This is the third of a series of posts exploring what the young people in our group interviews had to say about key global celebrities. Here Heather looks at the talk about singer and actor Beyoncé. Elsewhere on the website you can read what our participants had to say about Bill Gates and about Will Smith. If you’re interested in how we analysed our data to arrive at this account then follow this link, here I focus on how and why it appeared to be compulsory to like, even love, Beyoncé.
Beyoncé came up in 11 of the 24 group interviews but there was an unevenness in where she came up which suggested that she was a hot topic of conversation in some year groups, in some schools, but not others. There was no talk at all about her in Hardy school in the South West or Jordan school in London. The most intense discussions occurred in four groups where we encountered some ardent fans. While male participants generally had much more to say about male celebrities, interest in Beyoncé cut across gender, and was a slightly more common among young people from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds. Below I draw out some of the key themes in the group talk about this case study celebrity.
“I’ve never heard anyone hating on Beyoncé”
It was generally assumed that everyone liked Beyoncé. As Ariel (Manchester) put it: “I’ve never heard anyone hating on Beyoncé. It’s just very unusual. She has a … really good life, at the moment, because she’s married, and she has, she’s had a baby like a few months ago. … I think she’s making a new album now.” Elsewhere we have used Sara Ahmed’s work to think about how certain celebrities get produced as ‘happy objects’, and generate positive reactions. In this group talk about Beyoncé, we can see how her associations with the “good life” of heterosexual love and motherhood alongside career success were important to making sense of the impossibility of “hating on Beyoncé.”
On just four occasions was this imperative tentatively challenged, with the challenger immediately critiqued by the group. For example, in a London school, the consensus around liking Beyoncé emerged when Sasha expressed attraction to her life and Snoop added her to the (otherwise all male) list of celebrities he wanted to hybridise into the perfect celebrity. Edward then challenged her status as “perfect”:
Edward: What, why did you add Beyoncé to your list?
Snoop: Perfect innit. so I want it to be perfect too.
Edward: How is she perfect?
Sasha: She is perfect like.
Snoop: She’s like on point. Yeah. … She’s just everything a man wants innit?
Sasha: Not that, not that.
Edward: She’s everything that you want, yeah.
Snoop: So you’re telling me, yeah, if Beyoncé came here, she said ‘marry me’, you wouldn’t?
Sasha: Oh, nice question.
Edward: There’s two different things no, no. no. [inaudible overlapping dialogue] If she said…
Snoop: Why wouldn’t you just say yes?
Sasha: He’d have to ask his mum.
Snoop: Imagine if he said no and his mum said yes. [laughter]
Edward: If she’s willing to give up 80% of her money to me, yeah.
Snoop: Bruv you get 100% once you get married.
Edward: That is the thing, they know they have a lot of money, they’ll make you sign that, that agreement that you won’t take any of their money when you get divorced.
Snoop: Edward, I think you need help, I personally think you need help.
We can see how Edward’s challenge to Beyoncé’s perfection leads to Sasha and Snoop questioning his (heterosexual) masculinity. In answer to Snoop’s uncomprehending “Why wouldn’t you just say yes?” to marrying Beyoncé, he suggests his reply would depend on sharing her wealth. This attempt to position himself as money-oriented is unsuccessful in stopping the challenges to his masculinity, as Sasha jokes “He’d have to ask his mum” and Snoop concludes “I think you need help.”
In the rest of this post I unpick how Beyoncé represents respectability, happiness and success, in order to understand the strength of the positive feelings attached to her.
As in the dialogue above, Beyoncé was often discussed as sexy by young people. But as she has said, “There’s a line between nasty and sexy“. The next extract – and Bev Skeggs work – shows that distinctions are key here . We can see in our data how Beyoncé maintains her respectability, walking the line between sexy and nasty. For example, in one rural school, Beyoncé is constructed as “the whole package”, “pretty” and “sophisticated sexy,” and compared to the “dirty” Rihanna.
In a Manchester group, a comparison with Nicki Minaj does similar work:
Orlando: She’s [Minaj] so fake its unbelievable. There’s Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé, it is like who would you rather go for [Roman: Exactly] if you were going to go for, you’d definitely, go for, Nicki Minaj who, who sings about, [Male: Sex] well, what’s that one, ‘You ho, you ho’?
Roman: Oh you stupid ho.
Naomi: And flashing her…
Orlando: And it’s like Beyoncé who sings about like…
Wolf Gang: Real love.
Here we can see how Beyoncé’s respectability depends on ideas of her authenticity, compared to Minaj’s ‘fakeness’, and on distinctions between sex and love. As I explore in the next section, her values, associations with the Obamas, and love of her husband and her child are important to her status as a happy object and role model.
Kim: In terms of the celebrities that we’ve discussed who would you like to be friends with?
Mariam: Probably Beyoncé. … Just because she is like a role model, a real role model. You know what, for young children. … Like, she really has talent and she doesn’t show off, like ‘I’m the best and you’re not’. And ‘I can do it and you’re not’ you know. And she helps young children to dance and sing and make themselves feel better, even though, even though if you are ugly. If you think you are ugly and you think you are obese or, you are too skinny. Because nowadays you have to be skinny, you have to be, you have to have long hair, and you have to have beautiful eyes, you have to have this and that, just to be, pretty or stand out. She looks, for me she just looks like an average woman really with much talent and I would, I think she deserves it.
Although this is the only time Beyoncé is explicitly referred to as a role model, there was love for her and inspiration taken from her by participants in this and three other Manchester groups. Here and elsewhere, she is associated with feminism (usually an unhappy object), through her all-female band and her position as a working mother, and part of a small group of pro-feminist statements in the data that I discussed in an earlier post. Perhaps her association with marriage and motherhood balances and thus makes palatable her associations with feminism.
I give the (nearly) final word to the biggest Beyoncé fan we met, Roman. For Roman, and his female friend, Orlando, the reasons for loving her draw on readings of a combination of hard work, talent, values and respectability.
Roman: I love Beyoncé so much [excited speech] … because to get where she is, she’s tried her hardest. And she gives her all in everything she does. And if you see like other people, and they’ll say for example Nicki Minaj or someone, you would see them not as a single rapper, you would see more of as a sex symbol, whereas Beyoncé she does do that, but she does look sexy, but she looks it in such a way.
Orlando: Classy at the same time.
Roman: Yeah classy and sexy at the same time. … Yeah, me and Naomi, we love them, and it’s just that like um if you’ve watched the new Cadillac Records, Beyoncé starred as Etta James and she just showed her life and how it was for her, as a young woman trying to get into the music business, and trying, and how men would just like think ‘oh yeah women, all these women can’t do what we can do and all’. And it’s just like, that really like showed me that no matter what comes in your way, you can always get passed that, and you always have to stay strong. … I wouldn’t want Beyoncé’s job but um, I want to get where I want on my own, with like putting my own effort in, my own heart and soul into it. But it is that, Beyoncé who’s influenced me, and who I look up to, who helps me thrive to get what I want. … She inspires me. … and she’s done so much to help other people in need.
In this extract we can see key patterns across our dataset: the power of individualist narratives of triumph over adversity, rather than talk of structural barriers to success; and the role of determination, hard work and philanthropy in determining distinctions between deserving and undeserving celebrities. You can hear more about these in the video below.
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