Culture At Large

Why female empowerment doesn’t have to look like Beyonce

Karen Swallow Prior

When an anorexic gazes at her bones in the mirror, all she sees is fat. Thinness is in the eye of the beholder, she says to herself, blinded to the objective measures to the contrary surrounding her.

Dirty is in the eye of the beholder, too, say those glorying in Beyonce’s triumphant Super Bowl halftime performance.

Both food and sex are glorious goods that, taken to excess, to the point of dangerous distortion, become bad. Food is good. Gluttony is bad. Where exactly the line is between joyful eating and destructive excess I don’t know.  And sex is good. Sexual sin is bad. Where exactly the line is between embracing God’s gift of sex and exploiting it I don’t know. But when that line has been crossed, I know it when I see it.

I think it was crossed during the Super Bowl halftime show.

On one side of the line, where the “good” is seen, are these views of the performance:

  • It was a woman’s bold assertion of the power of her sexuality.
  • It was a “dance of power, not sex,” a “dance of defiance,” not an exploitation by men but rather a menace to the men watching because, as this particular writer argues, “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.”
  • It was a triumph of technology, lacking lip-synching and wardrobe malfunctions, thus ushering in the modern age to the Super Bowl Halftime Show.
  • It was evidence that God was on her side, Beyonce said, since the power outage didn’t occur until after her performance.
  • It was just entertainment. Those in theater and dance are particularly evangelistic on this point.
  • It was as risque wearing nail polish to preach, as an earlier post here at Think Christian indicated.

 

Where exactly the line is between embracing God’s gift of sex and exploiting it I don’t know. But when that line has been crossed, I know it when I see it.

But on the other side, where the good in the performance is seen as distorted to the point it is no longer good, are these counterpoints:

  • Women have been asserting the power of their sexuality at least since Delilah out-sexed Samson. This is really nothing new. Furthermore, as Christena Cleveland powerfully puts it: Beyonce “was only given ‘power’ because she happens to be the kind of black woman that white men like and because she was sure to ‘perform’ in a way that would be pleasing to them.”
  • It is certain the men watching Beyonce perform felt many things, but “threatened” surely was not one of them. Furthermore, the male gaze was indeed most necessary, for without the thousands of men gazing from within the stadium (and the millions without), the performance would never have even occurred.
  • Yes, the angst over Janet Jackson’s split-second wardrobe malfunction seems utterly quaint now that an entire show featured a whole fleet of corseted kicks and thrusts.
  • Which Beyonce was God supporting that night? Despite the pseudo-feminist claims that she “owned” her body and her performance, it is noteworthy that she finds it necessary to dissociate herself from her own act by creating an alter ego, Sasha Fierce, whom she assigns responsibility for her onstage antics. The “real” Beyonce, she says, is nothing like that.
  • Sure it’s just entertainment. But it’s the kind of entertainment not suited for airing on network television during prime time.
  • Femininity and sexual expression occur along a spectrum, not in black and white, either/or categories; one can express femininity and sexuality without letting the cat entirely out of the bag (especially in front of the children). Parading in front of millions in a leather corset isn’t remotely like wearing nail polish before the parishioners.

 

To return to the food analogy: the anorexia of prudish sexual repression of ages past is deeply disordered. But so too is the kind of bulimic binging on sex that permeates culture today.

A culture disordered in its sexual mores cannot see in the mirror what is truly before it. Was the halftime show a good, healthy expression of sexuality, or a distortion? I’ll admit that I’m not completely confident that I can see it that clearly myself.

But this image remains clear to me: the morning after the Super Bowl, a friend walked into her 5-year-old daughter’s bedroom. There the girl stood alone, gyrating her hips and making kissing faces in front of the mirror.

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