It’s impossible to serve up Beyoncé's Lemonade without talking about Hot Sauce.
Hot Sauce, in case you didn’t catch that detail, refers to the words burned into the baseball bat Bey wields during the "Denial" segment of the Lemonade short film. She playfully claims it from a little boy’s hands as she skips down the street in her fluttery, ruffled yellow dress, her face lit up with a charming smile.
Just playing, y’all, her expression says … until she comes upon the perfect target, a car.
With a sideways glare, Beyoncé’s smile is instantly replaced by a rage-filled, toothy snarl. She smashes the window into shards.
Ah, but the smile returns! Then ... smash! There goes the fire hydrant. She twirls. She scowls. More glass shatters.
The last victim of Hot Sauce’s wrath is the camera itself.
Religious symbolism, high fashion, elaborate sets, the various directorial styles employed in each segment — there’s plenty to parse, analyze, and debate about Lemonade, in both its album and visual album forms, far beyond the true identity of "Becky with the good hair" or the state of the singer’s marriage.
At its most potent, Lemonade offers Beyoncé tackling what black women contend with in terms of expressing and suppressing emotion — especially the truth behind the misguided entertainment trope popularly known as the Angry Black Woman.
"I am the dragon breathing fire"
Much has already been said about Lemonade’s distillation of a black woman’s pain in all of its guises — wounds born of betrayal, of destructive cycles repeated within a family or the heartbreak inflicted by society. This is powerfully illustrated in a scene featuring Gwendoline Carr, Sybrina Fulton, and Lesley McSpadden, the mothers of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin, who were all killed by police.
Just as significant, however, is the way Beyoncé dismantles the Angry Black Woman trope.
Clearly, she has anger to express — she got a good bit of it out thanks to Hot Sauce. But the fact that she is expressing it as the centerpiece of her magnum opus is particularly notable.
Recall the famous 2014 hotel elevator tape, featuring footage of Beyoncé’s sister Solange letting her brother-in-law, Beyoncé's husband, Jay Z, have it. Many gossip stories and internet memes were spawned from those three soundless minutes of dragon fire, but what stuck with me wasn’t what Solange did. It was the expression on Beyoncé’s face as she left the hotel.
She was smiling. It wasn't a smile of joyful vindication, however. It was the mask of a star working overtime to hide her suffering from the public.
All women recognize this disguise, but black women, in particular, are trained to master it from an early age. Black female emotional expression is considered by the dominant culture to be unsettling, unfeminine, and scary. It can get a girl in trouble.
Let it out for a hot minute, and one might earn the dreaded Angry Black Woman label.
How the Angry Black Woman trope damages black women everywhere
The Angry Black Woman trope has appeared over and over again in film and on television. On TV, she is the side of the sassy black friend that erupts on cue, accompanied by a slew of hilariously pointed dialogue. She’s the midlevel office manager, the tired DMV employee with a hair-trigger temper.
In films like Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck, she’s a put-upon stranger who explodes at the nice blonde girl on the subway for daring to wonder aloud why the train has halted between stops.
Entertainment’s perpetuation of this trope is damaging to black women everywhere. It has an impact on the way black girls are treated in our educational system, and it affects how black women are evaluated in competitive sports. In the workplace, it is used as an excuse to limit career advancement.
In the entertainment industry itself, it’s hauled out to minimize a black woman’s success. And that applies to any black woman. Witness the New York Times’s misguided 2014 profile that branded superstar TV showrunner Shonda Rhimes with the label, as if it were a compliment.
More frequently, however, it’s been less prominent, less famous women like Jacque Reid, a co-host on WNBC’s New York Live, who've had to navigate the minefield on a regular basis.
"I had a white manager tell me one time that she was afraid of me," Reid revealed on a 2015 episode of The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore. "And anybody who knows me … I’m just, you know, a typical black girl. And she told me that she was afraid of me, because I’m a strong woman. I’m opinionated, and I say what I feel needs to be said."
Rarely is the Angry Black Woman label ascribed to a goddess like Beyoncé, a woman believed by a number of popular culture’s self-anointed gatekeepers — people such as Piers Morgan — to have talent that takes her beyond the perceived burden of her blackness.
Type "Beyoncé" and "transcend" and "race" into Google, and notice how many stories pop up crediting the singer for moving beyond some supposedly prescribed limitation — as if her skin color is something to overcome.
It’s true that Queen Bey’s magnetism has enthralled people of all ethnicities across the globe. However, white pop stars like Lady Gaga rarely, if ever, hear that ersatz compliment attached to their image or their work. I'm pretty sure nobody ever praised Madonna for overcoming her whiteness.
