When Beyoncé’s new record came out last month, I spent a week listening to it, and little else. One of the things I noticed immediately is that she had created a work that perfectly captured the diverse personae that women are so often taught are conflicting — that of the mother who is a lioness for her family, but who also relishes being a sexual being, the woman at the reins of her career who is also an equal, passionate partner to her husband. Tori Amos has been exploring these archetypes for her entire career, and I love the way that Beyoncé tied it all together throughout the fourteen tracks of her record. It’s a feminist statement, and it’s a profoundly pro-family statement, in the real sense of the phrase.
When I watched the clip of Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s steamy Grammy-opening performance, I thought, “Wow. Justin Timberlake may have brought sexy back, but Beyoncé and Jay-Z are currently bringing hot, heterosexual marriage back, right before our eyes.” They’re two strong, equal partners, and a large portion of her new record seems to be about how several years into their marriage and new parenthood, they still can’t keep their hands off each other. What a great model, whether you’re straight, gay, bisexual or whatever else!
Even aside from the performance itself, did y’all catch the way that Bey genuinely started to laugh after she sang the last note, and the affectionate way they held each other walking off stage? In love, indeed.
Of course, wingnuts hate it. Why? Because they’re really not “pro-marriage” at all, at least not in the sense that marriage provides love and fulfillment, especially for women. Several other writers have tackled this subject already, starting with Alyssa Rosenberg at Think Progress, who argued that Beyoncé and Jay-Z made the argument for marriage that conservatives can’t:
And in my favorite recent example, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter and Jay-Z got on the Grammy stage last night and did what conservatives have been dying for someone to do for ages: they made marriage look fun, and sexy, and a source of mutual professional fulfillment. As Caitlin White wrote in her review of Beyoncé’s self-titled album: “She claims female pleasure as pure and grown, something dominant that can coexist with monogamy and marriage and her own status as an artist.” And that’s particularly true of the song Beyoncé and Jay-Z chose for their Grammys collaboration.
“Drunk In Love” is raunchy, fun and even silly. “Why can’t I keep my fingers off it, baby? I want you,” Beyoncé sings. She teases her partner, who both in the real-life creation of the song and its narrative, is her husband Jay-Z, “Can’t keep your eyes off my fatty, daddy, I want you.” It’s a song about flirting, about going out and partying, about having fantastic, adventuresome, totally enthralling sex–with your spouse. That’s a far, far better argument for marriage than the pseudo-scientific case for holding onto your oxytocin by not having sex before you say your vows on the grounds that such conservation efforts will make your first time better.
This may not be the vision of marriage conservatives intended to try to promote. And it’s absolutely a more aspirational, exciting good than the idea that marriage will discipline wayward men or provide support for women who can’t manage economically on their own. But if conservatives want to sell Americans on marriage, maybe they have to talk more about the bliss half of wedded bliss, to think about the desire part of making marriage desirable. And maybe the entertainment industry that [Ross] Douthat’s singled out as the enemy of marriage has something to add to the case for marital happiness. If marriage is a product that conservatives desperately want to sell, the smartest thing they could do right now is to hire Beyoncé and Jay-Z as a product spokescouple.
But will they do that? Heck no, they won’t. NOM responded specifically by saying that no, this sort of marital bliss is not what they’re selling:
It is a song which Rosenberg herself calls “raunchy, fun and even silly” [emphasis added]. In the performance, Beyonce was adorned (according to The Hollywood Reporter) in “Saint Laurent black tights, custom bra, La Perla collar body and Nichole de Carle body suit, complete with wavy wet hair” and performed while “expertly twirling in a chair.”
Rosenberg concludes of the performance, “If marriage is a product that conservatives desperately want to sell, the smartest thing they could do right now is to hire Beyoncé and Jay-Z as a product spokescouple.”
But as we won’t be quoting any of the raunchy song’s lyrics nor linking to video of the performance, it must suffice to say that we politely decline Rosenberg’s suggestion.
