What did you see onstage at the Super Bowl halftime show? According to Patheos.com blogger David Henson, if you saw “a singer wearing too little clothes,” or “a singer selling sex to the masses in a skimpy outfit,” or “an offensive, inappropriate hypersexual display of legs and barely covered unmentionables,” then you didn’t see what was really happening onstage.
The lead-in is provocative and effective, and it helped his article rack up more than 60,000 Facebook hits in just a few days. Clearly he tapped into something that resonated with people, yet he tries to be too intelligent and insightful for his own good, injecting so much of a race- and gender-based narrative into his interpretation of the event that he ends up drawing a false dichotomy between sexual-objectification and power. This liberal progressive narrative causes him to miss on point after point as he makes a valiant effort to draw out nonexistent positives from the halftime show.
“Beyoncé’s performance Sunday night in New Orleans wasn’t about sex,” Henson claims, “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. That a Black woman claimed and owned her power during the misogynist, consumerist celebration known as the Super Bowl only highlights Beyoncé’s brilliance and boldness. It’s no wonder some people attempted to wrest back control over her and her body by marginalizing her performance by sexualizing it.”
Sorry Mr. Henson, but I’m a red-blooded male, just like you, and I know what I saw up there. Yes, Beyoncé had power in spades, but from whence came this power? Sex appeal. The two are inextricably linked. This much, at least, seems pretty obvious. Who cares if she’s black? She’s sexy, and that’s what captivates the masses. Women who have won the genetic lottery, as Victoria’s Secret model Cameron Russell put it in a recent TED talk, have always had the capacity to wield power of a sexual nature. Beyoncé, who also happens to be a talented singer and dancer, is no exception.
Henson goes on to add that “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.”
I disagree. Beyoncé does need a man; in fact, she needs lots of men gazing at her. Without those, she has no career, no stardom, no subjects to captivate. The entire pop music industry hinges on creating idols—stars that people either want to fall in love with or imitate. Henson notes that many of his male friends reacted to the halftime show with disdain, saying things like “worst halftime show ever” and “get this crappy excuse for music off the field.” I would suggest they reacted that way not because they felt threatened, but because they simply don’t like her music. Speaking for myself, I would much rather have watched a group like Coldplay or U2. You can’t please everyone.
“The response from my female friends were markedly different,” Henson says, “One exclaimed, ‘Her body is amazing! I love that she has meat on her bones! I want her figure and her stamina!’ Beyoncé’s body is important — not because it is hypersexualized — but because it was a women’s body only, not a woman’s body sculpted for a man.”
Again, I know what I saw up there, and I have no idea what Henson is trying to communicate here. How exactly does she not have a woman’s body sculpted for a man? Try finding a straight man who doesn’t think she has a great body. I have no doubt she works hard to maintain that figure, largely for the purpose of selling out concerts and churning out hits. The Huffington Post even speculated that she’s had a nose job recently—literally, “body sculpting.” If she actually had a nose job, it only confirms the dependence of her power on her sexiness and crushes the notion that this was about a Black woman claiming power and independence. If anything she how has more of a white girl’s nose.
Speculation aside, however, consider how her body was presented to us. Adorned by a provocative black leather mini-dress (not sure how it qualifies as a “dress,” but that’s what they’re calling it), her body was obviously put on display for men in order to captivate men
“So here,” Henson begins his conclusion, “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.”
Again, his point is unclear and unsubstantiated. I fail to see one compelling, concrete reason explaining exactly how Beyoncé upended the narrative of our culture objectifying women. How does licking one’s finger and lying on the floor seductively after ripping off part of one’s outfit go against the grain of a culture that objectifies women?
It does not. Did Henson even listen to what she was singing? Did he miss the lyrics where Beyoncé sang about her fantasies and all the single ladies?
The following day, Henson wrote a follow-up article in response to the massive amount of feedback he had received. In it, he starts by explaining his bias to us, as if it wasn’t clear enough before:
“As a white heterosexual male living in a racist, sexist and heterosexist world, I am the beneficiary of privilege solely because of what I look like. White progressives often like to think of ourselves as participants in liberation of the “oppressed.” We like to cast ourselves in the roles of Moses, Aaron and Miriam, or at least, as one of the Israelites walking through reeds and seas toward liberation. In reality, I am more akin to the magician in Pharaoh’s court and the people living in comfortable complicity as a result of the oppression of others. I believe this is true of most white people in America.”
Henson then goes on to walk back some of the comments in his previous article—kind of. He mentions possible objections and nuances, acknowledging that there is still much he does not know and noting criticism (like mine) that he made a false dichotomy between power and sex-appeal.
Perhaps I missing something in the deep, dark recesses of my privileged white racist heart, but I can’t imagine that those heaping criticism and scorn on the halftime show being a hypersexualized spectacle would have reacted any different had a white female performer been on stage and done the same thing. If I may speak carnally for a moment, I don’t care that Beyoncé is black. She’s straight-up hot.
The real travesty here is that Henson praises Beyoncé when her performance is just the latest high-profile example of the fact that objectification of women is a major issue in our culture and only getting worse. We would be better off studying the Super Bowl from that perspective, as Matthew Vos did so well last week in Comment Magazine last week.
If we really want to “liberate” women, we ought to push for a reexamination of the purpose and proper role of sex rather than encouraging them to use their sex-appeal as a way to gain and wield power. What sickens me about Beyoncé’s performance at the Super Bowl isn’t that she showed a few too many inches of skin, per se, it’s that it exploited male viewers by making sex a key component of the industry and culture. Just like many of the commercials and the event as a whole, it used sex to sell a product and create an image of a desirable woman.
The conservative voice has had it right all along. Beyoncé stands as stark evidence that our culture has missed the point of sex. Maybe we wouldn’t see so many power struggles between men and women wielding sex-appeal like a weapon to leverage and control others if we understood sex as something best enjoyed between a husband and wife in private. What if sex, in its proper place, isn’t about getting something like power or pleasure, but giving something?
This article was originally published on Counter Cultured’s “Pop Cultured” column.