An archetype is a shape, a meta-form, or collection of attributes and energies expressed in multiple forms. The concept calls back to Plato’s Theory of Forms that suggests every material thing has a mold or imprint of a kind, an abstraction that is the perfect and whole predecessor from which all material objects of its kind emerge. As we exist in materiality and specificity, we cannot comprehend the archetypal energy directly, we can only explore the world in all its messiness and complexity and, through specificity, uncover many facets of the archetype. To define an archetypal energy neatly is to separate out a facet from the whole. When we look at our humanity and creative expressions, we can view these things through archetypal lenses but lose something important when we reduce things to neat, cut-and-dried archetypes that become simply stereotypes. Archetypes are productive, dynamic energies, whereas stereotypes become closed, deadening shells. Yet as humans influenced by archetypal energies through story and culture, we can become identified with these concepts. This is a source of strength and a significant impediment, a narrowing of vision until we fixate on a particular role that does not include all who we are.
Beyoncé’s 2006 album B’Day explores the archetypal Virgin in contemporary life. With this reading, I want to acknowledge some biographical material from Beyoncé’s life that is relevant but largely focus on the text of the album. I make no assumptions that my reading has anything to do with her lived experience.
One view of the Virgin is of a young woman, unmarried, with connotations of purity and innocence. Such innocence is often conflated with sexual inexperience. Another view of the Virgin is a woman without a romantic or sexual partner. Queen Elizabeth I of England was known as “The Virgin Queen,” highlighting both her power and her completeness without a spouse. Instead of marrying and producing an heir through heterosexual copulation, she reigned over a major period of growth and flourishing culture in England, accompanied by military dominance and imperialist expansion into the Americas. Named for her, the cultural productivity of the Elizabethan era elicits the story of Virgin birth, known as parthenogenesis. Here is one of the great mysteries and archetypal powers of the Virgin, expressed in many religious myths. The Virgin is thus denigrated and exalted, at times considered “incomplete” for her failure to take part in heterosexual union and yet a source of power and creativity. In every sense, there seems something important about the Virgin remaining autonomous. Sexual or romantic connection seem to endanger purity of status, the power of the Virgin.
B’Day begins with parthenogenesis. In the beginning, there is silence. Our first sound is Beyoncé’s voice, calling for “Bass.” As it is spoken, so it begins. She continues speaking the song into being, instrument by instrument. This album is a significant creative and professional step for Beyoncé the artist, integrating her creative work on Dreamgirls and breaking away from her relationship with her father as manager. Within the first thirty seconds of “Deja Vu,” we hear the message clearly: I am in charge, I am creating, my voice is authoritative. The only hair out of place is the masculine call, Jay-Z’s voice preceding his being named. Already the central dilemma of the album becomes clear: Can the Virgin Queen keep her power and be in love? Can she be in utter creative and personal control while being intimately entangled with this masculine energy that will not submit? Jay-Z’s rap includes macho bragging of all the women he’s “bagged,” but when he playfully includes his marriage in that group, the singer speaks back: “Boy you hurtin’ that.” In context, it sounds like a warning: We’re joking around, but let’s be real clear. I’m not like all those other women, I’m not in that class, I’m not something you can own or conquer and discard. The song speaks of love, fixated on her absent love, yearning for reunion. This love feels unsettling, however, with references of being “outta control” and “losing it,” which call back to songs like “Crazy in Love” and “Dangerously in Love” from her previous album. Love as destabilization, threatening the Virgin’s creative autonomy.
With “Get Me Bodied,” the singer begins by listing off a series of numbers that turn out to be Beyoncé’s birthday, a date that strategically coincides with the release date of B’Day. With an early September birthday, the artist, singer, and the album all have their sun in Virgo, the constellation whose name means Virgin. Virgo is known as a sign of purity, hard work, and service. At the close of Summer, the Virgin collects the early harvest and begins to prepare for the seasons to come: pickling, canning, dehydrating, freezing, purifying, fermenting, any way to properly prepare food so it will be available when needed in the lean times. The sign is ruled by Mercury, a planet of communication and commerce, which adds a strong flavor of mentality, organization, and intelligence. Often considered perfectionistic and rigid about how things need to be done, Virgos tend to thoroughly study and explore subjects of interest: if there is a right way to do things, they have found it.
As Earth signs, Virgos might be materialistic, very engaged with their bodies and belongings, which brings us back to “Get Me Bodied,” in which the singer asks, “Can you get me bodied? / I want to be myself tonight.” The release and pleasure of dancing and sweating, of getting into the body, is what brings her into contact with her self. Dancing, looking good, is a release of worry, a bringing to presence. The extended version expands upon the pleasures of dancing and includes more of the discipline and perfection of Virgo — the singer calls out the dance styles, sets the tone, but this discipline is also play. There is pleasure in doing the right dances, knowing the right things to do in the right moment, being able to show off one’s technical prowess.
