Today’s essay stays with our contemporary messiah theme, but looking at it a little differently. Rather than considering fictional characters in film and literature through the American Monomyth lens, today’s author, Emma Waymouth, considers the phenomenon of celebrity messiahs in popular culture, focusing in particular on the iconic figure of Beyoncé. Emma has lived in Auckland most of her life, and is currently studying for a Bachelor of Arts majoring in English Literature and Psychology. She hopes to work eventually in mental health, focusing particularly on child health, and plans to begin volunteer work with Youthline next year. She is also looking forward to taking part in the University of Auckland’s 360º exchange programme in order to do part of her degree at the University of North Carolina. Emma took our Bible and Pop Culture course after a few friends recommended it to her, and she was interested to learn more about the subject.
This is an amazing essay – enjoy!
In the Name of Our Lord Beysus Christ: Beyoncé, Fandom and the Messiah figure
Beyoncé, the mononymous pop star, is one of the most famous and recognisable people in the world. Due to her immense talent as an artist and performer, unrelenting work ethic and excellent construction of her public image; Beyoncé has amassed a fan base, known as the Beyhive, which worships her in a fashion that is almost religious. In my essay I will be exploring this claim by discussing the ways in which Beyoncé exemplifies Lawrence and Jewett’s (2002) criteria for a messiah figure, and how that coincides with celebrity theory; exploring the reverence the Beyhive show her; and finally, by exploring Beyoncé’s own religiosity and her resulting refutation of her divine elevation.
According to Pete Ward’s (2011) definition of ‘celebrity’, Beyoncé is a true celebrity as she is known by a mononym, and is highly profitable due to that name and the fame it is associated with. Although, she has also transcended that category, moving in to the realm of “pop icon” wherein Ward states that “a star has to become a religious figure, to develop their own personality cult and to recruit followers”. This theory of celebrity ties in closely with Lawrence and Jewett’s theory of the American monomyth, wherein they emphasise how this figure minimises the complexity of humans, creating a dream world in which “no humans really live”. Thus, the Beyoncé we interact with, both as celebrity and messiah figure, is simply a symbolic rendering of the ideal human.
Beyoncé as a Messiah
The most vital aspect of Lawrence and Jewett’s criteria is the possession of “extraordinary powers”. Beyoncé has consistently proven her talent in the realm of music, both in her ability to effortlessly sing her way through songs of varying genres, and in her holistic artistic vision as showcased in Beyoncé (2013) and Lemonade (2016). Her dancing and acting ability are also much respected. Beyoncé herself, in a video diary leaked to the public (Reekz DC, 2010) refers to her musical talent as a “gift” that “God has given” her. This conveys that she herself is just as aware of the power and sanctity of her ability as her followers are. This gifting from God could be compared to the gifting of a prophetic path He gave to the prophet Moses, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.” (Jeremiah 1:4-9). A resulting sense of nervous inadequacy is also a similarity between Moses and Beyoncé.
The second criterion is that of “unusual origins”. In Beyoncé’s case this would refer to the way in which she was effectively bred for stardom. This manifested in the extensive training she undertook as a child, primarily in the form of singing lessons (Lopez, 2015); as well as competing in talent shows that she regularly won (UnbornSuperstar88, 2013). Once she eventually did achieve professional success with girl group Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé herself was still effectively a child being only fifteen years of age. This origin story posits her as one of the lucky few who not only have talent but also the dedication to succeed in the competitive entertainment industry.
Another requisite of Lawrence and Jewett’s is that the figure remains ‘divinely competent’, something which is described as “deny[ing] the tragic complexities of human life”. This is an aspect of the messianic criteria that couples perfectly with the idea that superhuman infallibility is integral to the celebrity image. Something which Ward describes as celebrities representing “paradigms of the possible. As such they may be regarded almost as religious figures in that they present ideal forms of the self”. This manifests through Beyoncé’s carefully considered image, wherein she allows her art to speak for itself, giving few interviews and thus few chances to show weakness, or even ordinary human imperfection. Though, contrarily, relatability is also integral to celebrity, so there have been moments of vulnerability where Beyoncé has shared her struggles with miscarriage (Daily Mail, 2013) and unfaithfulness in a partner (Brennan, 2017). These admissions, and the way in which it has coloured her music, serve to humanise Beyoncé and allows fans to form a more intimate relationship with the star; this, in turn, contributes further to her elevation as a superhuman figure.
Another vital feature is that of a ‘selfless zeal for justice’. Beyoncé is involved in many philanthropic efforts; she heads her own charity called ‘Bey Good’ which the icon uses to fundraise for various relief efforts, support African-American students through a scholarship fund, and champion the achievements of women through regular blog posts featuring successful women and their stories (Beyoncé, 2017). She has recently, like Jesus the primary biblical messiah did in Matthew 14:13-21, returned to her native Houston to feed those who are without food due to hurricane Harvey. She has also routinely shown her support for the #BlackLivesMatter campaign by showing the hashtag during a video montage that paid tribute to the many Black Americans murdered by police in 2016(Peterson, 2016). She has also shown support to the mothers of these victims by having the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown appear in the Lemonade film.
