Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. But apparently a woman scorned is also the foundation of a creative tour de force.
On HBO this past Saturday – in a time slot generally reserved for feature films – Beyoncé released “Lemonade,” a series of music videos compiled into a short film that’s both eclectically cinematic and starkly personal. The songs and accompanying visuals are laced with poetry; each offers historical and psychological codes for hurt, betrayal, depression and renewal.
The story begins with her suspicions of a cheating husband. By the next vignette, we know he’s been untrue.
As a professor of representations in media, I get to spend my days diving into popular culture, and picking apart why it inspires and entertains us.
In “Lemonade,” Beyoncé contrasts her life as a deity with the struggle of being a black daughter, wife and mother. At a time when race, gender, sexuality and politics are merging in her public life, they are also colliding inside of her home. In Beyoncé’s case, this collision leads to familial strife ending in hard-fought reconciliation.
Where Prince had “Purple Rain” and Michael Jackson had “Thriller,” Beyoncé, with “Lemonade,” now has her own authentic, self-reflective masterpiece.
A gift from mother to daughter?
In “Lemonade,” betrayal chips away at Beyoncé’s self-identity and, at points, sanity. Who is in the house when she’s not there? What secret is her husband hiding? Who is this bifurcated man – a good father during the day who, in the middle of the night, contributes to his family’s demise?
In one of the vignettes, she says she knows he’s been cheating because she sees him behaving in the same suspicious ways her father did when he cheated on Beyoncé’s mother.
Although some might critique Beyoncé for airing her dirty laundry, others could argue she’s using “Lemonade” as a teaching tool for her daughter, Blue Ivy.
In one sense, Beyoncé is telling a story of recognition and rebirth to her daughter in the best way she knows how – through song.
In another, she’s surrounding her daughter with a support system that all women need as they navigate becoming women. In “Lemonade,” tennis icon Serena Williams, intersectional feminists and actors Amandla Stenberg and Zendaya, and Somali-British poet Warsan Shire make appearances; all have stories to tell of being broken, experiencing a rebirth and emerging stronger.
While women of all races can relate to stories of infidelity, “Lemonade” isn’t made for them. Instead, it is a mature lyrical epic of the journey black women take – the attempt to triumph in a world that frequently tells us we are not enough.
Within black families in America, a legacy of struggle is passed from one generation to the next. A dominant trope is that the mothers in this community are the ones that make the sacrifices. They are the ones that must stay, persevere, and succeed – even when their fathers or husbands mistreat them or leave.
This is the story Beyoncé is telling. And by interweaving these confounding societal structures, it makes her husband’s betrayal all the more poignant.
As images of a contented black women flicker across the screen, an excerpt from a Malcolm X speech tells viewers:
The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.
Their smiles convey resilience in the face of nearly insurmountable odds.
For black men, society cultivates insecurity
While Jay Z’s suggested infidelity isn’t excused, the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown and Eric Garner appear in “Lemonade” to remind viewers that the black man, too, has been literally broken and beaten.
Their sons, killed for simply looking or acting suspiciously, now symbolize the pervasive fear black male persons feel. The toll this takes has been highlighted by social work scholars Christopher Salas-Wright and Trenette Clark, who have shown how the disrespect and hostility of racial discrimination negatively impacts mental health of black men.
How could any man – even a man as wealthy and famous as Jay Z – retain his psychological security in a world that cultivates his insecurity?
Of course, it is from “Becky with the good hair” (the other woman, according to Beyoncé). What more does a man who has everything need? More validation of his masculinity, of course.
By the end of the piece, it does appear that Beyoncé has forgiven her husband and father, deciding to let love heal the familial wounds.
Her decision to forgive – but clearly not forget – is her choice. This is significant, too: Beyoncé’s black feminism celebrates the ability of black women to choose out of love, not necessity.
The story of Beyoncé healing her black family is one of those rare moments where an artist ascends to icon status.
And by telling her truth, Beyoncé takes what is bitter and gives it new life, setting herself, her mother and her daughter free.