Is Beyonce Still The Queen?

Pop star Beyonce's new surprise album has been getting a lot of buzz, but is it all it's cracked up to be? Beauty shop ladies Bridget Johnson, Aisha Harris, Danielle Belton and Anne Ishii weigh in.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time to visit the Beauty Shop. That's where our panel of women commentators and journalists take a fresh cut on the week's hot topics. Sitting in the chairs for a new 'do this week are Bridget Johnson. She is the Washington, D.C. editor for PJ Media. That's a conservative libertarian news and commentary site. Danielle Belton is editor-at-large for Clutch Magazine. They're both with us from Washington, D.C. With us from New York is writer Anne Ishii. She's the editor-in-chief of They're All So Beautiful. That's an online forum that looks at race and dating. And also in New York, Aisha Harris. She's a blogger for Slate.com. Welcome to everybody. Thanks so much for joining us. Happy holidays.

DANIELLE BELTON: Thanks for having us, Michel.

BRIDGET JOHNSON: Thanks for having us.

ANNE ISHII: Thank you.

AISHA HARRIS: Yeah.

MARTIN: So let's get right to a debate that you probably heard something about as we head into Christmas. And, Aisha, you started this whole thing. You wrote an essay for Slate titled "Santa Claus Should Not Be a White Man Anymore." And you pointed out that most media depictions of old Saint Nick are still white - European, let's say - while America is becoming less and less so. And you said to avoid feeling, you know - anybody feeling left out, you said, why can't Santa be recast as a penguin? But let's just say that Fox News host Megyn Kelly was less than happy with your suggestion. This is a clip of what she said.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "THE KELLY FILE")

MEGYN KELLY: This is so ridiculous - yet another person claiming it's racist to have a white Santa, you know? And by the way, for all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white.

MARTIN: Well, she went on to say - I'm surprised that she didn't take on the racial identity of the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot. I'm sorry. I don't know why she didn't just go right there. But she also went on to tell us that she's a biblical scholar, too, and that Jesus is also white. Now she later issued a kind of a sort of a retraction. She said that she was being tongue-in-cheek. But Twitter lit up like a Christmas tree with outrage on all sides.

And you know that Jon Stewart leaned way in on this one. So, Aisha, so I have to start with you because you started this whole thing off. And I'm interested in what your reaction was to this. Were you surprised that it got this much of a reaction?

HARRIS: Definitely. I mean, when I wrote the piece originally, I can say that I had no agenda whatsoever to kind of spark as much ire apparently as it did. My point, I know Kelly says she was being tongue-in-cheek, but I was actually being tongue-in-cheek when I started this. And, you know, I wanted to just use the penguin as a funny way of getting at the deeper issue of looking past our preconceptions of what a fictional character has to be. It doesn't always have to be portrayed by a white person. So...

MARTIN: And for the record, I mean, she said that you claimed that Santa should be black. You never said any such thing. I do want to say, just from a fact perspective, you never said that all.

HARRIS: Right, exactly. I said I wanted him to be a penguin. So...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Bridget Johnson, now you point out that Santa is in fact based on a real person to our knowledge.

JOHNSON: Yeah, Saint Nick. But he was Greek. You know, he was from Asia Minor. And like Jesus, who was Middle Eastern, that is not the sort of, you know, blonde portrayal that's done. But then again, in different parts of the world, people have adapted to, you know, different cultural, you know, visions of how they see these people. But, you know, I'm annoyed that these are even blown out into political correctness debates because in the grand scheme of things, what does it matter? You know, it would have been nice to see three people impaneled during a prime-time, high-rated show to talk about, say, oh, the looming genocide in the Central African Republic.

And then the last thing I really got to say in this is that, you know, when I was 11 years old and I needed a warm coat and a box of food, you know, my Santa was a Scottish woman who was my sixth grade teacher. So instead of expending all of this energy on these debates like they're having, how about diverting that into the people who do not have a Santa, who do not have a prayer of Santa visit them this holiday?

MARTIN: I take your point, and I appreciate it. And I'm glad about that teacher - that teacher was there for you. And I do try to be that person, too, for whoever I can be that person for. Do you mind if I ask you, though, about Aisha's point, though? What do you think about her idea?

