Remembering bell hooks in Her Own Words

A black-and-white photograph of bell hooks, a Black woman wearing a scarf and earrings, looking directly into the camera with a soft smile.

(Photo by John Pinderhughes)

The family of bell hooks announced on Wednesday that the renowned and beloved feminist scholar and author had died at age 69 after a long illness. Her outstanding work furthering and expanding feminist thought made hooks one of the most influential writers of our time. Our community has lost one of the greats today, but her legacy will live in our hearts—and on our bookshelves—forever. Bitch cofounder Lisa Jervis interviewed hooks in our Winter 2000 print issue, and the wide-spanning conversation still resonates 21 years later.
Though bell hooks may be one of feminism’s sharpest thinkers and fiercest critics of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (a phrase that pops up often in her work), her favorite topic these days, in conversation and in writing, is love. Last winter’s All About Love explored romantic love, spiritual love, family love, and most of all profoundly politicized love. Next winter’s Salvation: Black People in Love will no doubt pick up where All About Love left off (and following that will come her second children’s book, Homemade Love). Not that the incredibly prolific hooks would stop there; she continues to add to her list of classic feminist texts at a brisk pace. One of her two books out this fall is Feminism Is for Everybody, a primer on feminism that, with chapter headings like “Liberating Marriage and Partnership” and “Total Bliss,” often reads more like a wish list of fertile feminist possibility. We caught up with her by phone to talk about self-help books, the penis, Nurse Betty—and, of course, the thoughts of love that have brought a different kind of passion to her work.
In Feminism Is for Everybody, you write, “If women and men want to know love we have to yearn for feminism.” Can you talk about this connection between love and feminism?
I keep telling people that I’m going to be the high priestess of love for the next few years, and so many people keep saying, “Oh, well, bell hooks is turning soft ‘cause she’s focusing on love.” And I think, Oh, no, not the love I’m talking about—because I’m really talking about a love that’s grounded in a vision of mutuality and communion and sharing; to me that is so deeply related to feminism because I feel like as long as we have gender inequality and inequity and sexism and patriarchy, we can’t have mutuality. What we have is a constant paradigm of domination, a constant sense that in the world there’s always a top and bottom in our relationships, there’s always a subordinated person and a person who is dominant.
One thing that l have felt strongly over the years is that while I have seen relationships between heterosexual men and women change a lot, what I often see is that if the man assumes a more nurturing, more emotional and giving position, the woman is often cold and aloof and ungiving. We certainly see this in a lot of movies—even in a movie like High Fidelity, which l really enjoyed, we still see that you have a certain kind of warmth posited with the man and a coldness in the energy of the so-called New Woman, the young, professional career woman. It seems to me that this is still within the same old paradigm of every relationship [having] a submissive party and a dominant party. It’s just that people are more comfortable now with men taking on the submissive roles, but that’s not what feminist visions of true love are about, because those visions are about mutuality. They’re about a world where we can both be self-actualized in a relationship, whether it’s two men together or two women together or two transgendered people or whatever our arrangements. Mutuality is at the heart of this vision of a more politicized understanding of love as a force that transforms domination.

How can we put that into practice in our lives and in our relationships?

There has to be a lot more conversation and communication than people often have in relationships. As someone who’s been in alternative heterosexual relationships often in my life—very, very carefully throughout relationships—what I can testify is that you have a lot more discussion in those relationships. My ex-boyfriend, to whom I dedicated All About Love and to whom my new book Salvation is dedicated, is a younger guy who is very quiet compared to me, and not as analytically motivated as I am. One of the things we did, by his suggestion, was have these little weekly meetings for 20 minutes—because I tend to talk so much more than he and it’s the sort of structure that allowed him a space to have an equal voice, so to speak.

And that’s really groundbreaking. Most people think planning like that takes the spontaneity out of it.

