Beyoncé is as much a performance artist as she is a singer and pop culture icon. The mega star made this clear, again and for the people in the cheap seats, with the film Lemonade, which is being heralded as everything from a deep love letter to black women, to a conversation on black lives mattering, to a chronicle of Beyoncé’s deeply troubled marriage to rapper Jay Z. Although we may never know Bey’s true intentions for creating what I consider to be one of the most incredible visual storytelling projects I’ve ever witnessed, we should all be grateful for the conversations the work of art is creating. This is the meaning of art, after all, to touch us deeply in secret places, places that the world and sometimes we don’t even know exists—to tell one story that is every story, and most importantly to make us question the universe overall, and our universes in particular.
That most people’s focus on Lemonade’s artistic message continues to veer toward (and make assumptions about) Bey and Jay’s marriage should be expected. And although I’m not interested in investigating whether this is actually Beyoncé’s anti-love song to Jay, her (supposedly) cheating husband, I am interested in the conversations that this (possibly incorrect) narrative takes us to. One that I’m quite fascinated by is the new genre of heartbreak music Bey is introducing us to, and how that genre denotes a shift in not only how we women see ourselves, but more importantly how the men we love (or society overall) are being forced to see us. Beyoncé is talking more than feminism, she is talking modern love, modern relationships, and the modern manner in which women are demanding to be understood and appreciated.
Throughout Lemonade, Bey is reminding her antagonist (and maybe herself) that she is the lion with the mane—the one who should be served, fed and bowed to. That she intends to stand out in front of (or in the very least next to) her partner. That she is building her own dynasty, even while contributing to a larger one. That she is a person, not a possession to be kept. Women, and black women particularly, are becoming more educated, owning more businesses, and earning more income today than they possibly ever have. But what does this mean for marriage, for how men and women are socialized to understand the needs of their partners? For how we define manhood and womanhood? Is the modern marriage more (overtly) about business than it is has been?
What if, in some way, Beyoncé is delivering a message in Lemonade that says a woman can stay in a marriage because that partnership benefits her, but she will not be silent and turn a blind eye to how she’s been treated. What if Bey is saying that even in a woman’s wild fits of anger, jealousy, insecurity, and heartbreak, she should still be thinking of a master plan.
Although I would never think to compare Beyoncé to presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton beyond them both being powerful women intent on paving their own ways and blazing their own trails, writer Dave Schilling sees a deeper common bond between the two—that is if we are willing to accept Lemonade as a true and literal confession from Beyoncé. He writes in response to the film that “Hillary knows a few things about the trauma of a husband breaking his vows and the subsequent necessary self-healing.” More importantly, Clinton came into her marriage with her own political aspirations. We know all that she has accomplished since being the first lady, and may be on her way to making Bill the nation’s inaugural first husband. Hillary Clinton has always been a key player in supporting policies and politics even before she was elected as senator, or appointed secretary of state; this is why so many are holding her accountable for her support of the 1994 Crime Bill.
Could Hillary Clinton have left Bill after the most public outing of adultery in history? Absolutely. Would that have affected her end game of becoming POTUS? It’s very likely. Beyoncé ’s art and Hillary Clinton’s real life reckoning, played out before the public, are presenting us with new commentary on wives and cheating husbands: The reason a woman chooses to stay in a marriage after her partner’s affair may have changed from financial dependency, or unyielding loyalty, or societal constraints, to staying because (most importantly) it’s good for business and her whole life trajectory.
When we discuss women living better, freer lives in 2016, and appreciate that women’s lives are evolving, we must also understand that the way women enter and participate in relationships will change as well. We see this example shine brightly every time we admire a photo of President and first lady Barack and Michelle Obama. FLOTUS was undoubtedly cemented in her position as a prominent attorney. In fact, she was Barack’s mentor when he was hired one summer at the law firm she was an associate at. And as charming and handsome as she may have thought Barack to be, she also witnessed his brilliant legal mind, his serious and strong work ethic, and that he was headed for success. Michelle met Barack in 1989; he was the first black person to lead the Harvard Law Review, in 1990. Please don’t get it twisted, Michelle Obama did the choosing in that relationship and she did so by leading with her head as much as she was leading with her heart.
Beyoncé, standing in all her #blackgirlmagic, may not be creating new conversations about relationships, but she is making those conversations more accessible to all, and is certainly presenting them in a new light. She has us talking, our ears buzzing, and our minds expanding with Lemonade. We are learning how the game done changed for women (married or not) wielding power in their own right, and we are all better for it.