With Beyoncé as front and center performer of a curiously all female cast at the Super Bowl 2013 halftime show, we were guaranteed pulsating energy, expressive intensity, and powerful movement. Unfortunately, we were also guaranteed a frenzy of female promiscuity. And, unfortunately, it doesn’t take much for us to exalt a frenzy of female promiscuity as “female empowerment.”
Just as there is Marxism and vulgar Marxism, and just as there is (in my opinion) Christianity and vulgar Christianity, so there is feminism and vulgar feminism.
The true essence of certain value systems can be compromised by radically distorted interpretations. That’s what I mean by “vulgar.”
Beyonce’s Super Bowl 2013 performance was one of vulgar feminism— just like Nelly Furtado’s “Man Eater,” or Lady Gaga’s… everything. By “vulgar feminism,” I mean a delusional interpretation of female empowerment that only reinforces misogyny. Should I be surprised that the same artist at the frontline of "Run the World (Girls)" has once again propagated a great myth of female empowerment on the night that nearly every American television holds the gaze of its viewers?
In “A Defiant Dance of Power, Not Sex: Beyoncé, the Super Bowl and Durga,” David Henson argues that, rather than Beyoncé’s performance equating to a display of hyper-eroticism that accommodates a sexually objectifying male gaze, it was instead “one of the most compelling, embodied and prophetic statements of female power I have seen on mainstream television.”
The question that has been churning inside of me, and that will dictate the direction of this post, is: what did Beyoncé have power over, and how?
Before I try, and fail, to answer that question, one observation of Henson’s that I commend is that the women on stage were “claiming roles and instruments traditionally held by men: the horns and saxophones, the pyrotechnic guitar solo.” I found this reclaiming a meaningful one, too— and it’s because that impressive ownership was characterized by raw music, not raw sexuality. Yet the 20 second guitar solo and shot of the brass instrument players were subsumed by a much bigger statement offered by the sexualized dancing performance.
Yes, sexualized— which is why I’m astounded that Henson says, “some people attempted to wrest back control over her and her body by marginalizing her performance by sexualizing it.”
It is ludicrous to propose that Beyonce’s performance was somehow sexually neutral and that the only eroticism was that which the audience manufactured and projected onto her. You might as well tell me that two people erupting into a hostile, physical brawl is not violence, just my projection of violence as a viewer.
Henson and others commend Beyoncé for having some meat on her bones. I do, too— but only insofar as this is a symbolic defiance against the importance of female body image altogether. Yet this performance capitalized on Beyonce’s figure as the idealized representation of a very specific body template that can be just as imprisoning or unattainable as, say, the anorectic’s. Beyonce’s hour-glass figure, whether or not superficially chiseled, is perfectly and intentionally chiseled. The celebration of her mastery of curves and toneness in all the right spots was amplified by the recurrence of silhouettes, which place all emphasis on shape and figure. If the feminist agenda here is merely to exchange one body template for another, female self-worth is once again confined to body image instead of liberated from it.
Henson asserts that Beyoncé’s performance communicates that she “doesn’t need a man, or even a male gaze.” Should I disregard the lyrics of Beyoncé’s songs— perhaps persuade myself they are ironic— in order to consider this a valid statement?
"Baby, it’s you. You’re the one I love. You’re the one I need…"
"Baby boy, you stay on my mind / fulfill my fantasies / I think about you all the time / I see you in my dreams…"
"Your touch’s got me lookin so crazy right now…got me hoping you save me right now…"
How exactly do Beyoncé’s lyrics combat a male gaze that objectifies women?
Henson also observes that Beyoncé invokes the Hindu warrior goddess Durga, whose hands reach out behind Beyonce to “expand her power.” According to Hindu tradition, Durga is hailed as a fierce female goddess— wielding weapons, riding a lion, slaying demons and fighting evil. No big deal.
What, exactly, is Beyoncé meaningfully appropriating in this figure? What symbolic demons is she slaying in the way she dances or takes “purposeful” strides? It’s difficult for book nerds like me to tolerate empty appropriations of mythological tropes.
I don’t know what Henson’s criteria is for a woman to not be “owned”— for he claims “women were owned by no one” during this all female performance couched between ”men, misogyny, [and] objectification” getting “most of the airtime”— but it’s certainly not guaranteed merely by a lack of male performers. This deductive logical fallacy follows this line of reasoning: 1.) there were only women on stage, 2.) lack of male presence means female power, therefore 3.) the women on stage had power.
Female empowerment is not achieved by what is lacking— only by what is present. And while females were present in wild energy on stage, here’s what was not present: “power” harnessed toward anything meaningful.
Does Beyoncé have “power” over anything that matters?
Juxtapose this performance with the sad reality of sex trafficking that was rampant during New Orleans’ Super Bowl festivities. What did Beyoncé’s “female empowerment” have to offer women forced to turn tricks all night and gratify an outrageous quota of men if they didn’t want to be brutally beaten and raped (as if they weren’t already)?
If you want to talk about a “a Black woman [who] claimed and owned her power” through a musical statement against misogyny and a slew of other social injustices, then listen to Tracy Chapman’s ”Behind the Wall”. Don’t tell me that Beyonce’s “If you like it then you should have put a ring on it” somehow challenges ideologies that tether women to false notions of self-worth.
It’s a woman like Tracy Chapman who can claim the right to appropriate Durga, because Chapman tries to “slay” something that matters— injustice. Women like Tracy Chapman are motivated by a “holy discontent.” Author Bill Hybels talks about “holy discontent” as a stirring of your heart that is impossible to contrive, a deep, righteous anger that compels you to act or speak out where injustice prevails.
Who would have known Beyoncé— who has one of my favorite female voices of all time— could help me articulate my “holy discontent.” Maybe I couldn’t shake off the image of an enormous, flaming silhouette of Beyoncé’s figure, erected like a monument of some deity that, in conjunction with her multiplying holograms, comprised a celebration not of female empowerment, but of Beyoncé.
When I think of female empowerment, I think of combating cultural ideologies that assault a woman’s sense of worth and paralyze her from fulfilling her potential— combating these ideologies till the battle is made concrete in saving a woman from domestic abuse, from sex-trafficking, from an eating disorder. Female empowerment means channeling our gifts and abilities into a meaningful vocation in a way that partners with men to usher redemption into this messed-up world.
It’s always exciting to me when men speak about gender issues in a way that tries to empower women. I appreciate Henson’s intent to do so, which is why I’m trying to keep my tone from sounding as incensed as my heart feels right now. But I do have to say, in light of his suggestion that those who saw a sexual performance “saw only what you were staring at, not what actually happened on that stage”: please don’t tell me what I THINK I saw, as if I’m missing the forest for the trees, or missing a film’s statement about pacifism for the war and bloodbath images. The only self-deception going on here is the one that applies the phrase “female power” to the very misogynist symptomology that the ”power” complies with.
In “Run the World (Girls),” Beyonce sings about “endless power.” It’s not too hard to decode what exactly Beyonce— or whatever corporate music amalgam spawned her— means when she speaks about power. And it doesn’t stray too far from the same “power” she apparently emanates in her Super Bowl performance.
If we women are content to adopt Beyoncé as the front woman of our feminist mantra, then I hate to say—in grand understatement, in unintended pun, and in truth— we are selling ourselves short.