He came out of a counseling background; he was working with Emerge, which is an organization that deals with men who batter. So he had a hyperconsciousness about the whole need to process in a different kind of way. Ten years later, we continue to have these conversations, and he feels that I often don’t abide by the time frame that we set up. Recently, I read again Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. I was so struck by how that book doesn’t even entertain the possibility of mutuality, and what it does is offer a real paradigm for people to stay within their very sexist-designed gender roles but get along with one another. That’s why I think it’s been so powerful.

Because it makes people feel comfortable to stay with that?

No, because people are unhappy, honey. [Laughs.] People are tired of fighting, people are tired of living in misery. I think it’s so popular because it offers people something that feminist theory, no matter how radical and visionary, tends not to offer people, which is a vision of what you can do to bring peace. And I think that people really want to have more peace in our relationships and in our daily lives. Many of us have come from dysfunctional families where there’s been lots of conflict and strife. So I think that’s part of the popularity of that book—it’s a model of healing, but it’s pro-patriarchal, so it is not threatening to men. I think here it’s really important to say benevolent patriarchy—because obviously John Gray’s book and a lot of other books by New Age men are not pro a more abusive, coercive patriarchy. But benevolent patriarchy is still a vision that says that at the end of the day, men’s needs and values and longings matter more.

Let’s say you’re a feminist woman in a relationship with a really sexist guy who never talks. Every time you try to get that person to talk, you suffer, and then suddenly you have a book that says, “Don’t try to talk to him when he’s in his cave, just accept his being quiet.” It’s sort of like saying, “Don’t try to demand of this person emotional growth and that they not be an adolescent.” It’s like saying, “Accept him as a person who is emotionally underdeveloped,” whereas a model of mutuality might suggest that both people need to go and talk about how they can emotionally develop together—as opposed to saying, “Well, just accept that he doesn’t want to do this.”

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To me there’s something about that model of looking at things that very much naturalizes gender roles—it says that this is the way men are and this is the way women are.

When I go out into the high schools or just into an everyday world talking about feminism, the people from 6 to 25, that’s exactly what they bring up. That’s exactly their wall of resistance. I don’t even have difficulty with us saying that there’s some kind of hardcore biological determinism, because what we really know is that everything can be changed through socialization. So even if you want to say we start off in some kind of binary that is oppositional, it can be altered at birth. So let’s talk about why people have such resistance to altering that—[people] who believe in some kind of fixed biological destiny—since we’re quite willing to alter all other kinds of destinies. Sometimes when I think of the incredible revolution people have made with technology, moving from being fearful of technology to people of all classes in our nation believing everybody should know how to use a computer…we know that people can make incredible leaps away from anything that we call natural or biologically determined. And I find it interesting that whenever we’re talking about gender equality, people want to fix biology in some kind of absolute unchanging space rather than say, Nothing has been altered more in the scientific revolutions of modernity than this thing we might call biology.

It’s like when people say, “Oh, well, all men cheat because they need to spread their seed and it goes back to when we were in the caves.” Okay, but we’re not in the caves anymore.

Exactly. If those hungry men in the caves were ever even thinking about cheating. They were probably thinking much more about, How am I gonna get some food? And I think that even when we try to have those kinds of symbolic things about archaic society, people don’t even have a realistic sense that, hey, back then food was really hard to come by. So much emphasis on sexual desire is very Western: If we think globally, masses of people in the world spend the day just trying to get some water to drink and enough food to make it through the day. The idea that everything is related to and revolves around sex is completely part of our Western sensibility. And I’m not downgrading that, but I think we should own that as peculiar and unique to advanced capitalist worlds that we have leisure. I’m always struck when I’m in the desert somewhere in Africa that people don’t have time to sit around all day thinking about who they’re going to fuck. And we can frequently sit around thinking all day about who we’re going to fuck.

I’m writing a new book, slowly, about space and making space, and the whole question of privacy in the world and who has space. Even the way we think about sex and gendered arrangements in the West is so tied to our notion that everybody has this space. If you even take the concept of John Gray’s—”if he needs to go off and be in his cave”—the fact is, in countries where you’ve got 10 people living in 400 square feet, nobody gets to go off and be in any kind of cave that’s not symbolic.

