What's behind the puritanical obsession with Jay-Z and Beyoncé's marriage?

Their performance of “Drunk In Love” at the Grammys was undoubtedly sultry, but why does it give the media licence to speculate about “what goes on” in the couple’s own home?

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

A couple of weeks ago, missionary columnist Naomi Schaefer Riley of the New York Post wrote, “We’re missing the point of marriage.” That sounds about right: In her Tuesday column, she offered a free marriage-counseling session to Beyoncé and husband Jay-Z in a scathing review of the happy couple’s “Drunk In Love” romp that opened the GRAMMY Awards earlier this week. Shawn Corey Carter, she’ll have you know, is “a poor excuse for a husband.”

The transgression: Beyoncé’s bare thighs and high crotch, and Jay-Z’s groping of all relevant anatomy. “Beyoncé’s booty-shaking was certainly no worse than Miley Cyrus’s twerking or any number of other performances by Madonna, for instance. But there’s something particularly icky about doing it while your husband looks on approvingly,” she writes, then quotes Charlotte Hays, the renowned author of When Did White Trash Become the New Normal? saying, “Honestly, I didn’t want to watch Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s foreplay.”

It was a sultry display, no question. (I rooted.) But does the spectacular marketing of Beyoncé’s sexuality mean that neither she nor her husband share a healthy regard for matrimony? And that we’re all vicious horndogs for applauding?

Pulp quarterbacking of celebrity relationships is a pastime in at least three hemispheres, of course, but the Knowles-Carter marriage is a perfect storm for puritanical concern-trolling. He’s a rapper, and she’s half-naked. God save Dolores Tucker. “Indeed,” Riley scoffs, “the happy couple seems to have completely blurred the line between what goes on in their bedroom and what happens on national TV.” No, in fact, it seems that Riley has rather blurred these lines.

Such conflation of popular persons and their personas is, if anything, a disregard of “what goes on” in the couple’s own home, where bills and chores are divided between the two of them, and then maybe a few maids, and none of us. Yet by one spouse’s flaunting the other to a live, televised audience, “they’re suggesting to audiences that this kind of public sexual behavior is compatible with a loving modern marriage.” Why wouldn’t these things be compatible? What’s Naomi Schaefer Riley afraid of, exactly?

So here we have a faith-based columnist’s angst or visceral puritanism masquerading as critique. Likewise, though with a left-feminist gist, Akiba Solomon of Colorlines weighed in (as did others) with a lament that the couple’s shout-out to a classic black biopicWhat’s Love Got to Do With It – and the march of gender equality are, alas, incompatible. “I’m disappointed in Beyoncé,” Solomon sighs. “I wish in this moment she could have been more Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and less ‘Cater 2 U.’”

Beyoncé was neither icon that night – she was Beyoncé. She’s is a woman in her own right, not a fantasy reconfiguration by which the diva might reflect all of our dreams, thinking, and biases. To protest that her performance could have been more purely feminist, or to diagnose marital decay based on her writhing in tandem with her husband, is to wish upon a star. 

We do this naturally as fans. But it’s a chauvinist flex for op-ed folk to reduce real people – famous as they may be – to agendas and insecurities that are more so the critic’s than the artist’s. Yes, Beyoncé recently co-signed the Shriver Report (“Gender Equality Is a Myth!”) and she’s a workaholic musician who riffs off feminist themes. But, as was similarly demonstrated with another Grammy performer, Macklemore, too often we hoist up pop culture magnates as freelance politicians, just so we can tear them down.

Justin Charity is a music and fiction writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

 

Jay-Z and Beyoncé perform at the Grammys. Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear