DECIPHERING THE GOSPEL OF BEYONCÉ
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.