For our part, we think that neither of the ‘performances’ last night are an ideal starting place for a proper understanding of marriage.
And this is why NOM doesn’t resonate with normal people, whereas Beyoncé does. It’s been a part of the caricature of right-wing conservatives for ages, the idea that at heart, they think sex is icky and shameful, even within the bounds of “traditional marriage.” They pay lip service to the idea that sex within marriage is the most wonderful of all of the sex in the land, but when they see something that suggests that yes, monogamous sex can be awesome and hot and sexy and yes, even raunchy, they recoil. The marriages our opponents are selling are more like life sentences than lifelong growth, mutual fulfillment and joy. Amanda Marcotte expounds on this:
The “proper understanding of marriage” being, I suspect, closer to the picture Douthat painted: A man who wishes he could be free tied, out of a sense of duty, to a woman he hardly loves and barely understands because they have to raise their children. A woman who tolerates sex because she wants to have children and while she doesn’t love having a husband who resents her, she’s so attached to the social status that comes with being married she puts up with him. Fun and sexiness aren’t a part of the story. In fact, the problem is that people want fun and sexiness out of their relationships, and so they hold out for it, which is a bad thing because reasons. The reality is that coercion is an anathema to fun, and so making marriage more fun necessarily means making it more optional.
I have no doubt conservatives would prefer to make generic “marriage is great, everyone should do it” kind of arguments, but lately that’s come in direct conflict with the increasingly hard line being taken on the subject of reproductive rights. You can’t oppose accessible contraception and abortion for single women without also opposing it for married women who use those things to keep the spark alive. As Thers at Whiskey Fire wrote regarding Mike Huckabee’s contraception comments, “Hickabee is talking crap even from my boring minivan-driving perspective. It’s absurd. Christ, it is, dare I say it… HETEROPHOBIC. My marriage requires birth control. The overwhelming majority of long-term monogamous heterosexual American relationships require birth control.”
And that’s really all there is to it. I do, in fact, think that Beyoncé and Jay-Z have created a public image that is aspirational. Many, probably most Americans look at these two dancing sexily with each other and they really, really want that. Conservatives tend to talk about low marriage rates as if people, especially women, are rejecting long-term commitments in favor of “hook-up culture”. The reality is more complex. People want fun marriages. But what makes sex inside a marriage fun is, to be blunt, what makes sex outside of a marriage fun. The religious right has argued in the past that abstaining from sex before marriage is what makes sex inside it fun, the that lie is collapsing under its own weight.
Amanda explains earlier in her piece that so much of what’s making wingnuts recoil at the Beyoncé and Jay-Z performance is the same thread that makes them fight against sexual freedom for women and marriage equality, namely that they’re pissed off that someone out there might be having fun without the Christian Right’s permission.
To their credit, there are a couple of conservatives out there who understand this. A piece in Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller, written by a man named Matt K. Lewis, is being excoriated in its own comments section for supporting the contention that marriage can be sexy and hot. His commenters are absolutely disgusted when he says things like this:
Frankly, I wouldn’t necessarily want my little kids watching everything on the Grammy stage — but not everything is meant for children.
Thank you! I didn’t want to spend a hundred years writing about the people complaining about that aspect. You, social conservative parents, are responsible for your children’s television choices. The rest of the nation need not be punished because you can’t control your children enough to keep them from watching shows you don’t approve of. Back to the meat of Matt’s argument:
At the very least, any young man watching last night can now think this: “Yes, it is possible to get married, have a beautiful wife and kids — and still be confident, successful, and cool like Jay-Z.” (For obvious reasons, I’m looking at this primarily through the lens of a man, but there’s no reason this wouldn’t be an aspirational example for women, as well. As Rosenberg notes, one message the couple sends is that “being a sexually attentive wife and loving mother don’t, in the world of Beyoncé, have to conflict with the lady’s professional success, either.”)
