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Sex and Spectacle—This is Prophetic?

Like hundreds of millions of my fellow humans, I spent part of Sunday watching the Super Bowl. I don’t particularly care for American football (I prefer the real version, where they don’t wear armour and stop for a break every 10 seconds or so), but we were invited to someone’s place to watch the game, and there was to be good food and good people present, so off I went. And, leaving aside the mind-numbing tedium of so much advertising and hype and endless time outs (some unexpected) and the bizarre pre- mid- , and post-game commentary about how God may or may not have been involved in the outcome, it was a pretty good game.  

Of course, a big part of every Super Bowl is the halftime show. This year, it was Beyoncé. I don’t listen to Beyoncé, and based on what I heard from her on Sunday, I will not be starting soon. She is obviously a very talented woman (not to mention coordinated! And fit!), but hers is style of music that I simply do not care much for. Beyoncé is equally obviously a very beautiful woman—a fact that I imagine was not lost on those who make decisions about what kind of half-time entertainment would be most suitable for a mostly male and probably half-drunk audience. I’m sure I’m not the only one who heard some version of, “Who cares what she sounds like… look at her!” during Sunday evening’s display.

But hold on a second… Maybe Beyoncé’s performance on Sunday wasn’t just one more example of titillation for the masses. Maybe I am being narrow-minded or—worse!—sexist or oppressive for even countenancing such a thought. Yesterday morning, I was intrigued to see a blog post come pop up on my news feed entitled: “A Defiant Dance of Power, Not Sex: Beyoncé, the Super Bowl and Durga” It sounded fascinating, so I read on.

Here are a few quotes that, to my mind at least, seem, well, incredible:

Beyoncé’s performance Sunday night in New Orleans wasn’t about sex. It was about power, and Beyoncé had it in spades. In fact, her show was one of the most compelling, embodied and prophetic statements of female power I have seen on mainstream television.

Whew… A lot of superlatives going on there… I began to rummage around in my memories of the event for any instances of “embodied and prophetic statements of female power” that I could recall from Sunday night. I remembered a song called “Bootylicious,” but that didn’t seem very prophetic. Indeed, all I could recall was the usual fare of light, pop-ish lyrical fare set to elaborate choreography and minimal clothing.

I read on.

Was Beyoncé attractive, sexy even? To be sure. But more than anything, she was powerful. Few things are more threatening to a male audience than a beautiful, powerful woman who doesn’t need a man, or even a male gaze.

Sooo, as a male I am threatened by a woman who doesn’t need me to look at her. And it’s a display of female power not to need a male gaze. Got it. So, how exactly does conforming to male expectation and greedy desire in both wardrobe and style embody this kind of “power?” I’m getting confused…

So here, in the midst of commercials and a culture that objectified women and their bodies and in the middle of a sports spectacle that construes power in terms of violence, Beyoncé began her performance by upending the narrative. As she walked the length of the stage, Beyoncé showed more power in a handful of purposeful, defiant strides than both sports teams had during the entire first half. In short, during those few steps, walking as a woman, Beyoncé declared ownership of that stage — that stadium — and, more importantly, claimed ownership of her own body in the most misogynist and objectifying four hours of mass culture.

Let me see if I’ve got this straight. In the midst of a spectacle that objectifies women and their bodies, Beyoncé “upended the narrative” by… what? Refusing to allow her body to be objectified? Refusing to conform to male expectations of how a woman should dress/dance on stage? Um… Maybe that was on a different channel…

This is a gift Beyoncé gave to the world last night in her performance. For 14 minutes, women were owned by no one. Instead, for those few prophetic and powerful minutes, Beyoncé and the women onstage with her owned the night.

Or, for 14 minutes on Sunday night the script played out exactly as expected. A few minutes of sex-fuelled excitement from a mega-star who, while obviously incredibly talented, is also very aware of the oldest and most trustworthy of maxims: Sex sells. It always has, and it always will.

During the half-time show on Sunday, my eleven-year-old daughter came downstairs to watch. She hates football and had zero interest in the game itself, but she likes some of Beyoncé’s songs and wanted to see her perform. What would she make of the spectacle, I wondered? Alas, about the only comment about Beyoncé that I was able to extract from my daughter after halftime was, “She sounds better on the radio.”

