A celebrity who has achieved single-moniker status has hit the highest level of mass success: Sting, Shakira, Madonna, Charo – well, maybe not Charo.
Beyoncé long ago dropped her last name, Knowles, in favour of a singular declaration of stardom, so it was notable when she recently announced that her new year-long tour would be called “The Mrs. Carter Show World Tour.” Mr. Carter is husband Jay-Z, Shawn Carter, the superstar other half of the new African-American power couple. Forbes’s list of the highest-earning musicians of 2012 put Beyoncé at No. 18, earning $40-million, and Jay-Z at No. 20, with $38-million – she’s the main breadwinner.
I’m no fan of the pointless tag “Mrs.,” but there was something excellent about watching Beyoncé push the definition of wife and mother at the Superbowl. Why can’t a Mrs. wear a lacy butt-cape and a leather bodysuit while dancing with her own holograms in front of 108 million people? (Of course, if Beyoncé is the new standard for what motherhood looks like, then we are all failing.)
Still, it does seem bizarre that anyone, let alone an all-powerful entity like Beyoncé, would want to reclaim the anachronistic honorifc “Mrs.” at this stage in history. Last week was the 50th anniversary of the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, which means that for a half century North American women have been privy to the rather basic idea that a woman whose identity is totally subsumed by her husband’s is not a happy woman. Those Second Wave feminists noted that while men get to be Mr. from cradle to grave, the honorifics shift along the way for women, from Miss, to Mrs., each a public declaration not only of genitalia but marital status.
Ms., with its simple, equalizing neutrality, is actually a 17th-century term – a variation on Mistress – revived in 1961 by American civil rights activist Sheila Michaels and adopted by Gloria Steinem for her magazine in 1971. Unlike Mrs., Ms. didn’t stamp a job candidate as an unavailable mom and wife, half-committed to her work. But it wasn’t until 1986 that a publication as august and honorific-loving as The New York Times approved the use of Ms. as the standard for women (unless otherwise requested), prompting Steinem to note: “Now I don’t have to be Miss Steinem from Ms. Magazine.”
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Beyoncé is swinging toward the conventional. Despite the female empowerment rhetoric of songs like Independent Women (with Destiny’s Child) and Run the World (Girls) – and her pro-sex alter ego Sasha Fierce – there’s always been something ephemeral about Beyoncé. She’s hugely talented, beautiful and sexy, but the whole package is such a perfect projection that it seems as unreal as her Superbowl hologram. She has had a nearly two-decade-long career without any real controversy, lip-syncing aside. Compare her to someone like vile Chris Brown, who can’t go 48 hours without some moronic exhibit, or – more positively – Lady Gaga, with her emotional baggage and uncontained ideas. If life is high school, then Beyoncé is definitely the girl in the front row with her hands clasped, while Gaga is in the principal’s office to discuss the flaming garbage can.
Befitting this carefully cultivated image, “Mrs. Carter” is part of a rebranding, a replacing of one set of stereotypes (sexy pop star) with another (sexy mama). After a long time guarding her privacy, Beyoncé will soon appear in an HBO documentary about herself that she directed, and she’s been relatively open with the media about her one-year-old daughter (Blue Ivy is a good dancer). We all know what comes next: GOOP. Beyoncé has joined the elite club of celebrity moms, with her BFF Gwyneth Paltrow, alongside Angelina and J. Lo – massive stars whose youthful images have segued into maternal ones. It’s a profitable identity shift. Beyoncé and Jay-Z are reportedly working on a baby clothing and products line (they’ve lost efforts to trademark their daughter’s name). Children’s books and recipe tips can’t be far behind. The aging sex symbol becomes a domestic goddess and a lifestyle brand – a Mrs.
But as one-half of an African-American power couple (that other one, those close personal friends, is in the White House), Beyoncé’s evolution is a different one than Paltrow’s. Honorifics are a ranking system, a way of garnering the esteem not always historically accorded African-Americans: “They call me Mr. Tibbs.” Maybe this retro gesture is Beyoncé’s way of injecting herself and Jay-Z into history: Mr. and Mrs. Carter in Don Draper’s living room. Through the race lens, being a Mrs. is Beyoncé’s most interesting, and defiant, construct yet. In the Obama age, the Carters are the new Huxtables, an African-American, middle-class – okay, obscenely wealthy – regular black family, with all the values the new role implies and the respect it commands.