Part of creating a liberatory eroticism that is feminist, that is maximizing of everyone’s well-being, is to think globally about different ways of living in the world and to be mindful of the fact that so much of the way we live in the world—like the idea that you get to get in your bed at night by yourself or with one other person of your choice—[is very different from] how masses of people in the world are sleeping, which is, guess what, with lots of other people around.

People can make incredible leaps away from anything that we call natural or biologically determined. And I find it interesting that whenever we’re talking about gender equality, people want to fix biology in some kind of absolute unchanging space rather than say, Nothing has been altered more in the scientific revolutions of modernity than this thing we might call biology.

What do you think are the most pressing issues for feminism right now?

To me the most pressing issues for feminism remain the same as 10 or 20 years ago. One is to have a renewed feminist movement that starts with a vision that feminism is not just for women. That’s one of the reasons I called my new book Feminism Is for Everybody, because so much of how our traditional radical and revolutionary feminism was structured was with the idea that feminism was really about women, and not a politic that was about everybody—about ending sexism and sexist domination and oppression, which is a definition that I think is so simple and useful because it says that the target may not be men, it has to be all of us. The other day I was saying to this guy, “I hate men who wear jewelry.” This is a sexism within myself that I am still dealing with, that somehow jewelry on men tends to turn me off, and that after all my own evolution as a feminist thinker I still find spaces in myself where I see a kind of old notion of who should be doing what.

I think that there’s just so much education for critical consciousness for everybody that feminism did not do. Where are our television commercials? Where are our billboards? Where are feminist marketing firms that are going out into the world saying to people: This is how your product could reflect more clearly gender equality or gender justice. I don’t like the word equality so much because there are some things that won’t be equal for a long time. I’m interested in thinking about questions like justice, because what does it mean to have justice in a household where the man may continue to make more money than the woman? When we think about day-to-day life in most homes in our society, people believe that the person who makes the most money has the right to set the order of the day-that they have the right to determine how life is structured. And I think that part of what feminism never did in a deep enough way was give people strategies in everyday life for justice, for gender justice.

I was involved for quite some time with a younger person, a younger man who didn’t make as much money as I did, [and] we worked hard to come up with ways to maintain a sense of justice, because the idea that we could suddenly have equality—I mean, how could I have equality with someone who’s 16 years younger than me, who was at the time just graduating from college? So justice to me is a much more profound way to try to think about how you create equity, a sense of sharing resources in something that is structured in a way that is not equal. I think a lot of this fear people had about feminism had to do with the fact that the vision of equality as it was articulated by reformist feminism was really not very practical for everyday life.

What are some things that we can do to revise those reformist feminism theories and create strategies for gender justice?

Not just to revise them but to create a whole new body of work that is practically oriented, that tries to say, “This is what visionary feminist thinking can do in daily life,” starting with children. You know, one of the reasons I began to write children’s books is that I feel that feminism long ago sort of turned its back on children. When the contemporary feminist movement first began, for example, there was a major critique of children’s books and the kinds of images children were receiving very early on. And if you think about Harry Potter books as emblematic of where we are, even though those books are written by a woman they tend to be very traditionally sexist, very imperialist and racist in the sense that once again we have our little European white-boy hero. And I’m not here trying to say those books are not enjoyable or valuable, but they certainly don’t offer a paradigm that breaks with conventional thinking. And the question to me isn’t so much, Why are the Harry Potter books so well-received? but: Why aren’t other books that are alternative, that offer different kinds of visions, just as popular? Because we do know that a very patriarchal, white male-dominated mass media really pushed the Harry Potter books. I forget which of the leading magazines—I can’t remember whether it was Newsweek or Time—had the Harry Potter stuff on the cover. It was because certain kinds of white men in power like these books. People say to me, “Well, children really love them.” I say, Well, guess what? Children wouldn’t have known anything about what some white female in England is writing without a powerful partriarchally based mass media that really hyped these books.

And one of the constant struggles for feminist thinking and writing and our visions is that we rarely have access to that kind of powerful mainstream media. There are wonderful visionary feminist books that no one reads. They don’t get hyped.

