A lof of people have been raving about the Superbowl Halftime show, and for good reasons.
A lot of people have been raging about the Superbowl Halftime show, and for good reasons.
[Please hang in there with me as I conduct a back and forth exercise in this blog post; try to read it all the way through.]
Two famous, talented women of color performed impressive, culturally rich songs and dances, and along with children of color, they denounced the racism and cruel policies of the current administration. In many ways, it was the most progressive, ethically compelling Halftime show in history.
That’s all wonderful. It’s so wonderful, that one might ask whether anything more should be said. Why bring negativity into such a fabulous, fantastic celebration of culture and denunciation of racism?
Two young, heavily made-up, scantily-clad women mimicked strip club style pole dancing and other pornified, dehumanized objectification, in an attempt to demonstrate how thoroughly, incontrovertibly fuckable they were by the standards of today’s degrading, misogynist insistence that if females are not proving themselves to be desirable sex toys, they are invisible and fail the femininity test. The show caused a dramatic spike in online porn searches for videos depicting degrading, violent sex and rape acts against Latina females. In many ways, it was the least progressive, most unethical Halftime show in history.
That’s all terrible. It’s so terrible, that one might ask whether anything more should be said. Why make excuses for such a violent display of misogyny and glamorization of females as subhuman sex toys that exist only to gratify disgusting male perversions?
People get trapped into binary thinking so easily because we are all desperate to reassure ourselves of three core beliefs: 1) I am good, 2) I am competent, 3) I am worthy of respect. Conversations about the Halftime Show immediately —instantaneously— become identity conversations, in which the participants are not talking about the show at all; they are talking about themselves. So there are always two conversations happening at the same time— T) the text: what people say, and S) the subtext: the identity fears that make people dig in and lash out.
T) In one camp, we find people who insist that dancing in strip-club style sexual ways is not only harmless, it is empowering, so long as an individual woman “chooses” to display herself that way. Thus, anyone who criticizes the show is trying to silence/shame/oppress these individual women, who should be supported in their choices.
S) Identity Subtext: 1) I sometimes display myself that way and enjoy the attention I receive, or I enjoy feeling lust for females who display themselves that way; I am worried that therefore, I am not good or worthy of respect, and/or 2) I am worried that if I do not speak out in support all sexual expressions, I will be bad – I will be a failure as a progressive by failing to protect people from sexual repression, I will be accused of the conservative, sexually repressive “purity culture” of right wing fundamentalists, and/or I will be shamed as “sex-negative” by my progressive in-group.
T) In the other camp, we find people who say that our misogynist culture purposefully limits the so-called “choices” available to young women, such that females can choose between being “fuckable or invisible,” and thus the “choice” narrative both distorts the underlying misogynist violence that shapes the entire culture and colludes with patriarchy to prevent the class-based analysis necessary for the liberation of the oppressed female class.
S) Identity Subtext: 1) I have grown up in a culture that tells me if I do not meet certain criteria as “fuckable,” I have no value. I want to reject that assertion, and therefore, I am worried that my culture categorizes me as invisible or valueless. I am worried that maybe patriarchy is right, maybe I actually do not deserve to be treated with respect and dignity as a human being, but rather just degraded as a subhuman fuck toy; and/or 2) I am frightened that if I don’t speak out in denunciation of how violent and damaging this misogyny is, I will be bad – I will be a failure as a progressive/feminist/parent, by failing to help liberate the oppressed female class.
T) In the first camp, we find people who insist that anyone who sees sexism in these performances is simply racist or ignorant of cultural expressions, and insensitive to the need to celebrate cultural diversity.
S) Identity Subtext: 1) I am white and worried that I am not progressive enough to be respected by my progressive in-group, and/or 2) I am worried that the racist white American culture will continue to oppress and devalue people of color [like me] by finding something to criticize in everything [we] do, or by sexualizing [us] in dehumanizing ways, especially when [we] are not trying to sexualize [ourselves].
T) In the second camp, we find people who insist that racism has nothing to do with it.
S) Identity subtext: 1) I am worried that I am not progressive enough to be deemed “good” and to be respected by my progressive in-group, and/or 2) I am worried that the racist white American culture will continue to oppress and devalue people of color [like me] by taking an objectifying performance like this and using it to justify the way they sexualize [us] in dehumanizing ways, especially when [we] are not trying to sexualize [ourselves].1
These two frames/lenses for this conversation are so unreconciled, and the fear-based subtext behind them is so passionate (read terrified and wounded), that I have yet to see a constructive debate about the topic, which takes both frames into account. Anyone who tries to present the existence of two possible frames is shouted down by one or both sides as hopelessly racist or hopelessly sexist. Make no mistake: this is painful, sensitive stuff… precisely because it connects straight to our most fundamental core needs/beliefs/fears. And having an apparently untouchable, planet-destroying, gleefully cruel, racist misogynist on the American throne makes us all more frantic than usual.
The only way forward for individuals, is for each of us to admit, and to have loving compassion for, our underlying, valid fears. The only way forward for our community, is for all of us to admit, and to have loving compassion for, the underlying, valid fears of everyone else. If all we care about is shouting, if our goal is to “have our say!” regardless of the impact or effect on the issues we claim to hold dear, well, we can carry on bludgeoning each other and achieve nothing more meaningful than reassuring our egos.
But if we can move beyond trying to prove our own in-group virtue, if we genuinely want to heal the racism and the sexism in our society, there is one way forward, and it isn’t shouting each other down. It is admitting our fears, summoning the humility to accept that there are, in fact, multiple valid perspectives, and having enough maturity to join in compassionate, constructive, open-hearted conversation toward building a culture in which females of all cultural backgrounds can be liberated and celebrated as sacred and precious and glorious. I hope this article can help open up the beginnings of those conversations and that important, liberative work.
One final thought: the more each of us can find tools (spiritual? psychological? communal?) to believe, truly believe, that we are good, competent, and worthy of respect, the better we will be at healing ourselves and healing all the ills of our hurting world.
 Note: as a white woman, I cannot pretend to have firsthand experience of this second statement, and I make no claims to understand how it feels to grow up with racism. I am only repeating the sentiments I have heard some of my friends voice. I know this debate is raging among women of color, and I hope all sides of that debate will chime in here.
Trelawney Grenfell-Muir teaches courses about Sex, Dating, Marriage, and Work in the Religion and Theological Studies Department at Merrimack College and about Cross Cultural Conflict in the Department of Conflict Resolution, Human Security, and Global Governance at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A Senior Discussant at the Religion and the Practices of Peace Initiative at Harvard University, she holds an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology with a concentration in Religion and Conflict, and a Ph.D. in Conflict Studies and Religion with the University Professors Program at Boston University. She currently writes articles, book chapters, and liturgical resources about feminist, nature-based Christianity.