The songs “Suga Mama,” “Upgrade U,” “Ring the Alarm,” and “Irreplaceable” form a triad exposing and exploring the central dilemma of the Virgin Queen in Love. The image of the Virgin is difficult to extricate from the context of heterosexist patriarchy that defines a woman’s worth, power, and status in terms of her relationship to men and children. Virgoan purity becomes conflated with a state of pre-sexual contact, the Virgin remaining perpetually a “girl” or when not fulfilling a social expectation of marriage and motherhood. Would the Virgin Queen lose her power if she married a King? If she wanted an equal, who else would she marry?
If we lived in a matriarchal society, or a society structured around something other than gender dynamics, we might access other facets of the archetypal Virgin that instead evoke an image of femininity braided with power. “Suga Mama” offers such a vision, sung from the vantage of a matriarchal woman who gains pleasure and esteem from bestowing her beneficence on her lover. Like a Virgo, she expresses pleasure and devotion through service that looks like control. “Whatever I get, you’re putting it on / Now take it off while I watch you perform.”
“Upgrade U” brings that feminine power into confrontation with patriarchy. Instead of the one-up position of “Suga Mama,” the singer here attempts to persuade her lover of the value of an equal, complementary partnership that improves them both. The Virgin Queen says, “Partner, let me upgrade you,” and the King responds, “How you gonna upgrade me? What’s higher than number 1?” It’s a challenge, followed by the King’s declaration of dominance, “You know I used to beat the block / Now I be’s the block.”
Here the Virgin responds with a complex argument:
I hear you be the block
But I’m the lights that keep the streets on
Notice you the type that like to keep them on a
I’m known to walk alone
But I’m alone for a reason
Inverting his image of dominance, she offers the complementary and equal image of being the lights that bring life to the streets, having something of value to offer. Having asserted her value, she no longer plays the game of trying to prove her worth to him, and instead criticizes him for trying to keep his mates “on a leash.” She’s not having it, she’s willing to walk alone. All the same, the game becomes more complex as she alternately appeases and undermines his male dominance:
Ran by the men but the women keep the tempo
It’s very seldom that you’re blessed to find your equal
Still play my part and let you take the lead role
Here the Virgin offers another image of equality and complementarity that simultaneously allows men to “take the lead role.” In this culture, the Virgin implicitly acknowledges that any attempt at feminine dominance will not earn her the equal partnership she desires. She must allow him to appear in charge, even if behind the scenes she’s the one “upgrading” him materially and emotionally.
One reading of the story of Isis and Osiris focused on the contest between Osiris and his brother-nemesis Seth for the right to rule Egypt, which ultimately continues with Osiris’s son Horus successfully challenging and overcoming his uncle. Throughout this story of male rulership and battle, however, Isis plays a pivotal role. It is she who gathers the pieces of her murdered husband, reconstitutes him, and breathes life force into him to conceive their child. (Arguably another Virgin birth, and the iconic images of her with infant Horus on her lap overlap and likely inform images of the Madonna and Child that became popular with the rise of Christianity.) Isis’s name also means “throne,” suggesting her as the foundation and symbol of pharonic power, and raising the question of whether it was she herself, her power and magic, over which the men of the story warred.
The subtle but integral presence of Isis throughout the myth parallels the images of “Upgrade U” that the Virgin puts forth of women partnering equally with powerful men: keeping the tempo, lights keeping the streets on, the throne of the kingdom, the life force that animates and protects the god. Different, valuable, and necessary.
Of all Beyoncé’s songs, “Ring the Alarm” is one of the most emotionally raw. Here we find the Virgin Queen’s shadow. Having given of herself and her material generosity to her lover, she has discovered him having an affair. Her ambivalence is searing, “I don’t want you / but I want it and I can’t let it go.” Though she wants to cut ties with her unfaithful lover, the betrayed Virgin within cannot tolerate the idea that her lover’s lover might “take everything I own if I let you go.” Here we touch the underlying fear and deep vulnerability of the Virgin, the source of her resistance to opening her heart. There are two moments amidst the dramatic firestorm of the song where we touch the singer’s deep vulnerability. “How can you look at me / And not see all the things that I kept only just for you? / Why would you risk it baby? / Is that the price that I pay?” The last line in particular offers up the deepest wound. Must the Virgin Queen lose her sovereignty, her wealth, her respect for love?