JOHNSON: I think it's fine. You know, it actually goes to the tradition of how Saint Nick was portrayed in the Netherlands as being a white blonde guy. That was just a cultural adaptation of how they saw this character figuring into their holiday. So I don't see any problems with what Aisha wrote. And I think that, you know, it's something that should be discussed but not extrapolated into this faux political correctness debate that it became.

MARTIN: Danielle, what do you think? I take it...

BELTON: Santa...

MARTIN: Go ahead.

BELTON: Santa's not real.

(LAUGHTER)

BELTON: Santa's not real. Like, you can turn him into a kumquat and put a hat on him and put him in one of those "VeggieTales" movies. Like, he's just not real. It doesn't matter what you make him. Santa's whoever you want him to be. For me, Santa was my dad because that was the person who bought me presents, not some mystical beast who's an elf that lives in the North Pole. My father is my Santa Claus 'cause he actually, you know, had a job, spent his money and put together the Barbie playhouse set so I would be happy when I woke up on December 25.

So I think this argument is completely ludicrous. It boils down to, in popular culture, when you have, like, a fictional character and it's been somewhat undefined or it's kind of like - you can kind of, like, read whatever you want into it. People have a tendency to always read that character to be white. I half expect someone to get into a heated argument that My Little Pony is white, despite the fact that they're ponies and they're multicolored. But the argument would be, well, they have to be white 'cause what else would they be if they happen to be human? It's like this - it's a preposterous argument. It's stupid.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: Yeah, I had quite a few people suggest, why not a polar bear? That would be white. And I was like, a polar bear is white. It can be a polar bear. It's not a human being.

MARTIN: Anne, what do you think?

ISHII: I think let the Internet take its course with this and turn it into a LOLcat. I mean, everything is just going to eventually turn into some kind of animated 2-D flat GIF, so - or JIF (ph).

MARTIN: Well, can I just - do you mind if I say something about this? I mean, she did go on to talk about Jesus, who is a historical figure as far as many of us believe and who is also from the Middle East and probably looked like my grandfather, OK? And so what I am interested in is this kind of - what Bridget talked about - kind of this fake belligerence about something like this. That, to me, is what's more interesting - is this fake belligerence - because I think Aisha's piece - you can like it or not like it, you can agree with her or not agree with her - but it was offered in a gentle and generous spirit. It was not offered in this kind of belligerent, you're wrong, admit it and I'll say so.

And what I don't like is the response that - to this gentle offering - to say, you know, could we think about it this way? And then have it be turned into another sort of a takedown over something that - and that's I want to put - why does a person, who apparently considers herself a serious person, feel a need to address something in this way, particularly with a panel of people who don't seem to understand - or did not share the experience - that she was describing of feeling not included? I mean, I still remember kind of going to the store and not being able to find a comb that was appropriate for my thick hair. And I still know - and we've all had that experience of going to the store and having nude be a color that's not your nude and making you feel like you don't belong. And so why is that necessary when there are - you know. But my argument might be that the issue is already being addressed in the sense that you can have the Santa you want to have already. So we really don't need to have a call-out on this. That would be only my take on this is that, you know what, the market is taking care of it. You know what I mean? The market is in fact taking care of it, and you can have the Santa that you want.

So the Jesus question I think maybe we'll leave for another day. But again, the need to - there's some very interesting research on this question, even in art about how diverse - how certain images in art have actually been brushed out of the history when they were already there. So that would be my take on it. A surprisingly serious conversation about Santa. So you know what? Here's another thing I wanted to talk about. Another conversation that's gotten a lot of attention and trended on Twitter is the hashtag #NotYourAsianSidekick. It was started by the Korean-American writer Suey Park. And it brought to light a lot of the frustrations that Asian women have with being stereotyped. And, you know, this goes hand-in-hand, Anne, with something that we've talked about with you on your website...

ISHII: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...About stereotypes and Asian women. I'm interested in how you read the response that these have had...

ISHII: Definitely.

MARTIN: ...Like, there's almost like a pent-up demand for a place to talk about it.

