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Nowadays, not only are singers listened to on the radio, read about in the headlines and followed on social media, but they are more frequently becoming the subjects of university courses. For the latest in pop-star studies, the University of Texas at Austin is offering a course titled ”Beyoncé Feminism, Rihanna Womanism” for it’s spring 2015 semester.
According to a University of Texas at Austin blog, students who enroll in the class should expect more than just an endless loop of “Crazy in Love” or “Umbrella.” The course will focus on “how the lyrics, music videos, and actions of these women express various aspects of black feminism such as violence, economic opportunity, sexuality, standards of beauty, and creative self-expression.” As associate professor Natasha Tinsely, who works in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, sums it up: she hopes that the course will shed light on the role black feminism plays in popular culture as well as everyday life.
In the wake of the current culture’s fixation on “girl power” – with Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, Sophia Amorouso’s #GirlBoss crusade, and celebrities like Lena Dunham at the forefront of the movement – it’s no surprise that celebrity figures are being used as models to examine the movement.
According to Kevin Allred, the professor of “Feminist Perspectives: Politicizing Beyoncé” at Rutgers University, featuring celebrities in course material, like Beyoncé and Rihanna in this case, is a strategic way to draw students in.
“It’s a way to speak to the students in something they’re already familiar with,” Allred tells Yahoo Style. “So if professors use pop-culture figures, it makes it easier for students to engage with the material. And it may get them interested in the course while hopefully introducing them to a whole group of writers, history or something they weren’t already aware of.”
So what, exactly, does “Beyoncé Feminism” and “Rihanna Womanism” mean? For one, feminism and womanism are merely different inflections of the same word. Allred suggests that “Beyoncé Feminism” will entail positioning the artist in conversation with US black feminism, while “Rihanna Womanism, ”(which comes from the term coined by author Alice Walker in the 1980’s) may explore themes of feminism experienced by Caribbean women.
Skyla Sale, an English major at the University of Texas at Austin is excited about the prospects of taking the course and thinks it’s interesting and progressive of the university to include Beyoncé and Rihanna in the curriculum. Sophomore Bria Benjamin is also hoping to enroll. “Even though the title is sensational, when you look at what it’s about, I’m excited about the course because it involves a sect of feminism that is often forgotten about and put aside,” Benjamin tells Yahoo Style. “It’s important to remember that black feminism and conventional feminism differ. This class is all about the cross section of gender and race in terms of feminism.”
While Beyoncé is a sensible choice – she declared that “girls run the world” in 2011, named her world tour “The Mrs. Carter Show,” and actually called herself a “modern-day feminist” last April in an interview with Vogue U.K. – the reason behind using Rihanna as a model for feminism is not as clear. She stood her ground during the notorious domestic violence case with Chris Brown and is known for her bold persona and lyrics, but the artist has yet to publicly embrace the f-word.
“It’s too limiting to say who is or isn’t the perfect version of a feminist,” Alfred says. “And if Beyoncé is claiming herself as a feminist we need to accept it, listen to it, and investigate it.”
Still some have voiced their contempt with using certain pop-stars as the faces of the feminist movement including singer Annie Lennox, who recently dismissed Beyoncé as a feminist in an interview with NPR. She referred to the star as “feminist lite,” disapproving of her “overt sexuality thrusts.” But Allred disagrees. The professor suggests that as the times change, society’s classification of what feminism means and how universities teach about the topic should too.
“As feminism revolutionizes, women are become more open sexually and this doesn’t negate the fact that women shouldn’t get paid or treated equally. Just because a women is embracing her sexually doesn’t mean politics should be any different,” Alfred says.
This isn’t the first time a university featured a female pop star-centric seminar. Skidmore College offered “The Sociology of Miley Cyrus,” this summer while students at the University of Virginia recently signed up for a course, “GaGa for Gaga: Sex, Gender and Identity.”