Beyonce, Sade and the meaning of “retro”

These two videos dropped this week, and I was struck by the obvious superficial parallels — both Sade and Beyonce are cast as “traditional” homemakers in retro-styled videos. Beyonce’s retro romp seemed (at least to me) a bit tongue-in-cheek, whereas Sade pretty
earnestly makes Jell-O and keeps house. But regardless, they’re both wearing vintage-looking sexy slips, making dinner, hanging out at home during the day, etc.:

Sade, Babyfather

Lyrics here.

Beyonce, Why Don’t You Love Me

Lyrics here.

At first both videos seemed pretty straightforward-retro to me. Some cute vintage styling choices, that’s all. But given that these are two women of color are playing roles commonly associated with upper-middle-class white women (Betty Draper being the most recent reference point), I wondered: What makes me call this “retro”? I know there were certainly upper-middle-class women of color in the ’50s and ’60s, but this image of the happy-but-secretly-unhappy housewife is stereotypically white. By virtue of race, Beyonce and Sade are twisting that stereotype. (Granted, Beyonce is a more pin-up than straightforward homemaker — but
hey, that’s transgressive, too, as pin-up girls were almost all white.)

It’s worth revisiting Melissa Harris-Lacewell’s commentary about Michelle Obama and black motherhood:

White, middle-class, gender norms in the United States have generally
asserted that women belong in the domestic sphere. These norms have
limited white women’s opportunities for education and employment. But
the story has been different for women of color and women from poor and
working class origins. These women have faced the requirement of
employment and the shouldered the extreme burden of attempting to
effectively parent while providing financially for their families.
Black women were full participants in agricultural labor during
slavery, the backbreaking work of sharecropping, and the domestic
services of Jim Crow. Even middle class and elite black women have
typically worked as teachers, journalists, entrepreneurs, and
professionals. At every level of household income and at every point in
American history, black women have been much more likely to engage in
paid labor than their white counterparts. Even Claire Huxtable worked
full time!

What’s your take on the meaning of “retro” in these videos?

P.S. We can also discuss this on a superficial level. Don’t Beyonce’s baby-bangs look amazing?

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12 Comments

  1. Comrade Kevin
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    My father’s parents were very poor and both of them worked in a textile mill. In some ways he learned to raise himself because my Grandfather worked first shift, from 9 to 5, and my Grandmother worked second shift, from 2 to 10 and was rarely home after he came home from school in the afternoons.
    When she had the time she did a good bit of the cooking and housework, but they also employed the use of an African-American maid to pick up the slack. In those days, being a maid was one of the few “reputable” ways in which a black woman could secure gainful employment in the South. Even with their reduced income, my father’s parents still could afford to pay for hired help.

  2. lovely
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    i love them both

  3. AndrewL
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    What I appreciate most about the Beyonce video, and what I think is particularly clever about it, is the way it presents this retro image (the white, middle-class homemaker) in a transgressive way. The effects is something like a drag performance–not an impersonation of gender, but a parody of it. B is even styled like a drag queen for parts of this video (when she’s watering the plants, especially).
    It’s also worth noting that the video was directed by women (Melina Matsoukas and Beyonce), and the song written and produced primarily by women (Beyonce, Solange, and Angie Bayince) with credits also going to the Bama Boyz, long-time collaborators with the Knowles women in their various endeavors.

  4. LadyPolitik
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

    Retro is more about the materialistic vision of the age than anything else. I would say the same about the word vintage. But, however retro connotes a certain time period: 50s, 60s, and 70s even. While vintage can be anything old including the retro era.
    As to the videos, Sade and Beyonce are divorcing the socio-cultural aspects of retro from the style which is what’s being commercialized the way say an Urban Outfitters does.
    And, again, it is refreshing to see Black women in roles not traditionally seen.

  5. slk961
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

    Although I do love both videos, I appreciate Beyonce’s concept more. I love how she is mocking the domestic role as she polishes her multiple Grammy awards.

  6. Dena
    Posted May 8, 2010 at 12:25 am | Permalink

    I think these videos are actually really awesome. And I’ve really appreciated the fact that Beyonce has been toying around with the retro pinup girl image (e.g. “Video phone”, some of “Telephone”). It’s really refreshing to see a woman of color doing that.
    In any case, I think these videos are indeed retro. And I think it’s good that they’re making us question whether it’s really retro or not, especially since that has been something that’s been equated with white culture.