Role models matter. And from a PR perspective, Beyoncé and Jay-Z send a message about marriage that’s a hell of a lot more positive than most of what Hollywood is selling — and vastly more appealing than what the conservative movement is selling, too.
I wouldn’t even suggest that Hollywood’s portrayals of marriage are all bad either. There are great, committed couples portrayed on all kinds of shows. But one thing that’s important to note here is that the people who find Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s portrayal of marriage more appealing than Brian Brown’s version of slogging, pained, might-as-well-be-chattel marriage, are the natural allies of LGBT equality. This is key: when you are promoting an idea of marital bliss that actually involves marrying the right person, both partners being equal and nurturing the marriage in all ways — even hot, sexy ones — there’s no sane reason to deny LGBT people equal rights. It’s natural to want to share that institution with everyone. If you prefer Brian Brown’s version, where patriarchal gender roles are enforced and sex is never, ever fun unless it ends with the birth of a child then no, you’re not going to support equality.
What’s phenomenally interesting here is that science is showing that Brian’s conception of marriage, and the sort pushed by American Family Association types, end up more frequently in divorce. Indeed, it’s the liberals who are the ones fighting for the strongest, longest-lasting marriages of all! We need to be shouting this from the rooftops.
Alyssa Rosenberg followed up with a second piece today, basically saying the same thing:
So Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s performance of a song about marital sex isn’t a suitable starting point for a discussion of marriage because Mrs. Knowles-Carter…wore lingerie during it? And marriage is never supposed to be raunchy, fun, or silly? Or if lingerie, raunchiness, silliness, and fun are permissible parts of marriage, they’re supposed to be carefully concealed, lest the adults for whom the Grammys broadcast is intended get…tempted to try out matrimonial bliss for themselves?
If that’s where NOM wants to draw a line, I’m happy to let them have it. But on a basic sales level, pitching marriage to singletons as an institution that constrains the sexual urges of men, who are inherently fallen, and guides them towards the procreation, is a horrible way to try to get folks to sample a product, much less make a life-long commitment. I think there’s a real divide between conservatives who embrace this kind of sour thinking, and conservatives like the ones I’ve spent the past couple of days talking to, who are on board with a vision of marriage that’s a mutually supportive, sexually exciting partnership.
That doesn’t mean that marriage isn’t work, of course. But there’s work that protects people who are fallen from descending further into sin, and work that produces good outcomes for both participants in a project they’ve elected to commence together. There’s a vision of marriage as saving us from the pit, and marriage as a source of affirmative joy. If your worldview puts you in the former camp, I understand that. But just because you believe something to be true doesn’t make it winning strategy. Watching folks across the political spectrum embrace Beyoncé and Jay-Z is discomfiting for some because it’s a reminder that even if marriage promotion succeeds, the marriages that result may look very different in tone, tenor, and priorities than advocates like NOM might hope for.
Part of the reason that groups like NOM have become such a joke is that their beliefs are so outside of the mainstream, even among conservatives, that their voices are becoming irrelevant. Living in the South, I know my fair share of conservative types, and guess what? They’re more interested in marriages that are nurturing, supportive and full of sexytime than they are of women taming men or women viewing sex as a chore only to be used to get pregnant.
Another wingnut who obviously finds marital sexual bliss to be “ew gross” and “icky” is Laurie Higgins, one of the most hysterical anti-gay activists in the country:
The spectacle was bookended by a soft-core porn performance by the not-single lady Beyoncé who twerked and jerked her half-revealed derriere in a series of “dance” moves that simulated sex and stimulated sexual appetite, while the crowd cheered in puerile excitement.
Well, I never! Twerking and jerking and derrieres?!?! I bet they don’t even sleep in twin beds!
Beyoncé was later joined by her husband Jay-Z who seems to revel in the lustings of strangers for his wife. What kind of man gets pleasure from his wife’s flaunting of her sexuality and from the certain knowledge that men desire to do things to his wife because of her arousing dress and actions? Is it money that motivates his eager embrace of his wife’s immodesty, or pride that he has access to her body when all other leering men do not? If it’s money, how is he different from a pimp?