But I wonder about the unspoken message(s) my daughter might have picked from the show on Sunday. Would she have seen a “prophetic display of female power?” Would she have seen an “upending” of the narrative that the biggest and most popular sports in the world are for men to (violently) play, and that women’s roles at these events is mainly to wear as little as possible and give the men something to leer at, or would she have seen this narrative’s blatant confirmation?

Would she have seen and heard the message that girls have dignity and value, no matter what their body type, or would she have picked up the message that a woman’s most important asset is her body, and that the lean, hard, curvy bodies are the only ones the world really wants to see? Would she have had her eyes opened to more expansive and interesting horizons for young women, or would she have seen them, yet again, dramatically reduced to, “The beautiful and the sexy girls alway win?”

I wonder.

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. EDH #

    (Female power = exploitation of men’s weakness = money = image of power = greed) = what we teach children.

    Thanks for the post Ryan. You said it better than I can do algebra. 🙂

    February 5, 2013
    • The math just doesn’t seem to work, does it? But, then, I was always horrible at math… 🙂

      February 5, 2013
  2. This was an interesting reflection, Ryan. You’re addressing an issue I struggle with constantly – a woman’s right to do with her body as she pleases, and how that plays out in the rest of the world. Why must “free” women always seem to conform to what the rest of the world expects, in respect to sex appeal, dress, attitude, body type, and so on? And how does a woman balance her personal freedom with respect for others?

    February 5, 2013
    • The issue of “freedom” is an interesting one isn’t it? It’s remarkable how frequently women’s free exercise of power and choice ends up confirming and conforming to male expectation and desire.

      Having said that, I am (obviously!) not a woman and should be careful not to presume to speak for women. Perhaps there are ways in which the Super Bowl performance was a display of female power and the upending of narratives, etc. I would just need to hear a much better argument than the one in the post I linked to :).

      February 5, 2013
  3. mike #

    ..Thanks for a much needed post on the subject,I appreciate your courage and honesty here,Ryan.
    I understand all too well the secular Business reasons for promoting sex/sexuality/sexiness etc.What i dont understand is the role sexiness and sensuality plays within the Christian context. Say, at church ,for example.Why would someone even want to dress provocatively at church?.What is the underlying motive ? …Over the course of my life with personal struggles with Lust, I’ve come to hold devout Islamic women and their beliefs concerning modest dress in the highest regard.

    Allah has stated in the Quran that women must guard their modesty.
    ” Say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty ; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what must ordinarily appear thereof. ” [Quran : 24.31]

    ” Say to the believing man that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty ; that will make for greater purity for them, and God is well acquainted with all they do. ” [Quran : 24.30]

    February 5, 2013
    • Thanks, Mike.

      I think there has to be somewhere between licentious permissiveness and repressive restriction when it comes to our approach to issues around modesty, etc. I’m all for celebrating beauty, but I think that our culture quite clearly goes wildly overboard. We regularly commodify and objectify women’s bodies—it’s profitable, after all!—and in the name of freedom we tolerate a kind of soft-porn-ification of culture. This is a long way from honouring beauty, in my view.

      At the same time, with respect, I think the conservative Muslim view goes too far. It seems to me to simultaneously reinforce two unhelpful stereotypes: 1) women need to be protected, and their beauty ought to be mostly covered; and 2) men are little better than animals—we cannot control ourselves unless any potential opportunities for lust are removed from the picture.

      Somewhere between the barely-there bikini and the burqa, then :). How’s that for some helpful commentary? 🙂

