ArCATypes: Beying a diva

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I guess you could say that I know a few things about divas. I got into Berkeley with an essay I wrote about dressing as a caricature of Gloria Gaynor while rocking my rendition of “I Will Survive.” I own a sequin, floor-length gown for those times when, you know, I want to break out my drag queen persona. And notice how subtly I’m writing this first paragraph all about ME!

So does Beyonce Knowles or Beysus or Mah Beyotch or whatever pun you prefer. You know her as that R&B singer/actress/businesswoman who performed at President Obama’s latest inauguration, at this year’s Super Bowl halftime show and whose documentary, “Beyonce: Life Is But A Dream,” premiered on HBO on Saturday.

Now, I don’t mean “diva” in a derogatory sense. Let’s define a diva as a talented and uncompromising performer who gets what she wants. Or in Beyonce’s terms, “a female version of a hustler.” his mantle definitely applies to the child who was destined to make it big.

The documentary is a very divalicious pursuit of self-exposure that mimics the similar efforts of Madonna and Katy Perry. But instead of hiring filmmakers to shoot in high-gloss 3D, Bey directed and produced with mostly footage she shot herself. This diversion from her predecessors sends the message that she is an “Independent Woman.” She’s calling the shots on how to represent her image.

Among the personal issues she touches on, she discusses how she broke from her father to manage herself. And she’s shown as being very assertive in conducting business, always having “a million notes” for her collaborators. Beybey Gurl won’t compromise her integrity.

As soon as she was in complete control of her career, she made an eccentric fourth album, 4, with a broad range of inspiration from Florence and the Machine to Fela Kuti. This was a risk with such a generic chart of pop hits, especially for a star of her stature. Even ballsier was her futuristic Powerpoint presentation of “Run the World (Girls)” at the 2011 Billboard Music Awards that was put together last-minute while she was preggers. And then there’s her running message of lady empowerment that made me rock that spread-leg shuffle in my pajamas. Consider me inspired.

The doc is in part an attempt to make the diva seem more relatable, as she carries her laptop in an elevator to webcam herself, poses on a luxury yacht and gets her hair primped in the delivery room where she is about to birth her child. You know, just doing stuff we all do.

Okay, the doc has been criticized for its phony treatment of her life. One A.V. Club writer said Bey’s “personal affairs [are] carefully-measured bits of information … not anything that was caught on-camera.” And that’s true, save for the rare moment of a Beyonce-Jay-Z-Coldplay singalong. We mostly see Beyonce’s analysis of her own career mixed in with concert footage. Even when she’s shown at her most vulnerable (e.g. webcamming without makeup), she is still in control.

Maybe she’s just hustling a false sense of intimacy out of us peasants. But really, the doc seems like her attempt to connect with her fans while maintaining the ever-present guard on her personal life. She even says that the personal lives of stars are “not your business.” So she gives us a tiny, 90-minute glimpse into her life, but keeps the important things to herself. And that kind of power over our knowledge of her is the mark of a true diva.

Contact Caitlin Kelley at [email protected].