Black Venus RisingThe Symbolism of Beyoncé’s Pregnancy Photos

Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter is pregnant with twins, but you already knew that. King Bey is the Alpha and the Omega and when she drops news the world stops. But in the time since she announced her happy news to the world, it’s been interesting to consider the expert way that Beyoncé managed the story, and tease out how she makes use of symbolism and semiotics to craft a specific and intentional image of herself.

Part of the performance of celebrity is image management, and no one has mastered this art better than Beyoncé. Sensing overexposure and an oncoming backlash after her 2013 Super Bowl performance, Pepsi sponsorship, an ambitious world tour absent a new album to promote, and a (controversial at the time) interview with GQ, Beyoncé retreated from the public and the press. She simply stopped talking. Instead, she started listening. To her fans, to the tabloids, to the rumor mill: Beyoncé took time away to assess her public persona from afar and remake herself, find her feminism, and present us with a narrative she alone could control. When BEYONCÉ the album dropped on December 13, 2013—right after the Season 3 finale of ABC’s Scandal—it was clear that Beyoncé had gained a deeper, more intimate understanding of her audience. Black women all over the world were wide awake and ready to receive her, and she knew it. The internet didn’t sleep that night.

It’s interesting, then, to note the differences between this pregnancy announcement and her last. When Beyonce was pregnant with Blue Ivy Carter, she made the official reveal at the 2011 Video Music Awards during a performance of “Love On Top.” This time around, she dropped the information on Instagram with a clearly staged photo and a short caption on behalf of herself and her husband Jay-Z. But while some saw the announcement as a trite reclamation of “tackiness,” it’s the image itself and the circumstances around it that deserve more critical analysis. This announcement was very clearly planned down the smallest detail, and everything about it shows that Beyoncé manages her image with an iron fist. With this, she continues to hold her cards close to her chest by controlling exactly how every aspect of her life is presented to the public and how she is perceived. It’s a specific kind of power few Black women ever attain, and it’s part of why Black women are among her most devoted fans. Here is a Black woman creating clear boundaries about how much of herself will be accessible to us and making myth of her legacy in the process. “You get this much and nothing more” she seems to be saying. Her art exists for your consumption, but her body itself does not.

Choosing to drop this news on the first day of Black History Month is no coincidence. As the Trumpocalypse continues to unfold, this news came as a welcome reprieve from the psychic stress of the last couple months. For a few hours, everyone (but Black people specifically) were able to regain some semblance of normalcy and come together to celebrate, crack jokes and be in community with each other. Beyoncé, god bless her, found a way to take a personal family moment and give it to her community in a way that allowed them to share in it and partake in her joy. It’s also significant that Beyoncé chose an image that exposed her bare belly, a not-so-subtle acknowledgement and rebuff of the fervent conspiracy rumors surrounding her pregnancy with Blue Ivy. Here, she presents her swollen belly, framed by soft hands, as proof that she is gestating her own children. It also allows her to center and cherish her specific Black motherhood. Her very skin becomes political where the perceived failures of Black mothers are identified as the locus of larger societal dysfunction.

Writer and activist Feminista Jones explored this very idea back in January, writing:

“Black motherhood is so vilified that people do have vulgar responses to pregnant Black women. If Black mothers aren’t devoting their nurturing and maternal talents to people other than their own children, people have visceral reactions. And the image of pure love, that of a mother growing her own child for her to love and prioritize, as expressed by a Black woman, angers some.”

Most intentional, however, is the actual clothing Beyoncé wears in the photo. In a red bra and soft blue panties, she subtly evokes the Virgin Mary, most frequently depicted in Western art in those very colors as a symbol of her dual divinity and humanity. The appropriated mosquito net as veil completes the statement. By invoking this imagery she deliberately aligns herself with the treasured iconography of “the blessed mother,” a likeness that has long been inaccessible to Black women due to the historical violence of stereotypes. Additionally, the lavish funeral wreath behind her associates her pregnancy with fertility and the blossoming of new life, but simultaneously acts as halo, framing her face and body and connecting her to the divine. She is blessed by the new life inside her.

Beyoncé’s choice of photographer is also significant. Others have pointed out that the image is reminiscent of the work of French artists Pierre et Gilles, known for their distinctive photographs that directly call back to art history and pop culture. Continuing her trend of rooting her work in the context of Black art, Beyoncé called on L.A.-based photographer Awol Erizku, himself known for his work in the pop-transformative tradition. A frequent collaborator with entertainment mainstays, Erizku’s art often comments on race and Western beauty standards. It’s fitting that Beyoncé would task him with creating her in the image of Black Madonna, a mission that requires precisely this perspective.

The caption, too, sends an indirect message. A curt three sentences, just 40 words, acknowledges the “we” of this pregnancy: her husband, Jay Z, yet he is nowhere to be found in the image. Literally. Beyoncé isn’t even wearing her wedding ring in the photo. By excluding him here she can again center herself, her belly and her twins, maintaining the focus on this constructed image as the new Black Madonna, and lean more heavily into the symbolism of the blessed Virgin.

Finally, her choice to hold the gaze of the onlooker by staring directly into the camera instead of at her belly forces us to reckon with our own gaze. We have not come unto the scene as voyeurs to a private moment; we are being invited in intentionally by the subject. Beyoncé knows we are looking and she wants us to know that she knows. With her eyes, she gives us limited access to her body, her scrutiny a reminder that we too are being surveilled in this moment. The image becomes transactional in nature; subject and subject rather than subject and object. She retains control of the interaction by admonishing us for our eager intrusions.

Anyone who has seen Lemonade can tell you that Beyoncé is fond of bending symbols to her will. From sinking a police car to dressing her dancers as Black Panthers, Yoncé has made it clear that she’s aware of her place in our culture and understands the responsibility of wielding such vast influence. Now that she has published the full set of photos from her maternity shoot, accompanied by the stirring poetry of Warsan Shire, there is even more connotation to parse. If her meaning-making is so deft with one photo, it’s worth considering her references within her political context as a Black mother to Black children. Beyoncé, Black Venus, has done this before—but she’s still nervous.

This article was published in Devotion Issue #77 | Winter 2018
Cate Young, a dark-skinned Black woman with long, multicolored braids and glasses, smiles at the camera
by Cate Young
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Cate Young is a freelance film and culture critic. Her writing has appeared in Jezebel, NPR Music, Vulture, The Cut, and Paper. Cate was the 2016 Bitch Media Writing Fellow for Pop Culture Criticism and currently works as an audio producer in Los Angeles.

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