I love your idea about a feminist marketing firm.

Firms, firms. Because we need to take into consideration the specificity of the communities that we’re in. I find it interesting, for example, that a movie like Nurse Betty has been getting really, really negative…people dismiss it. And yet what was awesome to me was that it had, really, a feminist message. I mean, that moment in the film where she is told that her value lies within herself and not within needing to find some fantasy recognition outside herself, whether it’s Hollywood or the male gaze or what have you—that’s a pretty powerful message. And I can’t help but contrast it to a movie like The Tao of Steve, which I think is totally bankrupt and totally patriarchal. That guy doesn’t reconstruct himself in any way, yet he gets the woman in the end. And yet which movie is being raved about as a great little movie? I thought Nurse Betty was incredible because of its gender, race, class stuff. There’s a lot of stuff in it about mirroring and just the whole question of how we think about someone who is different from ourselves, how we think about people that we consider to be dumb, how much television dominates our lives.

I’m really excited, because I’ve come back from being on the road with Feminism Is for Everybody. Seeing these incredible audiences of diverse people coming out because they feel they can talk about the kinds of concerns that I’m raising. Because feminism has been established for a long time as a political movement, people are less initially hostile to the very idea, so that I think we have much more of a creative space to think of new ways of reaching people. I think of some of the questions people asked me the other night about childraising and feminism or relationships and feminism that I can’t imagine people asking—well, not can’t imagine people, people did not ask—20 years ago because it would have been considered so politically incorrect to stand up and say, I’m having sex with this man and I don’t really feel good about it. I feel like there is some element of rape even though I really love him and he really cares for me.” When someone says that to me in the audience of almost a thousand people, I say to her, “Well, you know, there’s a lot of other ways to be sexual than someone putting his penis in you.” And the whole audience clapped, and so right there that person has this affirmation for [the notion that] there’s a way to do sex, liberatory sexuality, beyond our traditional sexist-defined fixation on the penis.

I think that there is a kind of feminism that years ago would have shamed that woman for still wanting to be with a man. For still wanting to engage the penis. I think we still need to engage the penis a whole lot more [laughs], because I think we still have not changed our thinking about the penis, and until we do, until we can celebrate the penis both in its erect and its non-erect state, I don’t think we’ll ever have a liberatory sexuality for straight or gay people.

Obviously, love is my big, big issue. I said years ago in “Yearning” that I’m interested in issues that bring people together. As much as we talk about the issues and things that divide people, I do feel that the yearning for love, the longing for love, cuts across class, race, sexual preferences, even cultural experiences and nationality. 

And how would we go about doing that without still making the penis the focus of what we celebrate about sexuality?

I think, one, that we need to see more images of the penis. A lot of times I go about my daily life thinking about sex and [being] so aware of how thinking about the breast as a sexual location of the body is so normalized, but there is nothing equivalent to that about the penis. In fact, in the last few years we have had more films, whether we’re talking about Boogie Nights or the French film where the guy pulls out his penis and pees on the other guy, I’m forgetting the name of it… I remember sitting in the theater—it’s the first scene and being really taken aback because there was a penis and the camera was really focusing on it. It was in a film that really dealt with questions of class and hierarchy and I think all of that kind of normalization of the penis in everyday life takes away that sense of threat. I think [changing the language that we use to talk about the penis has] to be part of our renewed feminist transformative visions of sexuality.

