Emancipating Visuals: Mariah breaks free with “Butterfly” and “Honey”

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When Mariah Carey divorced Tommy Mottola in 1997, she felt free to do a lot of things that she couldn’t do when married. Mariah has said she felt stifled in her marriage with Tommy, and her 1997 album Butterfly chronicles a lot of what Mariah was going through at the time. Not coincidentally, the videos from the album seem to be her most symbolic. Mariah has denied some of the connections to her personal life and validated others, so let me state for the record that a some of what you are about to read is pure speculation.

The video that introduced pop culture to a post-divorce Mariah was “Honey.” Mariah has said that the concept of the “Honey” video was influenced by the ‘Bond Girls’ from James Bond movies, and she has said the video was just an excuse for her to wear different outfits. A lot of people thought there was more meaning in the video than Mariah let on, though. In the opening of the video, Mariah is being held captive by an Italian mobster, perhaps a reference to the Italian roots of ex-husband Mottola who likened himself to ‘The Don’. One of Mariah’s captors had a look similar to Tommy, and he was holding Mariah captive in a mansion. Tommy and Mariah were living in a mansion in Bedford, NY up until their separation, and Mariah has dubbed the mansion ‘Sing Sing’ because it felt like a prison to her where all she did was “sing sing.”

In the video Mariah escapes her captors, jumps off a balcony into a pool, and shreds her black dress to emerge in a bikini. Mariah has publicly decried how she wore a black dress a lot early in her career, and how she wasn’t allowed to wear what she wanted. The shedding of the black dress when she escapes the mansion is pretty on-the-nose. As Mariah’s frequent co-producer Walter Afanasieff told Entertainment Weekly, “Everything in the video is ‘Fuck you, Tommy.'”

The bikini in the pool scene is modeled after Bond girl Honey Ryder, who emerged from the ocean in a similar biniki in Dr. No. Bond girls are typically thought of as ‘eye candy’ in the James Bond movies, and they are usually victim roles. In the “Honey” video, however, Mariah escapes from her captors and rides away from them on a jet ski. Mariah was assumed to be a victim in her marriage, so just as Mariah broke free from Tommy, perhaps she was breaking free from the Bond girl stereotype.

The next video to be released was “Butterfly.” Mariah has stated that the opening scene of the video was inspired by Baby Doll, a film based on a Tennessee Williams play. The movie centers on a young woman who is married to a middle-aged businessman (Archie) who wants a more intimate relationship with her than she desires. The titular Baby Doll suffers boredom as well as exploitation by her abusive older husband. A rival of her husband’s attempts to seduce her. It isn’t hard to see the parallels to Tommy’s restrictions on Mariah and her subsequent relationship with Derek Jeter. Perhaps due to her child-like nature, Baby Doll wears a nightgown throughout the film, which is credited with popularizing that clothing item. Mariah wears a nightgown throughout the “Butterfly” video and often talks about being “eternally 12.” The couples in both stories reside on a plantation mansion, and, though for different reasons, neither Baby Doll or Mariah had a close relationship with their father. The patriarchal older husband peeps on Baby Doll in the opening of the play (like happens in the opening of the “Butterfly” video), and is frustrated that he cannot see more of her.

Tommy spied on Mariah in general, and perhaps wanted more from her physically (Mariah has said there wasn’t a lot of sex in the marriage). Baby Doll and Mariah were both virgins before getting married. In Baby Doll, Archie’s failures as a businessman add to his failure to get intimate with Baby Doll. Archie clings to the notion of the “position” he has, as well as his friends and connections (similar to Tommy being the head of Mariah’s record label). In a story reported by Vanity Fair and other sources, Mariah taunted Tommy after the 1996 Grammys by criticizing his lacking enough power and connections to get her a Grammy. Baby Doll is a woman-child, which Mariah literally describes herself as in the Butterfly song “Close My Eyes” (she also has a song titled “Babydoll” on the album).

At one point in Baby Doll, she and her pursuer run around the house and he taunts her with a chandelier. The “Butterfly” video shows Mariah visiting different parts of the house during the day as the male figure is presumably off at work. At one point a chandelier is shown in the foreground, and we see Mariah on a staircase looking at it. She seems apprehensive about coming downstairs, and the chandelier perhaps offers a reminder of the lucrative life she could be leaving. The one thing that seems to bring Mariah happiness is a horse, which she ultimately runs down the stairs and outside to set free. In the Here Is Mariah Carey TV special, Mariah rides horses at the home she shared with Tommy. Perhaps letting the horse go in “Butterfly” was symbolic of letting Tommy go. Mariah told MTV that the scene in the video where she cuts her hands on a barbed wire fence came from a dream she had. In dreams, barbed wire is known to represent difficulty in breaking through and feeling trapped in a relationship. That description clearly mirrors Mariah’s relationship with Tommy.

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