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
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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder