This year, we had a load of fabulous essays from the students in our Bible and Pop Culture class. Today’s essay, though, has to be my favourite of 2016. It’s written by TianaTuialii, who recently completed her first year of a Bachelor of Arts and Law conjoint degree. Tiana was born and bred in Auckland city and has no intention of leaving anytime soon. She tells me that our Bible and Pop Culture course (THEOREL 101) was easily the most enjoyable course she took throughout the year, and she found it thought provoking, interesting and allowed breathing room for creative flair. Which is why she wrote not one, but two essays on the wonderful Beyonce Knowles. Tiana hopes that her future will be ‘a series of deliverances of justice’, as she intends to spend her lifetime working in the legal profession. I hope she continues to write too, as she has a real talent.
Beyoncé: debunking biblical condemnation of sexuality using metaphors of baptism, flame and menstruation.
By Tiana Tuialii
No image has been more dominating in popular culture of the twenty-first century than pop icon Beyonce Knowles. In her recently released album ‘Lemonade’, Beyonce deconstructs biblical condemnation of female sexuality through extensive metaphors relating to baptism, flame and menstruation. The need to invalidate biblical vilification of sexuality springs from a history in which women were consistently disadvantaged by not only their own femininity, but stereotypes of femininity. Indeed, long before biblical Eve arrived to partner with Adam, Pandora was fashioned out of clay by Hephaestus, described as a “beautiful evil” (Hesiod 1914). As is the nature of literary tradition, women are often an inherent dichotomy, both beautiful and sinful. Female oppression is historic and universal, the story cyclical. A woman is construed consistently as less of a human being and more as a force of nature. Considering aspects from the Second Edition of the New Living Translation Bible we can note a transformation of women as a destructive force of nature, to a significant and positive authority as shown in ‘Lemonade’.
The audience’s first glimpse of Beyonce in ‘Lemonade’ is of her sitting clothed in black, stark against the deep red of a stage curtain. The use of the colour red in scripture has symbolically meant sin and sinfulness. Indeed, “sins are like scarlet” (Isaiah 1.18). Therefore, it comes as no surprise that a woman should be presented amongst sin. However, it is not only sin that is associated with red, but menstruation too. Regardless, both sin and menstruation share a common theme of undesirability and uncleanliness. Biblically, menstruation is one of the pains gifted to Eve by God for biting into the forbidden fruit. He exclaims “I will sharpen the pain of your pregnancy, and in pain you will give birth” (Genesis 3.16). The prior asserts that a female’s bodily functions are intended to be uncomfortable.
However, Beyonce expresses no such sentiment. Instead, she describes menstruation as simply tilling “blood in and out of uterus”. Further, it isn’t God or Eve she calls to blame “for the flush of blood”, but the moon. In refusing to recognize Eve’s sin as the source of discomfort as a result of regular bodily function, Beyonce rejects the idea that a woman should feel condemned under the aegis of the bible. In a prelude to ‘Daddy’s Girl’ Beyonce lyricises that “you look nothing like your mother, you look everything like your mother”. In essence, because a woman is sinful, we all look like Eve, the mother of humanity.
However, Beyonce is not discouraged by appearing sinful, expressing her desire to look like her mother by wearing her lipstick. In picking up and using the tube of lipstick and subsequently offering the lipstick to young girls, Beyonce shows how unashamed she is to be a woman. She isn’t fearful of being associated with sin, of looking like Eve. Instead, she actively pursues the feminine and finds power in doing so. Such is shown by the perversion of Matthew 5:5, where instead of God, Beyonce begs “Mother dearest, let me inherit the Earth”. In her replacement of God with a matriarch, Beyonce refuses to acknowledge the lords second punishment to Eve, subservience to the male figure. Womanhood, characterized by menstruation and pregnancy, is shown in ‘Lemonade’ as a source of power rather than shame. Using imagery, dialogue and metaphors associated with menstruation, Beyonce shows a clear shift between traditional biblical condemnation of sin to a more femininely powerful modern perspective – a rejection of the synonymous nature of womanhood and shame.
In baptism, believers rise from the water, immediately becoming symbols of spiritual longevity. They have accomplished a great feat: receiving resurrection-life through Jesus Christ (Moren 2010). Considering the prior, baptism has traditionally been the means by which one establishes a life-long relationship with Jesus Christ. In contrast, Beyonce uses baptism as a means to rebirth herself, rather than rebirth her faith. In doing so, Beyonce shows the regenerative nature of baptism can only be achieved for women once they accept power lies in femininity, not shame. She explains that as a result of shame, at not being enough to satisfy her husband, she “fasted for 60 days, wore white, abstained from mirrors, abstained from sex”. The list is extensive. However, despite the correct performance of the practices and not only the acceptance, but encouragement, of such practices by the bible, she is still left unfulfilled.
