuality, and spirituality.

While postfeminism screams of the opposite modus operandi to the concept of tzniut, its outcome is the same: ­­ a positive understanding of feminine sexuality. “Freedom” is a common postfeminist buzzword – ­­ freedom of sexual expression, without being threatened by presumably uncontrollable male sexuality (the rape, sex trafficking, etc., that Ms. Kumar mistakenly speaks of as deriving directly from sexy stage get­ups). This exercise of freedom is often also accompanied by sex­positive reproductive and the dissemination of sexual health information. Ideally, this would also be the freedom to be sexual and sexy, or the freedom not to be; however, one of the problems of postfeminism is that the formula only works in one direction (read: modesty equals oppression). That is why it is important to put postfeminism and tzniut is conversation with each other, ­ and to call Ms. Kumar out on her distinct anti­feminist accusation against the First Lady.

Like Ms. Kumar, I do not have daughters myself, though one day I may. However, we as adults are caregivers to young women (and young men) in all sorts of capacities, and the concept of mothering is not limited to people who have physically given birth, or even to people who are physically female. It is paramount that, in a world filled with mixed messages about sexuality, that our messages to young women, no matter what vein or expression they take, are healthy and positive. Postfeminism provides a framework for a celebratory practice of liberal sexual expression, but it should never been taken singularly, or as a substitute for parenting or caretaking. Similarly, the laws of tzniut provide a positive framework for understanding personal boundaries, sexuality, and the body, but are practiced and employed in a variety of ways and addition to other types of nurturing.

I can’t help but laugh when I read Ms. Kumar’s sarcastic assertion that the First Parents should be ashamed if one of their daughters becomes a performer akin to Beyonce. Ms. Kumar is shirking her responsibility as a caregiver if she believes that popular culture is responsible for the supposed decline of Western civilization, and that feminine sexuality is a source of embarrassment. Instead, Ms. Kumar might draw from postfeminism the notion of sex­-positivity; and should she be interested in a religious point of view, she might also examine the ways in which tzniut fosters a positive understanding of sexuality, the body, and public space. As it stands, she is doing more harm than good to the public discourse about young women’s sexuality.

Melanie is more Jewish than most of her Jewish friends. She is a writer living in dangerous and delicious proximity to Hasidic Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She attends Chabad Shabbat services, speaks a tiny bit of Yiddish, and hopes to one day convert.