Queen Bitch: The Royalty Meme Of Pop Culture
The narrative form is a universal human artifact– every culture has a large body of narratives that serve as origin and creation stories, family genealogies, moral and ethical education. Dr. Clarissa Pinkola-Estés, senior Jungian psychoanalyst and master storyteller, explains it well in her bestseller Women Who Run with the Wolves: “Stories are embedded with instructions which guide us about the complexities of life.” The gods and monsters of myth and religion, the heroes, victims and liminal beings of fairy tales, even the imagery of tarot, astrology, and comic books owe their currency to the power of archetype. Archetypes are simply models or categories, and the concept was first extracted from literature by Carl Jung in his theory of psychology. Later, Joseph Campbell applied the categories to mythology and personal development. Archetypes foster understanding across time and subject matter through common motifs, character roles, and plot structures.
Video is becoming the dominant narrative form of the 21st century, recapturing some of the dynamism of live narrative performance. In the 1980s, music videos on cable TV disrupted radio as the means of pop music distribution. Now, many people gain their first exposure to new music through video uploads on Youtube et al. These sites are also the means by which fans can respond to and interact with the official creative product of the pop music industry, with their own uploads.
Pop culture has always reinforced the signs and symbols of upper class lifestyles. The sets and stages of their performances, whether film, concert stages, or music videos, exploit the presentation of luxury almost to the point of self-parody. Stars themselves are seen as role models for the confidence and power they project, if only through their material possessions. The fact of the accumulated possessions themselves is seen as proof of merit on some undefined grounds.
Monarchies throughout the world have always been fortified by a protocol of symbolism and etiquette meant to distinguish the ruler from the ruled: the golden crown, the ornate throne, velvet and fur, exotic pets (including people), gold jewelry and precious stones. In a democracy, the symbols of wealth attain the aspirational flavor of personal achievement. Cars, houses with swimming pools, cascades of cash, and expensive liquor are the modern, consumer-culture equivalents of monarchical symbols. Both styles of acquisition and prestige are reinforced by hereditary rules.
Motifs of luxury and royalty are the tried and true visual language of hip-hop and pop culture in general. The predominant role for women in videos—whether as star or backup dancer—has typically relied on their overt sexual desirability. So when both Beyoncé and Katy Perry appear in elaborately produced advertisements in 2013, in the costume of a vaguely eighteenth-century queen– Beyoncé in blue, Perry in red– it feels disappointingly banal, rather than vicariously empowering or even novel.
The two different narratives, although using the same queen archetype, show how the two female stars attempted to reclaim the historically masculine visual language of royalty. Beyoncé has merely done a gender reversal, placing herself in the role of monarch, while maintaining the performance and presentation of (male) power and privilege. She fully embraces all the heavy jewelry and robes of state, barely changing her facial expression as a court jester DJs and her courtiers dance exaggeratedly around her.
Perry conspicuously subverts the symbolism of royalty by altering her own gown and walking unattended through the rooms of her castle, suggesting she is not comfortable in the role of monarch, or wants to redefine the role. She wants us to know, by her burlesque wink at her gray-haired male advisors, that she’s not really invested in the monarchical office as defined by men, while she’s simultaneously wearing the crown and holding the scepter, and sitting on the throne, all symbols of male power.
Music video production, like fashion, is both art and capitalism. By using visual narrative studded with the power of archetype, aiming for the psychological jugular of their fandom, the pop-star-as-enterprise can manipulate emotion to transact sales of recordings and merchandise.
Why do fans invest so much personal time, energy, and funds into celebrity devotion? What’s at stake for them is the worship of a hero, the residual glamour of prestige-by-association, the project of studying, organizing and disseminating exclusive, timely information– a form of worship and appeasement. Celebrities are the modern equivalent of the saints and mystics, and by associating with their image and their merchandise, like relics and totems, we hope some of their jing will rub off on us. Tapping the root of the word “glamour,” the glamorous construct of celebrity is a created illusion, a magical enchantment.
And there’s the ethical problem: material goods in excess associated with worth and success; consumption and acquisition offered as acceptable pastimes; autocratic leaders in pretty costumes throwing tantrums– royal symbolism playing to the low-income, high-aspiration citizens of a democracy. (In contrast, see Lorde’s “Royals” or the entire M.I.A. oeuvre.) The material symbols and constructed exclusivity of monarchy are conveniently silent on the fact that they are the spoils of war, oppression, and coercion.
Perhaps the royalty and luxury imagery has been denatured by its overuse by male hip-hop stars. Or perhaps it’s just too easy to see through the costuming– we know very well that a female monarch is the exception to the rule, whether she plays by boys’ club rules, or convinces herself she can make up her own. Katy Perry’s cartoonishly rebellious persona remains unburdened by nuance or logic as she takes charge of her own appearance and then inexplicably topples her own throne. The racial implications of Beyoncé in European royal drag are also worth examining. All this glamorous imagery targeting the most sympathetic parts of our psyche is presented without critique or context.
Dr. Estés cautions about the power of archetype and story: “In dealing with stories, we are handling archetypal energy, which we could metaphorically describe as being like electricity. This electrical power can animate and enlighten, but in the wrong place, wrong time, wrong teller, wrong story [...] like any medicine, it will not have the desired effect, or a deleterious one.”
Music videos are sales tools, not instructions for living. But because they explicitly deploy archetypes in a visual narrative form, they tap directly into our emotions, while remaining ethically ambivalent. There are moral and ethical implications to videos that use imagery of high status, and achievement, whether via consumption or heredity. By using the familiar symbols of monarchy, these videos present the message that power, respect, admiration, and self-agency are easily achieved with a costume change and the right props. When Katy Perry and Beyoncé appear as video queens, they are conflating female empowerment with luxury possessions and male employees—an imbalance of power in an equation that is the same old paradigm, written in reverse.
There are implications for racial and economic justice as well as for feminism, and the imagery of video should be approached with much the same degree of literacy as the written word. Apkon in his book on visual literacy, The Age of the Image, declares, “The manipulation of video is shortly to become a global language, and its seductive powers will be on display for all to see. But it is morally neutral. It can be used for good and evil and everything in between.” In an age where most everyone has a mobile phone with a camera, the democratization of visual storytelling can place a revealing mirror in front of the hip-hop kings and pop queens.
Reprinted with permission from The Style Con. Want more?