The Cult of Beyoncé

by Christine Sisto
Thou shall not speak against Queen B.

America’s royal family got taken down a peg by the New York Post Sunday. According to a report in the centuries-old newspaper, the marriage of Beyoncé and Jay-Z is a sham, and the couple’s obsession with controlling their image masks a crumbling marriage.

The rumor got a new boost Tuesday with reports that Beyoncé has been apartment-shopping alone. But whether or not the reports of marital discord turn out to be true, it’s likely Bey and Jay will remain protected by one of the weirdest cults in contemporary America.

Beyonce and Jay-Z are “intensely private,” Post reporters Maureen Callahan and Stacy Brown note. According to the Post’s source, that’s because their union is essentially a marketing scheme.

“Business is always part of the equation. They know they’re the king and queen of hip-hop — and really, all of music. Neither wants to lose that. . . . They are solid, solid business people, who know what they’re doing,” the source said. The Beyoncé and Jay-Z brand is very lucrative. Their current On the Run tour — which is getting rave reviews and is described as “a moving scrapbook of the power couple’s outlandishly beautiful life” that features never-before-seen videos of their wedding and their daughter, Blue Ivy — is expected to gross $100 million.

It is a “master stroke of marketing,” the Post claims. “She gave him class, he gave her cred. . . . Their image, joint and separate, is based on exclusivity and unavailability.” And they guard their brand closely. According to the source, the couple’s much-talked-about absence from Kanye West and Kim Kardashian’s wedding was planned. Beyoncé, who recently took first place in the Forbes Celebrity 100 list and is often lauded as a feminist icon, owes much of her success to her choice of a husband. “She’s great,” the Post’s source says, “but she’d be a little lower on the totem pole if it weren’t for hooking up with him.”

The Post report contrasts sharply with the image the two superstars strive to project. Beyoncé and Jay-Z portray themselves as a stable couple, in Instagram and date-night photos that often seem more clearly staged than conventional celebrity imagery. And they benefit from not only their own gift for image management but also their fevered followers.

Around the time Beyoncé released her up-until-that-point secret album Beyoncé, which featured 17 brand-new music videos, Saturday Night Live travestied the singer’s cult in an SNL Digital Short. The film opens with a few friends talking about the just-released album. “Everything [Beyoncé] does is perfect,” one friend says. “Yeah, she’s so good. I’m not a huge fan of that one ‘Drunk in Love’ song, though,” the character played by Andrew Garfield says, just after the ominous narrator dictates, “He turned against his country . . . and its queen.” Then a fictional CIA-like group called The Beygency hunts down Garfield’s character and locks him in solitary confinement, despite the fact that he likes “most of her songs.”

This satire is not far from the truth. The Cult of Beyoncé is more impenetrable than many real cults. I once remarked to a close college friend that I wasn’t a huge Beyoncé fan. My friend became angry with me and practically spat, “I dare you to sing one note of a song that Beyoncé sings.” My friend didn’t talk to me for the rest of the day.

Another time, in a bar in Washington, D.C., just after President Obama’s second inauguration, which I had attended, I joked with a random young man about Beyoncé’s lip-syncing of the national anthem, which, I alleged, was obvious firsthand. I then noted that I liked Taylor Swift more than Beyoncé. This young man then proceeded to inform me that Taylor Swift was a “slut” because she had dated so many men and wrote about them in her songs. I pointed out that he had no idea how many men Taylor Swift or Beyoncé had relations with, as he didn’t know either of them personally. The young man stalked away from me, as if I’d just insulted his deceased grandmother.

This seems to be a trend in American society. Thou shalt not speak against Beyoncé. When she released her self-titled all-music-video album, BuzzFeed compiled a listicle of tweets from Beyoncé fans. Some samples:

“I literally can’t remember my life before Beyoncé and I don’t ever want to imagine a world after. Is this what religion feels like?”

“I’d like to thank God but also Jesus for letting Beyoncé, his only daughter, come down to Earth.”

“If Beyoncé told you to kill 3 people, what kind of weapon would you use?”

“HOLY SH** BEYONCE JUST RELEASED HER NEW ALBUM OH MY GOD I AM CRYING WHAT IS LIFE WHAT IS AIR OH MY GOD.”

The Cult of Beyoncé has a political element too, because the singer has been declared a feminist icon. Much of this undeserved worship comes from her “writing” an essay called “Gender Equality Is a Myth!” in which she states such unimaginative, oft-repeated tropes as “the average working woman earns only 77 percent of what the average working man makes” and “we have a lot of work to do, but we can get there if we work together.” Groundbreaking. That (and her having once Instagrammed a picture of her posing as Rosie the Riveter) definitely qualifies her to be listed as the No. 1 Feminist Icon.

The words “perfect” and “flawless” often come up after the word Beyoncé. One of her songs is even called “Flawless,” and it is certainly the image she and her husband wish to project. But that is precisely why the Beyoncé worship should bother women. Beyoncé is the antithesis of feminism. Despite her queendom (and there were queens long before there was feminism), many of her videos still depict her subjugating herself to and performing for men, especially Jay-Z. A big part, if not the main part, of her job is to look beautiful. She would not be nearly as famous if not for the rapper she married. Being a trophy wife of sorts is part of her brand. Maybe she isn’t a traditional trophy wife who stays at home and vacuums in high heels, but she still projects herself as a prize that Jay-Z won thanks to his success. Beyoncé has in fact repackaged perfection into an even more unattainable goal for girls. How many women have ever watched a Beyoncé video and felt good about themselves?

Beyoncé isn’t perfect. Jay-Z isn’t perfect. Nobody is perfect. But Beyoncé will pretend to be in order to earn your respect. Isn’t that exactly what the feminists of the 1960s fought against? Why are we condoning — and applauding, and worshiping — Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s pretending? Why are we calling Beyoncé a feminist? She is a talented singer, but there are women who are talented thinkers who deserve our adoration more. Ada Yonath, the first Israeli woman to receive a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, was never a personal guest of the Obamas at the White House.

Let the Beygency come get me.

— Christine Sisto is an editorial associate at National Review Online.