I think sexuality is the location where feminism stopped, in a sense. The Barnard conference [“Towards a Politics of Sexuality,” a 1982 conference that was the site of tremendous feminist disagreement about what feminist sexuality could be—Eds.] and the struggle around lesbian SM—the recognition that there was such a thing as lesbian SM—in a sense so shattered all of those little notions that somehow women never want to dominate or that rough sex is something that men want to do. It was almost as if feminism couldn’t go on from there, because people could not deal adequately with the whole question of power and desire. So definitely I feel that sexuality and love should be the two central issues of a revised feminism because I think that so much feminist backlash and retrograde shit is taking place in the arena of intimate relationships, particularly in heterosexual relationships. I am amazed that I can have these brilliant women students who I think of as sometimes even intellectually way beyond a bell hooks because the lives that they have led have not been like mine. Where I had to move from patriarchal sexism and repression into freedom, many of them have been in certain states of freedom—and then all of a sudden they’ll get involved with some guy and it’s like they never knew anything about feminism, they never knew anything about women getting married early and having babies and being stuck with the childcare. And I’m seeing a lot of that and I’m thinking, What is this? Haven’t we already seen this script and seen how it ends? And yet I see masses of my female students, some of the best and the brightest, obsessing continually about marriage and “Am I going to get a man?” And the recent news of Gloria Steinem’s marriage is very, very exciting in a way, the idea that a woman over 60 can be free to act relationally in ways that we don’t imagine, but on the other hand I worry that it will be read culturally as a sign that, even for feminists, at the end of the day marriage is what really matters.

A black-and-white image of bell hooks, a Black woman with braids in her hair, who looks directly at the camera with a slight smile.

Author and cultural critic bell hooks poses for a portrait on December 16, 1996 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Karjean Levine/Getty Images)

Well, I’m a little more optimistic than you are, in that I hope that Steinem’s marriage will be read as an opening up of marriage, a flexibility—that you don’t have to go out and snag that man before you turn 25.

I think that’s the positive feminist interpretation, but I think we have a concrete way that this act has been represented by patriarchal mass media, and I kept thinking, What if Gloria Steinem could have taken the news of her marriage to a feminist marketing firm and said, “I want to have control over how this is represented. Before mainstream, patriarchal, white-supremacist capitalist mass media gets ahold of this, I want to project it in certain kinds of ways.” Then I think we could say it would have that more radical impact. I think what we see is mass media representing it as, Oh, here’s this feminist who always mocked marriage, but at the end of the day, look who’s getting married. You have to think about how the news is reaching ordinary people. I hear a lot of feedback from people out in the world and a lot of it is more this sense that ok, this is another sign that feminism is over. I still think it’s important for people to have a sharp, ongoing critique of marriage in patriarchal society—because once you marry within a society that remains patriarchal, no matter how alternative you want to be within your unit, there is still a culture outside you that will impose many, many values on you whether you want them to or not.

I got married two years ago, and people get this idea in their heads about what that means. To constantly be correcting those preconceived notions is a project.

When you live with a man in patriarchal society it’s really easy to be rewarded within certain kinds of heterosexist norms. I certainly see the contrast living as a woman by myself and interacting with a very powerful world most of the time. When people ask me, “Do you want to marry?” I say, “Well, I feel that I don’t want to live with a man again in the same house.” I’d like him to have the apartment next to mine, because I think that the force of patriarchal society is so strong—just in daily life and who gets up to do what. When I was with a younger man, many, many people got in my face and discussed whether I was dominating him or pussy-whipping him and I kept thinking, Gosh, if every older man in patriarchy had to deal with people questioning him when he dated a younger woman, we might see some intervention around that kind of patriarchal exploitation of younger women. But I think that people felt free to do that with me because I was a woman. In fact, people don’t feel free to go up to men and question them about their choices.

No, because it’s not “deviant” for the man to be the one with the power, whether that comes from age or class or something else.

And—as I was saying earlier—because he was and is a very quiet man, many people assumed I was silencing him. And it was hard for us to constantly try to intervene on the very sexist ways people had of interpreting our relationship. And I think it’s even harder when you’re married to someone to try to keep a spirit of mutuality alive when other people are always seeing you outside that, through a conventional lens. I have friends who’ve gotten married and suddenly people refer to them constantly through their husbands, as if they no longer existed as selves. That is so a big issue and I think the younger a woman is, the more it’s an issue. Because the fact is, an exciting old hag like bell hooks is really set in her ways, so that [now] I don’t feel like I would be dominated by those mores, as I might have been in my 20s—and was. Even though I had this incredible alternative relationship, it was really still impinged upon by patriarchal norms.