ISHII: I think it's great there's a hashtag that we can own because I know just on They're All So Beautiful and in the documentary that it's been spunoff of, "Seeking Asian Female," we wanted it to be a platform for women - Asian-American women to discuss their feelings. But, you know, what it ends up being by and large is this sort of cesspool of responses from guys who get really defensive. So it's sort of the Megyn Kelly response to what's supposed to be a conversation about how women deal with these issues.

And then it ends up being like a soapbox for men. And so #NotYourAsianSidekick makes it very clear just even in the syntax and the format that this is about us, for us, by us. And, you know, this - this word sidekick is really interesting, too, 'cause I think that's what makes this really radical. It's not about, you know - it's not about you. It's about us. I mean, let us talk about what's going on, you know. You don't have to agree. It's just - you know, in the words of LL Cool J, for us by us. You know.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Danielle, you had a strong reaction to this story. You want to tell us about it?

BELTON: Well, I felt like this was really important in the sense I feel like...

MARTIN: More than Santa?

(LAUGHTER)

BELTON: Yes. Honestly...

ISHII: You mean Jesus.

BELTON: ...Because Santa's not real and Asian women are. So they have real issues that need to be expressed and heard on 'cause growing up, I had quite a few friends who were Asian-American women. And I watched them deal with the patriarchal views of their parents at home. And then you go to school, and you deal with all the extra racial, you know, garbage that people kind of put on you just 'cause of how you look. And me, personally, I even dated a guy who had a weird Asian fetish. Although his wasn't more of the, I want this quiet submissive women. He thought all Asian people were, like, noble Mr. Miyagis or fortune cookies of wisdom who would set him on some great shining path, which was equally disturbing and disgusting as far as I'm concerned. So I felt like this...

MARTIN: And you dated this person.

BELTON: Well, yeah, I don't like him anymore.

MARTIN: Oh, OK, just to be clear.

BELTON: I did not know he had this problem.

MARTIN: OK, just trying to be clear.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Just trying to be clear. This is a Beauty Shop, and you know we have to weigh in and offer some useful advice if we see a need. Go ahead.

BELTON: Well, yeah. I feel like women's issues are often kind of dominated by the views of largely white Western women. So it's good to have other women join the discussion, to have women of color to be part of it and demand that their voices be heard 'cause it's important.

MARTIN: Aisha, you wanted to say that - you were telling us that some of the - well, go ahead. Just tell us what you think about this.

HARRIS: Well, I honestly think it's a great thing. And I feel like Twitter and hashtags have kind of become a new way for minorities and women especially and women of color to kind of reassert and regain their voice. And it's all of this kind of other hubbub that's happening. And it reminded me of, like, the #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen hashtag, and there are countless other hashtags that come up - have come up in the last year where women and black women and Asian women and all kinds of women are trying to just reassert their voices and, like Anne was saying, say it's about us.

Now, granted, these hashtags then turn into people who feel like they are being criticized - and probably rightly so - trying to take on their own hashtag and then trying to make it their own. But...

MARTIN: But let me talk to Bridget about this 'cause one of the - 'cause your site, PJ Media, is experienced online. And one of the things that - and it's a conservative libertarian site. And sometimes, the people get very stiff about some of their opinions and are very hostile to people who don't already agree with them. I mean, you think that's fair to say?

JOHNSON: That's fair to say, yes.

MARTIN: OK, so one of the things - so on the one hand - so there's venting going on there, too...

JOHNSON: Right.

MARTIN: ...About other people. One of the things I'm curious about - so on the one hand, I can see these sites as being, you know, very helpful for people to kind of get their ideas out there. But do people ever actually get anywhere? 'Cause they're really only talking to people who already agree with them, aren't they, in a way?

JOHNSON: Exactly, and then you have people who are kind of, like, blog squatters, you could say. You know, they hang out all day just to, you know, come back and argue with people. But, you know, one of the reasons I thought this hashtag was interesting is - increasing comments that I've seen from different right-wing quarters is how, you know, they think that American women are just getting too demanding and too independent and too slutty, so that they see Asian women as this sort of last haven to get away from feminism and go find a wife who is subservient. And so, yeah, it's tough times for these guys. You know, first they find out that Russian mail-order brides are people, and now they find out that they can't stereotype subservience by race. So...

