Earlier this month, the world rejoiced when Beyoncé posted a picture on her Instagram page announcing that she was pregnant with twins. The picture immediately broke the internet, generating a wildly emotional response that riffed off pop culture’s love of all things Bey.
It’s been widely acknowledged that Beyoncé is not only the princess of R&B, but also an expert marketer whose personal brand has sparked devotion bordering on fanaticism. We see this genius at work in her pregnancy photo, which is a real triumph of visual coding.
For one thing, it’s impossible to ignore the picture’s overtones of divinity. As art history buffs have noted, the entire set-up is a nod to Italian Renaissance depictions of the Madonna— recollecting, in particular, the Virgin Mary as painted by Rubens. This subtext of holiness is only augmented by the singer’s green veil– for although Beyoncé may not be literally virginal, she uses the veil to lay claim to the symbolic, moral purity of a young bride. All this codes her as a modern-day version of the Holy Mother, with child yet (spiritually) immaculate, and supremely worthy of worship.
Beyoncé’s photo also makes no pretences about the fact that it’s been minutely, painstakingly constructed. Overt signals of artifice are everywhere: from Beyoncé’s perfectly pink lips, to the hyperreal blue sky, to the stiff wreath of flowers around her that looks like nothing found in nature. This isn’t art aspiring to nature, but art that announces its artifice— in fact, Beyoncé has even released behind-the-scenes material from the photoshoot, revealing the careful planning that went into it. This makes a powerful statement in the age of #nofilter selfies that, actually, took an hour to get just right— unlike other self-portraits, Beyoncé’s picture owns up to its efforts at self-presentation, coding authenticity by highlighting its own contrivances.
Finally, the picture codes empowerment. Traditionally, pop stars tend to be at the mercy of rag mags and gossip columns, with little influence over how (and when) their lives suffer exposure. But not Beyoncé, who instead confronts the camera with a direct, challenging gaze and ostentatiously bared stomach – signalling confident control over this act of disclosure. These visuals code her as a powerful, autonomous individual who is not afraid to impose her own agenda, rather than a cultural artefact who can only respond meekly to public tastes (as seems to be the case with other singers).
We live in a time when personal branding is more powerful than ever, driving consumer engagement in everything from beauty to politics. Brands could do well to take a page out of Queen Bee’s book, and learn how to present themselves as if they, too, could “run the