Some criticize this song for the singer’s focus on material losses, the chinchilla coats and the house off the coast. Within the context of the Virgin, however, we see how deeply important materiality is. Gifting material objects demonstrates love and care, nourishment, beneficence, affection, and control. Few people would feel indifferent if they saw their ex-lover’s new lover wearing something that once belonged to us. We suffuse our belongings with affective meaning. A ring becomes bound to and symbolic of a relationship, a wedding date. We are financially and emotionally devastated when we robbed, as though parts of ourselves have been. In many ways, the song shares a kinship with Ntozake Shange’s “Somebody Almost Walked Off Wid All My Stuff.” We also can connect back to the Virgoan associations with work and harvest. Here is all the material and emotional wealth that the Virgin has worked for, worked hard, especially as a woman of color in a racist patriarchy—and given in good faith. This casts a different light on the litany of brand names listed in songs like “Upgrade U.”
During the next songs, the primacy of the Virgin archetype seems waning. Having opened herself to love and tasted betrayal, she can no longer access the separateness and autonomy that the Virgin once held dear. The songs “Kitty Kat,” “Freakum Dress,” and “Green Light” continue to reference an ongoing relationship with an unfaithful, no-good lover, as though she is not quite able to break away or rectify the loss in the relationship. In these songs the singer “takes back all the things I lost from you,” pulls out the ultra-sexy Freakum Dress to catch her lover’s eye and stir his jealousy, and ultimately with “Green Light” suggests that she can still affirm her worth, miss him, but not sacrifice herself for him. With the closing song of “Resentment,” the singer speaks from a place of emotional vulnerability, as though she has learned to separate out her emotional reality from the material, noting that “the best part of me I gave you / it was sacrificed / and all because you lied.” The Virgo’s native service and devotion twist against her in betrayal, and we are left feeling the seed of self-doubt in her heart.
With “Irreplaceable,” we hear the singer once again taking ownership of the strengths of the Virgin Queen while not being wholly identified with the archetype. As we learned in “Upgrade U,” part of her power and worth was being willing to walk alone if necessary so as not to tolerate anyone not worth her time or money. Here she devalues the one who hurt her, exiling him from her kingdom, and pointing out how little of his belongings actually belong to him. The Suga Mama is no longer in effect, and who was once her King is now a man that she assures can be replaced, “matter of fact he’ll be here in a minute.” The line itself reveals some growth and hope in the singer; though she has opened her heart and suffered the betrayal she has feared, she continues to embrace love and connection. On the downside, the suggestion that men are interchangeable does not bode well for her perception of finding a man truly worth her love.
What this archetypal reading reveals is one modern dilemma, in which the dominant culture encourages those identified with womanhood to to have it all, to have it all together: to have the career, the spouse, the money, the effects, and at some point the polished children. Our dominant story is that women who want to be professional at times feel themselves torn between career hopes and desires for love, navigating multiple worlds and myriad expectations of behavior. Barriers thrown up by racism, sexism, and classism further complicate the journey to success. The contemporary form of the Virgin has less investment in sexual chastity and more attention to drive, perfection, polish, and presentation. Can only Virgin Queens truly succeed, and for those who hold themselves up so high, can they find true Kings who will support them as equals? Yet there is pleasure in success, discipline, drive, and achievement, the pleasure of ownership and being able to give, the pleasure of providing materially and withholding materially at will.
One reason I think we focus on Beyoncé’s career is because she publicly presents what many Millennials were raised to achieve. She has worked hard for it, she has earned it, and she has cemented her cultural ascendancy with well-crafted connections and marketing. She also seems to grapple artistically with the question of what it means to be a human being and a brand name in a culture that encourages us to commercialize our autobiography. Only a little younger than Beyoncé, I and my peers in college grappled with these questions: do I establish a successful career before I find romantic love? Is love a distraction from my goals? Am I unworthy of love if I am not a success? Now we see articles bemoaning young Millennial couples postponing marriage, house purchasing, and child rearing due to the absence of economic security.
Though “Listen” ends the album as an encore, the song recapitulates the dilemma of the Virgin Queen in a patriarchal culture. The voice here is slightly different, written as it was for Beyoncé’s character in the musical Dreamgirls and not formally for the album, yet it expresses themes suffused in the text and the context of the album. The singer is tentatively beginning to express her true self, to differentiate her voice and her dreams from those of the man who has been her lover and manager. The singer gradually begins to rise in esteem and confidence as she remembers her queenhood, beginning by first suggesting her voice was given to her, and later forcefully declaring that it’s a voice “you think you gave to me.” She begins to remember herself as whole and powerful, even acknowledging she has to work and truly find the voice that is her own. We can look to I Am… Sascha Fierce to see the next phase of this journey.
Complete Jungian readings of Beyoncé’s work: