Black Madonna

DE­CI­PHER­ING THE GOSPEL OF BEY­ONCÉ

Bitch: A Feminist Response to Pop Culture - - DEPARTMENT OF EVERYTHING - —CATE YOUNG

Bey­oncé is fond of bend­ing sym­bols to her will. From sinking a po­lice car to dress­ing her dancers as Black Pan­thers, Yoncé has made it clear that she’s aware of her place in our cul­ture and un­der­stands the re­spon­si­bil­ity of wield­ing such vast in­flu­ence. Be­cause of this, it’s worth con­sid­er­ing her ref­er­ences within her po­lit­i­cal con­text as a Black mother to Black chil­dren.

Celebrity is a fickle thing, and the risk of los­ing con­trol of the nar­ra­tive arc of one’s ca­reer is high. Bey­oncé saw this first­hand when ru­mors swirled around her first preg­nancy, so it’s lit­tle won­der then that she seized the reins for her twins. As Buz­zfeed’s se­nior cul­ture writer Anne He­len Petersen wrote in her book Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Un­ruly Woman, “To­day, preg­nancy and moth­er­hood are one of the pri­mary ways in which a fe­male celebrity main­tains at­ten­tion.” Know­ing this, Bey­oncé took it a step fur­ther, us­ing her preg­nancy and the birth of her twins Sir Carter and

Rumi as a myth­mak­ing op­por­tu­nity by wrap­ping her­self up in the im­agery she wanted to de­fine her place in the cul­tural land­scape.

Bey­oncé en­joys a spe­cific kind of power few Black women ever at­tain, and it’s part of why Black women are among her most de­voted fans. Here is a Black woman cre­at­ing clear bound­aries about how much of her­self will be ac­ces­si­ble to us. “You get this much and noth­ing more,” she seems to be say­ing. Her art ex­ists for your con­sump­tion, but her body it­self does not.

Her preg­nancy an­nounce­ment was at once sim­ple and full of fan­fare: a soli­tary pho­to­graph posted to her In­sta­gram ac­count fully staged and very clearly planned down to the small­est de­tail. In it, she sub­tly evokes the Vir­gin Mary, most fre­quently de­picted in West­ern art in red and blue as a sym­bol of her dual divin­ity and hu­man­ity. The ap­pro­pri­ated mosquito net as veil com­pletes the state­ment. By in­vok­ing this im­agery, she de­lib­er­ately aligns her­self with the trea­sured iconog­ra­phy of “the blessed mother,” a like­ness that has long been inac­ces­si­ble to Black women due to the his­tor­i­cal vi­o­lence of stereo­types. Her very skin be­comes po­lit­i­cal in that the per­ceived fail­ures of Black moth­ers are of­ten iden­ti­fied as the lo­cus of larger so­ci­etal dys­func­tion. The lav­ish fu­neral wreath be­hind her as­so­ciates her preg­nancy with fer­til­ity and the blos­som­ing of new life while si­mul­ta­ne­ously act­ing as a halo, framing her face and body and con­nect­ing her to the di­vine. She is blessed by the new life in­side her.

The cap­tion also sends an in­di­rect mes­sage. A curt three sen­tences ac­knowl­edges the “we” of her preg­nancy—her hus­band, Jay-z, yet he is nowhere to be found in the im­age. Bey­oncé isn’t even wear­ing her wed­ding ring in the photo. By ex­clud­ing him, she cen­ters her­self, her belly, and her twins and leans more heav­ily into the sym­bol­ism of the blessed Vir­gin, main­tain­ing the fo­cus of this con­structed im­age on her as the new Black Madonna.

The pho­to­graph an­nounc­ing the birth of her twins re­in­forces the es­tab­lished mo­tif: the col­ors of divin­ity re­main, as does the halo wreath of flow­ers framing her­self and her chil­dren. The mosquito-net veil is cast off her face, no longer nec­es­sary for pro­tec­tion. The pur­ple gown ex­tends into the grass be­neath her, merg­ing her with the vi­va­cious­ness of the new life bloom­ing be­hind her. Her twins are held front and cen­ter, join­ing to form her three hearts. The sun shines down and frames her face: a heav­enly light from above to man­i­fest the di­vine.

In both pho­tos, Bey­oncé chooses to hold the gaze of the on­looker by star­ing di­rectly into the cam­era in­stead of at her belly or her twins, forc­ing us to reckon with our own gaze. We have not come unto the scene as voyeurs to a pri­vate mo­ment; we are be­ing in­vited in in­ten­tion­ally by the sub­ject. Bey­oncé knows we are look­ing and she wants us to know that she knows. With her eyes, she gives us lim­ited ac­cess to her body, her scru­tiny a re­minder that we too are be­ing surveilled in this mo­ment. The im­age be­comes trans­ac­tional in na­ture: sub­ject and sub­ject rather than sub­ject and ob­ject. She re­tains con­trol of the in­ter­ac­tion by ad­mon­ish­ing us for our ea­ger in­tru­sions. The Black Madonna has re­turned, and she is deign­ing to share with us the fruits of her womb. We are blessed to be­hold it.

This ar­ti­cle first ap­peared on­line. Read the full ver­sion at bitch­me­dia.org.

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