Lemonade strikes back against the media's lopsided portrayal of black women
With the visual album version of Lemonade, Beyoncé proudly and fiercely lays claim to her blackness for the world to see. From the Ori ritual face painting adorning the dancers’ faces on the fourth track, "Sorry," to her unstated embodiment of the Yoruban deity Oshun, Lemonade is laden with odes to the singer’s ancestral ties to Africa and the American South, as well as her own family.
But Lemonade also serves as a critique of the media’s lopsided, frequently denigrating portrayal of black women. And you don’t need a PhD in African studies to see that, just a basic knowledge of who’s who in the entertainment industry and a decent memory of how the media has treated them.
Look at the visual album's most prominent cameos. If you don’t recognize their faces, perhaps you’ll know them by their names: Amandla Stenberg. Quvenzhané Wallis. Zendaya. Serena Williams.
The celebrities included in Lemonade are not there simply because they're stars, and they certainly weren’t chosen by coincidence. These are black women and girls who have been disrespected in the public eye, who have had to withstand humiliating, slanderous comments to which white celebrities probably would not have been subjected.
They’ve handled all of that with grace and dignity. They’ve had to. Being a famous black woman means choking down a lot of hot sauce while maintaining a calm smile, even if you're burning up inside.
Take Serena Williams. The top tennis player in the world and winner of 21 Grand Slam titles is regularly derided for being too muscular and having thick thighs. She’s been described as manly or ghetto — and in far more vulgar, animalistic terms.
Williams isn't just twerking and strutting as Beyoncé's glamorous backup dancer in Lemonade's "Sorry" to have a good time. She's sending a message about not giving a damn about the insults, while reveling in her attractiveness. Her cameo is an act of joyful spite, squarely aimed at all the ignorant commentary she’s had to deal with.
Wallis, the youngest ever Academy Award nominee for Best Actress,(for her work in Beasts of the Southern Wild), was referred to as the n-word many times on Twitter when it was announced she was cast in the title role in the 2014 remake of Annie. She is a 12-year-old girl. Twelve.
Amandla Stenberg, known for her portrayal of Rue in The Hunger Games, was the target of similar treatment by some filmgoers who envisioned the character in Suzanne Collins’s book as white. Some Hunger Games fans even went so far as to complain that Stenberg’s casting made them care less about Rue’s death.
Then there was the time in 2015 when Disney star and recording artist Zendaya dared to wear dreadlocks on the hallowed Oscars red carpet. This led to Fashion Police personality Giuliana Rancic joking that Zendaya looked like she "smells like weed." Which is interesting, considering that Miley Cyrus, Gaga, and Shakira have also sported dreads on red carpets.
When Stenberg used the incident and others to create a viral video that called out pop culture's double standard when it comes to white appropriation of black hairstyles, she was dismissed as — what? — an Angry Black Woman.
Beyoncé spotlights black women's pain and resolve — but the media missed the point
Thus Lemonade isn't just a groundbreaking moment for Beyoncé as an artist. It also serves as an important, pointed dissection of the challenge black women face in society and the media when it comes to honestly expressing emotion — a stigma not even celebrity, stardom, or legendary ability can inoculate against.
For Beyoncé to spotlight the African-American woman’s pain and resolve in such a public, raw way speaks volumes about her profound mindfulness and inner fortitude.
The Piers Morgans of this planet misguidedly believe Beyoncé created this work to be inflammatory and agitating, and to "use grieving mothers to [sell] records and further fill her already massively enriched purse."
But isn’t Morgan's viewpoint more inflammatory than Beyoncé’s work? Not to mention simple-minded? His take also happens to be reductive, perhaps even more so than the idea that Lemonade is a revenge manifesto to get back at Jay Z for his alleged extramarital affairs, or to expose the true identity of "Becky with the good hair." Indeed, what’s curious is the way the media has mined Lemonade’s lyrics and visuals to validate speculation and gossip, rather than discussing the larger issues it raises.
In truth, Beyoncé’s done much more than this by creating Lemonade and sharing it with us. She’s spun gold out of her suppressed anger and sorrow, transforming it into a choreopoem that ends on a note of forgiveness. She’s given movements like #BlackGirlMagic a highly public endorsement and a bomb-ass soundtrack.
She’s put faces — gorgeous, devastating faces — to black female vulnerability. And she’s ascended to a new level of mastery as an artist and an icon.
All of that, and so much more, is why a lot of Lemonade will be sold in the coming weeks. If that idea bothers people, maybe the best advice is to cool off and drink up.