      February 6, 2013
      • mike #

        ….well, my wife says all men are pigs….. :/

        February 6, 2013
      • Hard to argue with her…

        February 6, 2013
  4. Natasha Forster Ewaskow #

    Thank-you Ryan for shining a light on this. I too wondered what my daughters were thinking as they literally came to a screeching stop to watch Beyonce. I have 3 daughters and my oldest is 10. Body image and self esteem have, quite shockingly to me, become an issue ALREADY. This past year my eldest has become very aware that her body is different than the ones she sees in the media. She doesn’t like her body and has even made comments about dieting and exercising. She compares herself to those on tv and teens she sees around her. Almost a year ago I took wheat out of my diet because my body has a problem digesting it and I ended up losing quite a bit of weight quite rapidly. This was talked about openly around our house. A few months later my daughter started talking about going on a “diet” like me. I tried to explain that I wasn’t on a “diet” but needed to stop eating certain foods. At the same time many friends of mine at church were on a “Christian Diet / Eating Plan” and were losing lots of weight. Of course this was always a huge topic of conversation at church. Through all this I am reminded that “little eyes are watching and little ears are listening”. The last places my daughters need to hear about weight are at home and church. These should be the places they feel the most comfortable and beautiful. I no longer engage in topics of weight where kids are around. As well being the mother of 3 girls I have really started to watch what I say about myself, as well as what I wear. I am more careful of the shirts and especially bathing suits I buy for both myself and my girls. Growing up I was never really concerned with my body the way young girls are today and I absolutely blame media. Unfortunatley I can’t totally protect my girls from what they see and hear in the media, but I can be an example of the opposite. The sadest part of all this for me is the long term affect of what we are seeing. The effects of self esteem and poor body image will and are following into marriages. Women already struggle with feeling sexy and beautiful to their husbands because we compare ourselves to what we see and what “sells”. Unfortunately we see many marriages fail inpart to this. We don’t always see it for what it truly is because it ends up being the root of other issues. It is scary and hard to be a parent these days in the shadow of media. May God help us be an example to our kids of what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely and admirable (Phil.4). (PS – sorry this is so long!)

    February 6, 2013
    • It is scary and hard to be a parent these days in the shadow of media.

      No kidding! I worry very much about the ideals and images that my daughter is picking up from the media. And my son, too, for that matter. It’s frustrating to think that we as parents can build our children up and do our best to give them a sense of value and worth and inherent dignity, regardless of what they look like, and then they walk out the door and are assaulted by images and songs and movies and tv shows that directly contradict this.

      May God help us, indeed.

      (No need to apologize for the length. Thanks for your comment!)

      February 6, 2013
  5. 14 “…prophetic and powerful minutes,”
    (hmmm… Allow me to speculate:)

    First thought regarding this kind of thinking:
    “If she had the ‘power’ in that place- she also had ‘control’

    He could have just said “Wow she’s hot, she makes me feel funny (power) – And it’s all her fault” (control)

    But that would be too base to say out loud, so he called it ‘prophetic. In doing so- he’s done for Sexual Consumerism what’s been done for War: he’s made it ‘good’.

    Now he (and anyone else who buys that) can go on resisting growth toward maturity.
    And when I say “…maturity” I don’t mean “Never notice or be affected by a beautiful woman ever again!” I do mean: Have the nerve to call things what they are.

    February 16, 2013
  6. But that would be too base to say out loud, so he called it ‘prophetic. In doing so- he’s done for Sexual Consumerism what’s been done for War: he’s made it ‘good’.


    February 17, 2013
  7. Nikko #

    I think every girl has a desire to be beautiful and to be loved. It’s so sad that the world has perverted something that women were always supposed to be -beautiful. With beauty based on the stereotypes of ‘perfection’ and sex appeal it is little wonder that so many women try to find their identity and love in that. Unfortunately even if u are “loved” because you are beautiful or sexy all external beauty eventually fades and you will never feel loved for who you are or feel pretty/sexy enough especially when you have unrealistic models as the standard. It becomes a devastating cycle of never being good enough. Hair done, fake tan, breast implants, diet, hair removal, nose- job, etc, its never enough! I have struggled with the temptation to go down this path but there is no end to it!
    My daughter, 5 years old, loves to be told she is beautiful. With comments like “Do you like my dress? Is this pretty? Oh, that’s a pretty girl!” My husband and I have always been aware of yes telling her she is beautiful but mostly highlighting her inner beauty – kind, thoughtful, caring & sharing etc, and to talk about how every girl is beautiful in different ways. This inspired me to write my first children’s book called ‘A Beautiful Girl’ (by Nikki Rogers). You can download a free ebook version from smash words, iTunes or amazon. I would love to reach every girl with this book! I believe it was God-inspired. Tell me what you think 🙂

    February 20, 2013
    • It sounds like a very good and necessary book – especially in a culture where, as you say, young women get so many other messages about who they are what they should value.

      February 20, 2013

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