Hitched: Beyoncé And The Luxury Of Playing “Mrs. Carter”

Like everyone else in the country with excellent taste and a belly full of adult beverages, I very much enjoyed Beyoncé’s half-time performance at the Super Bowl on Sunday. I loved her all-woman band, particularly Bibi McGill’s spark-shooting axe. I loved the Destiny’s Child reunion. I loved that my Beyoncé half-time BINGO card included a square for “killing it,” which I ticked off within seconds of the show’s start.

And yet, my reaction to her post-halftime announcement of the upcoming “Mrs. Carter Show” tour was not to cheer her on in a post-feminist choose-your-choice fist-pump, but to huff: “Call me when Jay-Z goes on a Mr. Knowles tour.”

Why does the most powerful woman pop star in the world want, or need, to remind everyone she’s married? What does a Mrs. moniker have with her ability to sing, dance and write songs? And no, the name issue isn’t what gets me. I’m not raising a figurative eyebrow at “Carter,” I’m raising a figurative eyebrow at “Mrs.”

Both Beyoncé and Jay-Z have legally taken on the surname Knowles-Carter, which I file under the heading “baller as fuck,” and a tip of the hat to Jay-Z for doing something many, many men would balk at. They did this so that their kids could continue the Knowles line, although I don’t precisely see why Jay-Z had to take the name “Knowles” for the kids to get the name — apart from the fact that we continue to think that a kid without his dad’s name is somehow less legitimate than one with his mother’s name. (Witness, for example, married-parent households where Mom keeps her given surname but the kids get Dad’s last name, as if by default. I digress.)

My point is: Beyoncé’s playing with identity and performance and one of the many options available to her is “Mrs.” This isn’t particularly weird or even anti-feminist. She’s got a long career ahead of her and I’d be surprised if she doesn’t try out a whole host of roles and costume changes in the years ahead. “Mrs. Carter” certainly seems fantastic and glamorous enough for any pop star: here she is channeling Marie Antoinette in hot pants. Indeed, there is a particular glamour to a particular kind of wife; certainly there’s a glamour to being the wife of one of the world’s most famous rappers. Add that to the fact that Beyoncé was already one of the world’s most famous pop stars, and the fancy knows no bounds.

What gives me pause is this: while Jay-Z can take on many different personas, “glamorous husband” isn’t one he’s likely to pick because in marriage men have classically bestowed legitimacy and identity upon women, not the other way around. Otherwise, men would have historically taken women’s names with equal alacrity. Otherwise, it would never have been argued that women didn’t need the right to vote because their husbands’ votes were plenty for the whole household.

Beyoncé’s performance of “Mrs. Carter” is, of course, complicated by the politics of race and class, in addition to gender. One thing white feminists haven’t generally understood is how remarkable it is for a black woman, be it Michelle Obama or Beyonce Knowles-Carter, to live publicly as a feminine, motherly, wifely person. So I want to put the individual (and my kneejerk) criticism of Beyoncé aside, because I don’t think it’s as easy as saying, “There’s nothing feminist about Beyoncé going on tour as Mrs. Carter.”

If a feminist act is one that upsets patriarchy and challenges a multitude of other long-ingrained systems of power, then a black woman, a proud and public wife and mother, going on a worldwide pop music tour is pretty fucking feminist, if not in explicit intention, then at least in effect.

Certainly Beyoncé isn’t the first famous woman — nor the first famous female pop star — to “play” wife in this way. Remember when Madonna wore that heinous “Mrs. Ritchie” blazer to the premiere of her director husband Guy Ritchie’s “Snatch”? Remember when Britney Spears strutted around as Mrs. Federline in a tank top? (Although to put Kevin Federline in a class with Guy Ritchie and Jay-Z does a disservice to those talented men.) The fact is, heterosexual women are  encouraged to preen with wifeliness — or future wifeliness — in displays we would very likely mock or disdain in heterosexual men, and that’s why there’s nothing only playful, or only sweet, about powerful women making shows of deference to their husbands.

Just last week at my local coffee shop, a woman walked in carrying a massive tote bag embroidered in winding script: “BRIDE-TO-BE.” This was a weekday morning at 9 o’clock. The woman wasn’t on her way to the church with makeup kit and petticoat in tow; she was on her way to, as far as I could tell, a casual breakfast meeting with either business colleagues or graduate students.

Have you ever seen a man pay for his pint with a “GROOM-TO-BE” wallet? You’d never know if a guy got his married name embroidered in sequins on a blazer, because it’d just be his name embroidered on a blazer. Men aren’t encouraged to perform fiancé or husband — glamorous or otherwise — because society doesn’t see marriage as adding intrinsic value to the worth of a man. Consider: as unmarried men age, they become confirmed bachelors. As unmarried women age, they become spinsters. Please don’t try to argue that both of those terms come with negative connotations.

What seems playful and harmless in a mega-powerful celebrity — and I think we all get that what Madonna was doing was putting on a costume, as much as she’s done with any other persona — is a lived reality for a lot of women who are married to men who expect nothing less than perfect Missushood. There are men who not only ask their wives to change their names, but demand it of them.

It’s nice, I think, when the most powerful female pop stars in the world feel comfortable putting on “wife” the way they put on thigh-high boots. That, in and of itself, is a rejection of the idea that once a woman is a wife, she is that first and foremost and always.

But for those of us women who are not famous, for whom it is not immediately obvious that we’re more financially or socially successful than our partners, marriage — the “snagging” of a man, how lucky we are to pin one down! — actually is an added value to us as humans, at least in the eyes of a society that disdains single women as cat ladies and celebrates bachelors as playboys.

I don’t think that, as a society, we’re at the point where most women can play a performative “choose our choice” game with wifeliness and expect little-to-no consequences, either in how we feel about ourselves or in how we’re received by others. In a world where women are still paid less for the same work, where the Violence Against Women Act isn’t a congressional gimme, where some women are always already “asking for it” because of the clothes they’re wearing or the color of their skin, a “BRIDE TO BE” purse isn’t just a fun or silly accessory. It’s a statement about a woman’s place, and a woman’s worth. It’s a statement men do not mirror, and do not feel compelled to mirror.

I am sure that it’s fun to play Mrs. Award-Winning-Director, or Mrs. Greatest Rapper Alive. I’m also sure that it’s a luxury not every woman has.

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