This is the statement of a person who is terrified of sexuality. One of the reasons anti-gay wingnuts are so obsessed with what’s going on in other people’s bedrooms is that they’ve been taught their entire lives to fear sexual expression. This is why they’re obsessed with “confines.” I suspect that many of them end up in the anti-gay, moral scold line of work because they’re terrified of what they would do if they personally were the arbiters of their own sex lives. I hear this underlying fear when I see suggestions that if marriage equality is the law of the land, humanity will die out because everyone will go gay. It says so much more about what these people may be running from than it says about anything related to morality.
In Alyssa’s first piece, she offers a more sane version of what Jay-Z might have been thinking on that stage:
And that’s what makes Jay-Z’s appearance on stage with Beyoncé at the Grammys so lovely. Mrs. Knowles-Carter doesn’t need her husband with her to dominate a performance space. But she chose their duet. And what we got was a performance that’s explicitly about what a good time they’re having together. Everyone else might get to look at her curves–a reminder that dressing up and showing off doesn’t have to end after marriage, either–but Jay-Z’s the one who gets to look a little goofy checking her out in wonderment that she’s his, the one who actually gets to touch.
And Jay DID look a little goofy! See, Laurie? Maybe he’s just kinda giddy that he’s built a life with someone so awesome, who happens to also be HOT! This is how normal, non-repressed people react.
But for Laurie, the performance was “anti-woman” and “anti-marriage,” perhaps because Laurie is deep down quite pissed off that she’s never experienced anything that looks like Beyoncé and Jay-Z on that stage (I don’t mean the performance aspect, just the experience of wanting to tear the clothes off the person who is also your soul mate and partner in life), and she fears that, if she ever were to, it would earn her a ticket straight to hell:
Her performance raises many questions:
What motivates a young, married mother to flaunt her partially-exposed sexual anatomy to the world and simulate sex movements?
Deep down is this what she truly wants to do?
Deep down does she really want her husband to delight in the objectification and commodification of her body for the prurient pleasures of other men?
Would Jay-Z and Beyoncé want their daughter to one day perform like her mother for the pleasures of men? What would they think about an 18-year-old Blue Ivy recreating her mother’s performance but in a seedy club for the eyes of less expensively attired and botoxed men and women?
Is Beyoncé comfortable with her father watching her performance?
What kind of mixed message does this performance send to children? Parents and pediatricians tell children that parts of their bodies are “private parts” that only parents and doctors should look at or touch. We convey that message to them from the earliest prepubescent ages. So, what happens after sexual maturity? Do those “private parts” suddenly become public parts?
Is modesty in dress the same as prudery, or is it a virtue to be cultivated?
Geez. And if Laurie Higgins doesn’t get to have any fun, nobody else should either.
The fact that wingnuts are losing it over this performance — not to mention their rantings about the wedding ceremony that took place later in the show — shows how threatened their sad, discredited worldview really is. There are advocates out there for real, quality, strong marriages, but none of them are Laurie Higgins and none of them work for the National Association for Marriage.
The marriage equality movement is fighting for real, strong marriages. Indeed, studies are showing that certain aspects of gay relationships that are now being adopted by straight couples — specifically the fact that gay and lesbian couples are far more likely to be egalitarian when it comes to apportioning tasks and responsibilities — are making for happier marriages overall. But that’s of little import to wingnuts — they’re far more concerned about being right than they are about people’s well-being. So they’ll continue to have these temper tantrums whenever more evidence crops up that their way of life was never something to be emulated.
Take heart, though. It’s not just the marriage equality movement that’s winning here. It’s the great majority of people in this country. And if watching Beyoncé and Jay-Z paint a picture of hot, sexy, mutually fulfilling marriage put a little spring in the step of your marriage the other night, whether your marriage is opposite or samesies, then I’d say that’s a good thing!