  7. kawada15
    Posted May 8, 2010 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    Love the beyonce video/song. I think the use of the retro/50′s housewife imagery is more to symbolize their feelings of commitment to their men ( not necessarily them being domestic – only maybe more in Sade’s part). Their use of the housewife imagery, though yes problematic due to the historical socio/political position women were in, portrays the romanticized vision of housewifery and love. I especially love Beyonce’s sexualized version, because it takes into account the modern (to some extent) openness towards sexuality. I know I watched it, and happen to be going through a similar situation, and even as a man, I could also identify with this idea of a housewife – willing to do anything for this one person – cook, clean, wait around, provide sex. So as far as retro – I think it was a smart allegoric technique tho I am kind of upset that the video didn’t follow into a single ladies video lol.

  8. Jonathan
    Posted May 8, 2010 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    Absolutely beautiful videos, kudos to both artists.
    I see what you mean about how the video was like drag in the sense that a hyperbolic gender performance is parodic, but I’m not sure that hyperbole is exactly transgressive or that some identity binary is being crossed. Ann, at least for the Beyonce video, this seems like a video about the particular life-world, desires, and struggles of the female black bourgeoisie. Melissa Harris-Lacewell’s commentary is very insightful- black women of the bourgeoisie most often worked as professionals. But Beyonce hints in her video that she is a professional entertainer- she dusts her grammys and one of her reasons that there’s nothing not to love about her is that she brings home the bacon too! I see the sense in which this may be about whiteness, but insofar as it is I think it is about how certain aspects of whiteness are mimicked by the black bourgeoisie. At the same time, I think that (at least for Beyonce’s video) this is about black women of the middling/upper class. Still, I agree that when people think about this kind of living (the commodities, the consumption, etc.), they think of white women and not black women, and so it ruptures a certain kind of lapse in historical memory that excises the black bourgeoisie. The image of the “happy-but-secretly-unhappy housewife” certainly is remembered as white. These videos are a great chance to remember artists like Nella Larsen, who lived and wrote in Harlem during the cultural renaissance there in the 1920s. Many of her stories involved black society women who had to keep up an appearance of contentment within the confines of failing marriages (these women often were professionals or heavily involved in social work). So, this is a message that has been around for a long time in America.

  9. Sass
    Posted May 8, 2010 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

    What I really love about both of these clips is that, regardless of whatever roles they’re playing, the women are the central character.
    We so often see pop clips that centre around the man the woman is singing about (though I also like that beyonce’s song leaves out gender markers) while male pop clips always have the female love interest as a secondary character.
    I have no idea about what beyonce is like in real life obviously but I’m curious if gender roles are an important issue to her- another of her clips “If I were a boy” plays with the gender double-standard to great effect (in my opinion)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eIkRiqxWcYU (I’m not sure if I can link here but this is the clip)

  10. arielmorgan
    Posted May 9, 2010 at 2:05 am | Permalink

    Well.. Two things strike me about the images of these videos and the general idea about their imagery. (Not having speakers on this computer makes it hard for me to view w/ the music as intended, so I may be missing some components.)
    The first, is what sorts of statements these women could be making about the goals of upward social mobility that arguably many african american men and women are striving for, and what sorts of pitfalls they might be blinded to about upper-middle class lifestyles? On the one hand, you can pretty comfortably say that there’s nothing wrong with striving for increased social status, for yourself and your family.. But if you come from one of the lower-classes, you may have an overly rosey-tinted idea of what life as a member of the “upper-middle class” really looks like.. i.e., lonely/miserable housewife. No matter how grand the life of the upper classes is, all experiences of life have their unique pains. (Which is not to try and invalidate the overwhelming difficulties of the working poor and truly impovershed sections of society by comparing their hardships to upper-class doldrums.)
    I think the use of retro styles, especially the pin-up image in Beyonce’s video, perhaps helps to highlight the sexual objectification that happens to all women, but especially women of color, by abruptly turning the normal stereotype on it’s head.
    On a more pessimistic view, could the singers be participating in some historical-re-rewriting, attempting to claim a upper-middle-class status that they or their mothers never actually experienced? That’s a very critical outlook I suppose, but it’s there.

  11. MaggieF
    Posted May 9, 2010 at 3:20 am | Permalink

    I didn’t watch the Beyonce video, but I have to take issue with the statement, “these are two women of color are playing roles commonly associated with upper-middle-class white women” in the case of Sade. I say this as a middle class white woman, but the scene of that video looked stereotypically lower class. Tiny kitchen, buildings and streets as opposed to lawns and trees, etc. Sade’s character runs a food truck.
    In general, our idea of “retro” nowadays is a sort of sexed up version of June Cleaver–Bettie Page hair, short skirt, frilly apron, and shiny appliances. But the Sade video doesn’t conform to that model at all.

  12. aletheia_shortwave
    Posted May 12, 2010 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    I agree that the first video seems more working-class or middle-class, but not upper-middle class.
    Anyway, Beyonce’s video is visual candy. I am slowly falling in love with her. Five stars. Great depiction of the wreckage that is the upper-class stereotype-housewife-pinup woman.

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