The final criterion I’ll discuss is that of ‘renouncing sexuality’. This is part of the criteria as it removes the messiah figure from base human desire, elevating them above the animalistic urge. This is one aspect that Beyoncé does not fulfil, and the fact that she doesn’t is a powerful thing for her fans. Existing as a black woman in show business, Beyoncé has been scrutinised for her appearance and sexuality due to racist beauty ideals. Thus, the fact that she actively embraces and celebrates her sexuality in her music is powerful for her fans as it allows them to believe that they, too, could be (and are!) sexy and beautiful even if they don’t fit Eurocentric standards of beauty.
Coupled with these criteria for a messiah figure, Beyoncé also has a large fan following that shows her support and reverence, further casting her as a religious figure. These fans have congregated in to a fandom, described by Gray, Sandvoss and Lee Harrington (2007) as “a collective strategy, a communal effort to form interpretive communities”, meaning fandom could be interpreted as an active state of communal worship.
Fandom as Religious Worship
Beyoncé’s fanbase, commonly referred to as the ‘Beyhive’, are another contributing factor to Beyoncé’s messianic elevation. Lawrence and Jewett refer to fandom as forming a “new form of religious community”; with Ward echoing Ellis Cashmore’s continuation of this notion, even going so far as to trace the root of the word ‘fan’ to the Latin ‘fanaticus’, meaning ‘of the temple’. Thus, through fandom Beyoncé is moved from the realm of the profane to that of the sacred. This manifests primarily through the use of religious language and imagery when discussing Beyoncé, as evidenced by the affectionate nickname, ‘Beysus Christ’, and a popular meme wherein Beyoncé’s head is photoshopped on to an image of the Virgin Mary. There are also various other memes wherein Beyoncé is referred to as a saviour of the people. This role of saviour is one that is prevalent within the Beyhive, with many fans purportedly claiming that Beyoncé saved them from poor self-image and from mental health issues such as depression (Hill, 2017). This healing is messianic in the way that Jesus, too, healed people; “Many crowds followed him, and he cured all of them” (Matthew 12:15).
Due to the vocal nature of the Beyhive, the fandom’s reverence of Beyoncé is well known both publicly and by the star herself. Beyoncé is a highly religious woman, a practicing Christian who is devoted to God and has a large belief in prayer (The Jesus Network, 2017); thus, it is no surprise that Beyoncé does not wish herself to be seen as divinity. This resistance is showcased in the line, ‘God is God and I am Not’, that appears in Lemonade. The monosyllabic nature of the line portrays, rather blatantly, that Beyoncé does not wish to be viewed as a divine figure. Though, interestingly, she does not give a description of what she ‘is’ – perhaps, still, she is more than human. The importance of this sentiment is reinforced through the issuing of the latest Beyoncé merchandise where the line appears multiple times (Beyoncé, 2017).
Celebrity is a construction that allows for, and encourages, an almost religious worship of a public figure. In keeping with Lawrence and Jewett’s theory of the monomyth, both phenomena require a certain dehumanisation of the figure in question. Beyoncé most definitely is a star that fulfils these criteria, as someone who has been elevated from the realm of the profane, garnering an almost religious sense of worship and adoration from her fans. She is both a true celebrity, and an almost messiah.
All references to Biblical texts are from the NRSV.
Beyoncé. (2017). BeyGood. Retrieved from: https://www.beyonce.com.
Brennan, A. (2017). Jay-Z suggests he really did cheat on Beyoncé. GQ. Retrieved from: http://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/article/jay-z-cheated-beyonce
Daily Mail Reporter. (2013). ‘It’s the saddest thing I’ve ever been through’: Beyonce opens up about her miscarriage for the first time. The Daily Mail. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-2271378/Beyonce-miscarriage-details-Star-opens-heartache-candid-interview.html
Gray, J. & Sandvoss, C. & Harrington, C. (2007). Why Study Fans? Fandom: Identities and communities in a mediated world. (pp. 1-16). New York, New York: NYU Press.
Hill, C. (2017). Beyoncé Saved A Fan From Depression, Because That’s What Beyoncé Does. Retrieved from: http://thesixthirty.com/ravefaced/beyonce-saved-a-fan-from-depression-because-thats-what-beyonce-does/
Lawrence, J. S. & Jewett, R. (2002). The Myth of the American Superhero. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans.
Lopez, K. (2015). Meet the man behind Beyonce’s incredible voice: He’s looking for next big star. WGNO ABC. Retrieved from: http://wgno.com/2015/05/21/meet-the-man-behind-beyonces-incredible-voice-hes-looking-for-next-big-star/
Peterson, A. (2016). Beyoncé is a powerful voice for Black Lives Matter. Some people hate her for it. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2016/07/10/beyonce-is-a-powerful-voice-for-black-lives-matter-some-people-hate-her-for-it/?utm_term=.320892e96e20
Reekz DC. (29 December 2010). Beyonce – Why Did God Give Me This Talent (LEAKED). Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O63dea1U33g
Rojek, C. (2007). Celebrity and Religion. In Redmond, S. & Holmes, S. Stardom and Celebrity: A Reader. (pp. 171-180). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
UnbornSuperstar88. (9 November 2013). Beyoncé at 7 Years Old Performing “Home”. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9OeqgtpOYGU
Ward, P. (2011). Gods Behaving Badly: Media, Religion and Celebrity Culture. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press.
Zeichner, N. (2016). Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown’s Mothers Made a Memorable Appearance in Beyoncé’s Lemonade. The Fader. Retrieved from: http://www.thefader.com/2016/04/24/beyonce-lemonade-michael-brown-trayvon-martin-forward-black-lives-matter