Sex and Spectacle—This is Prophetic?
Like hundreds of millions of my fellow humans, I spent part of Sunday afternoon/evening 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?”