Power Couples and the Illusion of Authenticity

Two of the greatest pop culture events of the last two months have a hyper-modern and brilliantly calculated power couple at heart: Frank and Claire Underwood of House of Cards, and Beyoncé and Jay-Z.

Of course, the Carters and the Underwoods have very different intentions, and are guided by very different motives; Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s partnership is clearly creative and productive, not cynical and destructive like Frank and Claire’s. But their visibility, their sexual forthrightness, and their apparent egalitarianism make both couples emblematic of a particular brand of authentic, aspirational, and arguably progressive 21st-century marriage.

But, real or written, a power couple is always at least partly an illusion. Of course, the couple’s effects are real (their fame, wealth, entrepreneurial and political success, etc.). But the image of the “power couple” is mostly just that: an image. Carefully constructed and tightly controlled, the image both projects the couple’s style, influence, and chemistry, and compels us to fix our expectations of what a marriage should be upon it.

Bey & Jay 2      Frank & Claire

House of Cards and Beyoncé’s new self-titled album both invite us to observe the private workings of such a relationship. They acknowledge that the public presentation of the couple is an image, and offer to expose the effort that goes into maintaining it. But the exposure doesn’t kill the image by revealing its deception. Instead, for these couples, the admission of flaw and vulnerability and work not only makes them appear relatable, but it also makes them interesting. The seductive idea that they are admitting their secrets and sharing their vulnerabilities becomes a part of the image itself.

Frank and Claire, for all their ruthlessness, share an understanding and mutual support that television audiences haven’t seen since Eric and Tami Taylor on Friday Night Lights. Share a cigarette at the window with them and watch them negotiate what appears to be a quietly open marriage; come to understand that, as Hanna Rosin argues, the “greatest Underwood marital sin” is not to have an affair but to violate “the presumption of shared interests.” (Quite unlike Eric and Tami, their interests happen to be political domination and the annihilation of their enemies.) The Underwoods are, improbably, two monstrously self-interested people who appear to care about each other–or, at least, who understand and respect the other’s value as a part of the couple. They know that they can accomplish their goals more readily together; they construct and manipulate a media-friendly public image; privately, they negotiate the terms for keeping the image intact.

I suspect Beyoncé and Jay-Z have a similar contract. Tipping snifters of cognac in the front row of the Grammys, smiling adoringly at one another in carefully released photos, and, as Alyssa Rosenberg of ThinkProgress.org writes, making “marriage look fun, and sexy, and a source of mutual professional fulfillment,” Bey and Jay are an entrepreneurial and creative powerhouse. We would be naive to think all that dazzling, synchronized extravagance and charisma and electric chemistry happens totally organically, but we never expected to be let in on the intimacies and vulnerabilities of the marriage. Beyoncé’s new album makes us feel that we have been.

Beyoncé is momentous for many reasons, but one is that it both affirms the myth of the couple’s romance and its sexual dynamism and confesses that it’s not all steadfast love and steamy trysts in the back of a limo. There is anger, and insecurity, and uncertainty. And “the couple who wakes up in their kitchen the morning after their epic night out in ‘Drunk In Love’ presumably managed to arrange child care for the daughter they adore, and who makes a cameo in ‘Blue,’” Rosenberg adds.

But—critically—Beyoncé has always fiercely private and incredibly savvy. “As little as we know about Beyoncé,” Anne Helen Petersen writes on Gawker, “we do know that she likes control—and by releasing information herself, she’s controlling the conversation about her.” Her art comes from an authentic place, but we shouldn’t feel as though we actually have any privileged access to her marriage.

Frank and Claire Underwood are a deliberate fiction that may offer some insight into modern American partnership. Beyoncé and Jay-Z, in all their media savvy, take advantage—to great success—of our fascination with this same complex play between image and truth, but the insight they offer has more to do with marketing than marriage. Beyoncé may sing that “we’re so much more than pointless fixtures/Instagram pictures…” in her retro-soul jam “Rocket,” but really, Instagram pictures are all we’ll ever have.

 

REFERENCES

Petersen, Anne Helen. “Decoding the Beyoncé Tumblr.” Gawker.com, April 9, 2012.

Rosenberg, Alyssa. “At the Grammys, Beyoncé and Jay-Z Made the Case for Marriage that Conservatives Can’t.” Thinkprogress.org, January 27, 2014.

Rosin, Hanna. “House of Cards: Do Frank and Claire Underwood have an ideal marriage?” Slate.com, March 18, 2013.