Beyoncé at the Super Bowl: Empowered or Objectified?

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Credit Image: © Harry E. Walker/MCT/ZUMAPRESS.com

Lots of chatter this morning about the Super Bowl, the blackout, and the very meticulously staged halftime show starring Beyoncé. It is the latter that I want to talk more about here.

First up, let me say that I’m not a fan of most popular music. Ergo, I know very little about Beyoncé except that people seem to be rather fulsome in their praise of her. Before she lip-synched at the presidential inauguration (which I personally thought was no big deal), it seemed that no one ever had anything bad to say about her.   

Given that Super Bowl halftime is all about the spectacle and almost never about the music—hence the ridiculous stages with crazy technical features like last night’s pop-up screen that showed the audience multiple Beyoncés all at once—I figured that even if I didn’t like the music, I could witness the spectacle and maybe learn more about why Beyoncé is such a dominant force in music. On that score, I’m somewhat conflicted. 

Without doubt, the woman has talent and a lot of self-confidence. The Beyoncé silhouettes built into the stage and the aforementioned screen that showed her dancing with herself seemed a little narcissistic, but I suppose that comes with the territory of being a huge pop star on a huge global stage. Beyoncé certainly doesn’t seem to need these things to put on a good show, but gimmicks and special effects are de rigueur for Super Bowl halftime and probably for pop stars in general. As was apparent from her choreography and choice of costume, though, the FX weren’t enough. Here’s where the conflict entered the equation for me.  When you are already a huge star and you’ve got the big stage, the lights, and a reunion with your former band-mates to draw attention to yourself, do you need to rip off your clothes, caress yourself suggestively, and slap & jiggle your half-exposed bottom too? 

Sarcasm aside, this is a legitimate question. I’ve read some of the commentary on the show. Where some people see empowerment and confidence, others see self-objectification for the purposes of self-promotion. Which is it? 

It is a difficult question to answer, especially for someone like me who has spent the past few months reading journal articles about sexualization and its impact on young people. I often lose perspective and get lost in knee-jerk responses to things that maybe aren’t what they initially seemed. Beyoncé’s show is one example. I posted something negative about it on Twitter last night, then had second thoughts this morning and deleted the post. Now I’m again uncertain how I feel. If she is presenting herself as a strong woman, confident in her sexuality, that is a good thing. An excessive display, yes, and not the ideal venue, given all the youngsters watching, but good in theory. If she is vamping it up simply to sell her next album or tour, or pushing the envelope to get attention back after being off for a year, does it mean she has, like GoDaddy and other Super Bowl advertisers, objectified a female body (in this case her own) for potential monetary/professional gain? If so, that is not so good. 

It is a fine line and one that is hard to see when you are part of the audience and not inside the mind of the performer. It is one I have seen discussed in the literature too, vis a vis the sexualization of girls. Are we at risk of demonizing all sexual expression and preventing women from demonstrating agency and ownership of their sexuality if we condemn performances like this? Or are we right to chastise the artist because of the example she is setting, especially when one contrasts her show to those of the fully-clothed male artists who have performed on the same stage in previous years? Further to that point, are we also right to assume that an artist like Beyoncé should act as a role model at all times? If so, whose standards should she follow, and what should we expect from her given the pop music and wider cultural landscape that is growing ever more sexualized? Is she just keeping up with the competition, or is she selling out? 

One more question raised somewhere online that hit home with me: I was uncomfortable with my sons seeing Beyoncé’s performance, yet, I let them watch a fairly violent game where men are praised for their physical power and toughness. Why am I okay with one and not as much with the other? 

I don’t have the answers but I’m interested in the discussion. Anyone else have thoughts they’d like to share? 

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