MARTIN: I feel like we're not going to hear the last of that argument, though. Somehow, I feel like - OK. So final topic that we've all been waiting for - OK, well, some of us, some of us 'cause one does not want to, you know, speak for all - Queen B. Beyonce's self-titled album dropped last week on iTunes. It was a surprise release. She somehow managed to keep it a secret right up until the last minute. It sold 600,000 copies in the first three days. Let's just hear part of the song "Flawless."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLAWLESS")

MARTIN: So, Danielle, you know, all hail Queen B?

BELTON: I loved it. You know, it was really something because I typically don't like Beyonce's music. I'll be honest. And I've owned several of her albums, but I'd just - I would often just like one track and just would skip, skip, skip, skip, skip. And with this one, I listened to the whole thing all the way through. I listened all the way through again. I thought it was really innovative. It was a game changer for her. I'm actually kind of proud of her. She's grown.

MARTIN: OK. All right, Bridget, what do you think?

JOHNSON: I'm have to be impressed. And this is, you know, from being the MTV generation. Danielle and I have had many conversations about this - is that she gave so much respect to the music video in this album. And she actually put out more videos than there were songs. So a lot of respect there on that part.

MARTIN: Anne, what about you? I understand that you are not a total fan.

ISHII: I'm not. No.

MARTIN: No, no. Diversity of opinion - got to have it. Let's hear it.

ISHII: You know what? I think she redeemed herself from that hot trash on HBO she released earlier this year. So this was a really good album.

MARTIN: It's a really good album. But there's interesting debate about whether this is feminist or not feminist. I don't know if anybody sort of, you know, cares about that. Aisha, what do you think?

HARRIS: I prefer to look at her - what she does as opposed to necessarily the music that she puts out as through feminist lens. I think that the way that the album came out speaks to how much command she respects. I mean, Kanye, many other artists cannot put out a new album without it leaking. And think of how many people were involved, not just the people who produced the album but all the dancers and background people in the videos. Like, that...

MARTIN: Yeah, there are like...

HARRIS: ...To me, shows how much...

MARTIN: ...Fourteen videos or something like that...

HARRIS: Yeah, it's crazy.

MARTIN: ...And they all dropped at once. You know what? I'm impressed because there's a video that she put on YouTube explaining her philosophy behind the album. And she used the word immersive. She said, I want it to be an immersive experience. So mad props to her just for using the word immersive. I'm all about it. Does anybody not love it? Anybody not love it?

HARRIS: Lady Gaga?

MARTIN: Oh, stop. Oh, snap, snap.

(LAUGHTER)

BELTON: Like, Miley Cyrus is somewhere crying.

ISHII: She should be Santa Claus.

(LAUGHTER)

BELTON: Maybe she is.

HARRIS: I think Kanye is kicking himself right now. He wishes he'd done it.

MARTIN: Because of the surprise aspect of it or because of, what, just the surprise and saying I'm taking control of this, and I'm going to be the one to decide how it comes out, and I don't need people to mediate my relationship?

HARRIS: Yeah.

MARTIN: I can't believe I used the word mediate, too. Immersive and mediate in the same conversation about a Beyonce album. I'm so happy.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I'm so happy. But just to finish the thought, you're saying Kanye wishes he had done it because...

HARRIS: Oh, yeah, the surprise element, releasing all the videos at once. Like, you know, I think both Kanye and Beyonce are trying to go after that MJ thing. And Beyonce definitely outshone him in that department in terms of just the grand gesture.

MARTIN: She's the queen of the world. I'm sorry. There's nothing that can be said. No more need be said. Danielle Belton is editor-at-large for Clutch Magazine. Bridget Johnson is the Washington, D.C. editor for PJ Media - both here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Aisha Harris is a blogger for Slate.com with us in our bureau in New York, along with Anne Ishii, a freelance writer and editor-in-chief of They're All So Beautiful. Ladies, thank you all so much. Happy holidays.

JOHNSON: Happy holidays, Michel.

HARRIS: Thanks. You, too.

ISHII: Happy holidays.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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