Postmodernism, bell hooks & Systems of Oppression

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  • 0:01 Empowerment
  • 0:56 Oppression
  • 1:57 Postmodernism and Pop Culture
  • 3:37 Empowering or Disempowering
  • 4:36 Thinking Critically
  • 5:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

This lesson explores what scholar bell hooks describes as systems of oppression. We'll look at how she claims these systems influence what we believe and how to overcome this through critical thinking.


In 2014, Time magazine included singer, songwriter, dancer, actor and businesswoman Beyoncé in its list of The 100 Most Influential People. In fact, Beyoncé appeared on the cover.

Many view her as a symbol of tremendous talent, female empowerment and all-around success. Others have questioned the way she represents herself and even described the Beyoncé brand as -- at least in part -- harmful to young girls.

In this lesson, we'll consider how thinker bell hooks understands images like these in popular culture. We'll look at how this relates to what we know about the world. Specifically, you'll learn about hooks' approach to oppression and postmodernism.


bell hooks is an American author, scholar and activist who has written and spoken about issues of race, gender, class and sexuality in the late 20th century and today. One reason she has chosen to have her name written with lowercase letters on purpose is to place importance on the text of what she has written rather than on herself.

From the perspective of hooks, we all live with the legacy of a system that has historically been dominated by those who are privileged, such as those who are rich, who are white and who are male. These systems of oppression affect all that we experience, from how each of us view ourselves to how we treat others, she says.

Even today, these systems remain largely intact, from her point of view. So while some might look at the image of Beyoncé and say, 'She's so empowered!', hooks would say that the images themselves are examples of how women, and black women in particular, continue to face oppression.

Postmodernism and Pop Culture

Are you surprised to have a pop culture reference included in a discussion of philosophy?

In her work, hooks has chosen not just to discuss the thoughts of her fellow theorists. She also cites pop culture and critiques it and encourages her students to do so. Why? Media images are a massive part of what influences our view of the world, and they affect how we deal with social problems. This makes it all the more important to critique, hooks would argue.

This willingness to grapple with what we see in pop culture is one feature of postmodernism, a movement that questions previous modes of practice in a variety of fields and in particular questions whether one set of truths exists.

To better understand what she was trying to say about Beyoncé, let's consider how hooks understands postmodernism.

In her work Postmodern Blackness, hooks does want to acknowledge that the identities of black people are varied. There is not a uniform black experience, and no single experience of being female either. There is no one set description for what it is like to be a particular gender, class, ethnicity or sexuality.

But she doesn't believe that systems of oppression are a thing of the past. For instance, she says the women we see portrayed in media images often have little to no control of how they are presented. Instead, those with money and power are in control and choose which images are promoted.

Empowering or Disempowering?

But a mega-star like Beyoncé is far more in control of how she is portrayed than most women. From hooks' perspective, Beyoncé's choice to portray herself in the particular way she does is unfortunate. hooks feels that a focus on the singer's body and glamour doesn't support the empowerment of women at all.

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