Pictured in a room flooded with water, Beyonce is literally drowning in her cloak of shame. It is not until she removes the cloak that she leaves the room freely, water rushing behind her. Consequent images show her walking through water, a line of women following. She gushes “baptize me. Now that reconciliation is possible”. Reconciliation has only become a possibility as a result of Beyonce leaving the room and the water where she was agonizing over her sin. Her choice to leave, to forget the ugliness committed against her is where shame dissolves. Shame does not dissipate as a result of baptism. Rather, baptism becomes possible once shame dissipates. This makes a broader comment on the oppressive structure of womanhood, perpetuated by the bible, that women who live in shame of themselves will never achieve freedom in life or through Christ. Matthew 3:13-17 notes that after Jesus’ baptism “the heavens were opened”. In a similar fashion, once Beyonce lets go of the questions “coiled deep”, she can undergo healing which will be “glorious”. Ultimately, imagery, dialogue and metaphor related to baptism in ‘Lemonade’ work to assert that for women, baptism is void of its regenerative properties until they can let go of the sin and shame that springs from the original temptation. While Beyonce’s music could be considered simple artistic expression, her message embodies feminism (Thompson 2016).
No image is more classically associated with hell, the devil and sin than flame. In ‘Lemonade’ the use of flame is rampant. When viewing flame as a symbol of sin, the audience sees Beyonce unafraid, happily sitting in the middle of a box of flame in a prelude to ‘6 Inch’. She remains unaffected, because if the female body is the site of sin, then the presence of fire outside of her body is only a reflection of the flame within. Therefore, her strut through a hallway alight, only alludes to the female’s ability to handle the sin of the world and the sin the world has pushed upon her.
Indeed, after Adam and Eve bit into the forbidden fruit, it was Eve who God turned to and questioned “what have you done?”. The male remained free of accountability, granted the opportunity to “rule over” the female as a result of her treachery. However, Lemonade marks a significant divergence from the traditional view of flame as an associate of sin. Admittedly, Beyonce uses flame as a trope to establish herself as blissfully aware and unashamed of her sin, as previously noted. But, she also uses flame in a way which is much more consistent with Bachelards description of it being unique, life giving, “intimate and universal” (Manopriya 2015). In the prelude to ‘Sandcastles’ the camera focuses intently on a fire place, the flames welcoming and warm. Beyonce states “Do you remember being born?”.
Here, flame is directly associated with life. Bachelard describes flame as rising “from the depths” and offering “itself with the warmth of love”. Here, birth and flame are consistent with what could be considered the ‘warmth’ of love, ‘Sandcastles’ being a love song (Manopriya 2015). With the focus on the fire place Beyonce extends the metaphor between fire and birth, stating “are you thankful for the hips that cracked the deep velvet of your mother and her mother and her mother?”. In closely linking flame and birth, Beyonce twists what is usually a negative symbol into becoming something “magic”, allusive of a women’s potential to birth life, but also rebirth her own life. Such is confirmed in losing the house, a traditional associate of femininity, to flame. In burning down a recognizable site of female oppression, Beyonce offers women a chance to rebuild something worthy from the ashes. Here, fire grants the opportunity to ‘relive’, to start again free of the restrictions of femininity. Hence, fire in ‘Lemonade’ is not a destructive associate of sin, but a powerful positive force used by women.
Through her visual album ‘Lemonade’ Beyonce works to deconstruct biblical condemnation of sexuality through metaphors related to baptism, flame and menstruation. Since the story of Adam and Eve, where the Lord proclaimed “I will sharpen the pain of your pregnancy, and in pain you will give birth. And you will desire to control your husband, but he will rule over you”, women have been dealing with adverse effects. They have been viewed as the site of sin, the original wrong-doers and the downfall of men.
Beyonce refuses such assertions. Instead, she claims that “God was in the room when the man said to the woman wrap your legs around me”. She refuses to allow men a complicit position in actions that involve two. She demands male accountability. The lyric “she don’t gotta give it up” is imbued with a double meaning. As a women, she doesn’t have to give up sex, doesn’t have to be subject to someone else’s desire. As a women, she doesn’t have to give up, nor be afraid of, her femininity. Ultimately, the use of baptism, flame and menstruation in ‘Lemonade’ act as “exhibitions of female and sexual empowerment which disrupt traditional notions of femininity” (Kumari 2016). It is in this way, that ‘Lemonade’ works to deconstruct biblical vilification of sexuality.
Hesiod. 1914. Theogony. Translated by H.G.Loeb Evelyn-White. Vol. 57. William Heinemann.
Kumari, A. 2016. “You and I: Identity and the Performance of Self in Lady Gaga and Beyonce.” The Journal of Popular Culture 49(2): 103-416.
Manopriya, M. 2015. The Two Elements of Nature. Vol. 15:5. Language in India.
Moren, Peter J. 2010. C.H Spurgeon and Baptism. Baptist Quarterly.
Thompson, Cheryl. 2016. The Sweet Taste of Lemonade: Beyonce Serves up Black Feminist History. Herizons.