So you happy Bey is pregnant? -- I am, too
In Catherine Young's article "Black Venus Rising" she highlights Beyoncé's mastery of image management. Young writes, "Here is a Black woman creating clear boundaries about how much of herself will be accessible to us and making myth of her legacy in the process. 'You get this much and nothing more' she seems to be saying. Her art exists for your consumption, but her body itself does not." Everything about this photoshoot and pregnancy announcement was intentional. Young makes an important observation, "The Image becomes transactional in nature; subject and subject rather than subject and object. She regains control of the interaction by admonishing us for our eager intrusions." This sort of agency is not something most Black women can experience because their lives are perpetually compared to white women. To take it one step further, this sort of agency is not something most women can experience because their lives are perpetually compared and formed in contrast to patriarchal norms. Young also discusses the symbolism prevalent throughout the photos: Venus and Madonna.
Adrianna Campbell's article "An Art Historian's Take on Those Beyoncé Pregnancy Photos" takes this analysis further: "Beyoncé as subject, patron, and distributor of her image speaks to her agency, and it is a staggering level of power available to few women throughout history, such as Nefertiti and Queen Elizabeth I. So it is no coincidence that in one of the photographs, a bust of Nefertiti sits on the floor facing away from Beyoncé. The accompanying text reads, “In the dream I am crowning, Osun, Nefertiti and Yemoja, pray around my bed.” All of these historical archetypes of womanhood have been inaccessible to Black women. And because of her fame, notoriety, and platform, Beyoncé is able to transcend barriers that pin motherhood and mythic-ness to whiteness.
Let me frank: I absolutely love it. Beyoncé is a genius. This critique is going to centralize on the symbolism of Beyoncé's pregnancy announcement and our response to it. It has nothing to do with Beyoncé as a person or her pregnancy announcement as a message. I'm not holding her accountable to my critique because I don't expect celebrities or anyone to be perfect. Beyoncé's pregnancy announcement only serves as a timely case study to bring attention to this perspective. I want to be able hold both Beyoncé's success as a celebrity activist and her missteps together because I think acknowledgment of both is important for any successful change. We cannot let our love for popular figures blind us to furthering our cause.
The Patriarchy and The Virgin Mary
While most Christian establishments try to hide their patriarchal tendencies behind the reverence of Mary, The Mother of God, most feminists see through this ruse. Within the common narrative of The Virgin Mary, she exists to promote a submissive, supportive wife and mother. She isn't a strong female Biblical character, she only becomes important because of her status as a virgin mother. Her entire story centers around her submissive faith. Her job is to listen to God, a male, patriarchal figure, and serve him. She accepts her role with no complaint and relishes her status as a mother. The Virgin Mary becomes the patriarchal feminine: the idealized woman in a white, patriarchal society.
Euro-centric Biblical narratives have white-washed Christianity. The Virgin Mary carries an unspoken but prevalent requirement of whiteness. The requirement of whiteness cuts off Black women from accessing this exulted and revealed feminine mythos. This is part of why I like Beyoncé's pregnancy photos, particularly with the one I used above. The mosquito netting veil transforms her into a Black Virgin Mary. And I get it, I understand the power Madonna imagery carries in our society. It's really empowering that Beyoncé is able to access this sacred mythos. However, The Virgin Mary, Black or white, still carries patriarchal meanings. It continues the narrative that women must be mothers in order to have value. It continues the narrative that The Virgin Mary, and all of her submissive characteristics is something to aspire to be.
The Patriarchy and Pregnancy
Pregnancy is a remarkably feminine thing. Feminine as in the opposite of masculine, not feminine in terms of gender. Pregnancy is also a remarkable time where many women experience a loss of autonomy. Sexism during pregnancy is rampant everywhere. Women are judged constantly over the decisions they make during pregnancy, decisions about their pregnancy and decisions about life after their pregnancy. Pregnant women's bodies no longer are their own. Pregnant bodies are policed through public do's and don't's.
Women I've talked to about being pregnant tell me stories about strangers coming up to them to congratulate their miracle and ask to touch their bellies. I think society thinks of this behavior as some sort of compliment, kind of like how street harassment is a "compliment," but these actions reduce the person to their pregnancy.
I think it's safe to accept that because of the photoshoot and the positive connotation in Beyoncé's pregnancy announcement, this is a wanted and celebrated pregnancy. It's thrilling that Beyoncé wanted to share this excitement with her fans and the rest of the world. Like I mentioned above, Beyoncé's tempered and self-awareness speaks to her agency in her own pregnancy announcement. However, society has tried to remove this agency. We've gone from thinking of Beyoncé as Beyoncé one of the most successful artists ever, to thinking of Beyoncé who is pregnant. There has been criticism of Beyoncé's pregnant body as "not realistic" because she doesn't have any visible stretch marks and that she wasn't thoughtful of women who might have experienced emotional pain after losing a pregnancy. These same actions police and set requirements for Beyoncé's autonomy.
As a Leftist, I have to look at all celebrities and their brands skeptically. I don't know Beyoncé personally. She might take her position as an activist quite seriously, but there is no way for me to know that. Even with an intersectional lens, Beyoncé still occupies a space of great privilege because of her money and platform. This isn't a passage of blame, but rather a statement of fact. Beyoncé and Beyoncé's activism will make her millions. While she experiences the unique challenges of an American Black woman, she's not immune to the privileges and the short-sightedness that accompany great wealth.
With that said, I want Beyoncé to keep up what she's doing. Change has to start somewhere, and even if that change is riddled with hypocrisy, capitalism and sexist tropes, it's still making a difference and bringing awareness to people who might not listen otherwise.
Rebekah L. Markillie
a PDX based creative who enjoys reading books, contemplating the oxford comma and rolling for initiative.
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