Beyoncé’s official photos subvert and reinforce dominant narratives
Tradition of political resistance versus glorification of white motherhood
As befitting pop royalty, the singer Beyoncé Knowles has released the first official photo of her twins — one-month-old Rumi and Sir Carter.
The image — which quickly became one of the most liked on Instagram — echoed her pregnancy announcement from February, once again referencing religious and classical icons — this time Botticelli’s Venus. And the Virgin Mary.
Throughout her pregnancy, Marian imagery was central to Beyoncé’s self-representation. On the first day of Black History Month, she announced her pregnancy in an Instagram post that conflated goddess imagery and Virgin Mary symbolism. A few days later she delivered a show-stopping Grammy performance that drew from religious icons, including Oshun, the Virgin Mary and Kali.
Beyoncé’s birth announcement, then, is an extension of the divine feminine theme. By referencing religious iconography, and particularly Virgin Mary symbolism, Beyoncé simultaneously reinforces and subverts dominant cultural narratives of motherhood.
Her representations of pregnancy draw from the Black Madonna tradition in which Mary – and sometimes Jesus – are represented with dark skin.
This tradition is associated with power, miracles and ancient mother goddesses. But it has also been subjected to whitewashing and used as a tool to perpetuate racism.
Catholic authorities have tried to erase the racial element of the Black Madonna by insisting that the darkness of these statues is caused by oxidisation or discolouration from incense or candle smoke.
The famous Black Madonna at Chartres cathedral, for example, was controversially repainted as part of a refurbishment in 2014 – turning the Black Madonna white in the process.
In a scalding article for the New York Review of Books, US architecture critic Martin Filler lamented: "Whenever and however Chartres’s Black Madonna acquired its mysterious patina — through oxidation or smoke – it was familiar as such to centuries of the faithful until its recent multicoloured makeover, which has transformed the Mother of God into a simpering kewpie doll."
Black feminist writer bell hooks critiques the European worship of Black Madonna in her account of her postcollege travels. She found Europe to be rampant with racism, despite Black Madonna veneration – and the worship of a black woman did nothing to "alter the politics of domination outside".
Beyoncé, then, draws on a complex tradition of political resistance to disrupt white supremacist narratives of black motherhood. Her representations haven’t gone without criticism, however. Her pregnancy and birth images have been critiqued for glorifying, glamorising and romanticising motherhood.
Sharon Kellaway, an Irish mother of recent twins, parodied Beyoncé’s Instagram birth announcement to show ordinary women’s experience of motherhood, saying that the singer looked "so unrealistic".
Certainly, Beyoncé’s perfectly honed postpregnancy body isn’t common to most new mothers. Celebrity pregnancies are hypercommodified and the shot of the celebrity postpartum figure is far more desirable than a photo of the baby.
Beyoncé has controlled the representation of her body by managing her own image. But the capability of a celebrity with extreme wealth, a management team, personal trainers and stylists, chefs and round-the-clock childcare, to make a speedy return to socially accepted standards of beauty is used to control "ordinary" women.
Film and media academic Rebecca Feasey observes that "irrespective of the reality of celebrity pregnancy, delivery or the ensuing maternal role, what is represented is an orchestrated and deliberately considered image of motherhood".
The tabloids and gossip magazines have been quick to congratulate Beyoncé on her almost immediate return to shape – thereby presenting her as an example of appropriate postpregnancy body discipline to women readers and linking women’s maternal bodies to "good" or "bad" motherhood.
As sociologist Meredith Nash argues, "a fit, risk-free, flexible, and responsible body is the mark of a good mother".
Beyoncé’s images have been criticised for reinforcing a narrative that insists women’s value lies in motherhood. Beyoncé’s "endless Virgin Mary/sun goddess routine" at the Grammys exercised New York Post journalist Naomi Schaeffer Riley to ask: "Why have we fetishised motherhood to such an extent?
"Our cultural imperative to elevate motherhood to both the most important thing and the hardest thing in the world is getting out of control." Schaeffer Riley was rebutted by Tongan writer Meleika Gesa-Fatafehi: "The article is written by a white woman who shames black motherhood."
Gesa-Fatafehi makes a powerful point. The criticisms of Beyoncé’s Virgin Mary imagery fail to address the racial politics of motherhood and the political statement Beyoncé makes in her use of religious iconography to disrupt dominant stereotypes of black motherhood.
As the US feminist writer Amber E Kinser wrote: "Women of colour … have historically been more concerned with having the children they choose, rather than being forced to produce children through slavery or rape or forced to stop producing children through sterilisation; keeping their children, rather than seeing them taken away; and raising their children in the best ways for their families, rather than having their cultural values, histories, and ways of speaking denigrated in schools, public policy, and other institutions."
In her pregnancy and birth images, Beyoncé negotiates a terrain associated with whiteness — "good" motherhood. Good for her and for all of us.
• Edwards is the director of SIIBS at the University of Sheffield. This article first appeared on www.theconversation.com