I think even for Gloria Steinem, many more people will be open to her because they see her by this very gesture as entering a conventional mainstream, because of the conventional sense of marriage. That is a critique we should bring to bear on feminism. Feminism hasn’t changed our image of marriage. Where is our feminist Bride’s magazine? Let’s not act like rituals like weddings and bondings aren’t important, but let’s valorize how we do them differently—and we haven’t done that.

There has been some feminist attention to singlehood lately, things like Marcelle Clements’s book The Improvised Woman, which is about the pleasures of constructing your own single identity. It’s time to bring that kind of attitude to relationships.

I’m very much interested in how we project a different kind of relationship to the world. We find ourselves best and are fully actualized in a circle of love, and that’s a kind of feminist model that challenges the idea of a couple being at the center. I would very much like to be in a primary partnership that lasts for the rest of my life, but have that partnership within a community of love, a circle of love, where the partnership is one point on the circle but not everything in the circle. I think we need to hear more about how people concretely do that in daily life.

I travel a lot. My ex worked 40 hours a week all the time; it was very, very hard for him to come with me and have the level of leisure [I had], because while I worked very hard I also had much more playtime than him. Shouldn’t we have at least four or five feminist magazines right now that deal with just those sorts of politics: How do we have feminist mutuality in everyday life? How do you create a balance in a relationship where one person is gone a lot? I have a male friend whose wife works out of the city half-time, and he and I were seeing each other for dinner once a week. All three of us are feminist and all of us are alternative, but she felt like, Wait a minute, there’s this intense intimacy building here, I’m uncomfortable with it. We haven’t discussed those things. While we talk about adultery or those kinds of issues, we don’t talk about the whole question of time and intimacy and how it affects us.

Obviously, love is my big, big issue. I said years ago in “Yearning” that I’m interested in issues that bring people together. As much as we talk about the issues and things that divide people, I do feel that the yearning for love, the longing for love, cuts across class, race, sexual preferences, even cultural experiences and nationality. I’ve been looking at issues that potentially serve to bring people together to think differently about domination, as opposed to always looking at what divides us and separates us. I think it’s often harder to articulate, What are our yearnings that are common, how do those yearnings affect us, and how can we know each other beyond our differences by starting with what we share? And what many of us share is our longing for love and being loved. And we also, through that, can understand other ways of thinking about domination, and that’s really crucial.

Gloria Steinem’s marriage is very, very exciting in a way, the idea that a woman over 60 can be free to act relationally in ways that we don’t imagine, but on the other hand I worry that it will be read culturally as a sign that, even for feminists, at the end of the day marriage is what really matters.

Love is so often seen as a women’s issue, like men don’t long for love.

The issue is not that men don’t long for love, because in fact I find many men talking just as much as women about the desire to be loved. What I find in patriarchal culture is that it’s very difficult for men to talk about their longing to love or to talk about the fact that many of them feel like they don’t have a clue what it means to be loving. If we go back to this model of “It’s ok for men to cheat,” just saying as I did to people in All About Love—what other people before me have said—that you can’t love people and lie to them, [that] cuts right through this whole notion that somehow you can be really loving somebody while you cheat. Which is not to say that you couldn’t make a mutual decision to have nonmonogamy.

One of the things that I know from being in mutual bonds that have been nonmonogamous is that you don’t have anymore the thrill or the danger that comes from betrayal. When you have a mutual relationship with someone that is rooted in peace and love and justice, a lot of the old charges, the stimulants and how they can up the tension level but be a downer in the long run [are taken away]—if you think about cheating as a kind of crack. I think that people are often afraid to have open, honest communication because in the act of being open and honest, you lose a lot of those tensions that come through the eroticizing of negative sadomasochism and dominance.

Eroticizing communication and mutuality hasn’t really been done, certainly not within pop culture.

Well, we need to speak that eroticism, because I think many of us feel that we are living in it. Sex is better within feminism. I tell that and I see it in my life all the time—that women and men who have a sense of justice, who claim their sexual agency, have what I can see is the most fun, exciting sex that there is. Because what could be more exciting than that touch and that bonding with another human being that allows you to know a certain kind of divine glory?


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