Despite many critics claiming Beyonce’s halftime show was overly sexual, Emily Heist Moss was thrilled by the performance, and says owning your sexuality and being sexualized are two different things.
After Beyonce’s epic halftime extravaganza, the Internet temporarily became a platform exclusively designed to facilitate massive amounts of Bey-love. From the First Lady to Justin Timberlake, the praise rolled in, gushing and laden with exclamation points. Jesse Tyler Ferguson, of Modern Family, tweeted “The opener & closer to the amazing Beyonce concert tonight was kinda boring. Not much singing. Just a lot of running around & falling down.” Who cares about the Ravens? It seems like we all know who really won the Super Bowl.
But not everyone was quite so taken with her performance. At the National Review, Kathryn Jean Lopez wrote, “Why can’t we have a national entertainment moment that does not include a mother gyrating in a black teddy?” Before we break that down a little further, consider the obvious complimentary question: Why can’t we have national entertainment that doesn’t include giant men concussing each other? As a country, what we claim to value is rarely what we actually value when it comes to how we choose our entertainment. Just ask the feminist blogger who recently placed her bet on the Bachelor finale…That inconsistency aside, does Lopez have a point? What’s the difference, when you get down to it, between Queen Bey’s masterful show and “gyrating in a black teddy?”
I have a short fuse for what I perceive to be sexist bullshit. About once a week I start barreling down tirade lane, railing against this commercial or that article before someone reigns me in. I’ve been told that I over-think things, that I read malice in motive-less situations, that I’m too eager to find trouble. If I’m always looking for sexism and misogyny, they say, I’m going to see it everywhere. They’re right, of course, the lenses we adopt color everything, and from my vantage point, the world looks pretty freakin’ sexist most of the time.
You might think my overly sensitive sexism sensors would have been flashing like gangbusters when Beyonce stepped on stage at the Superdome this past Sunday evening. After all, on the surface, she’s a phenomenally attractive woman—conventionally attractive, that is, hourglass shaped with long Rapunzel hair—in skimpy black leather that leaves little to the imagination, and she’s shaking everything she’s got in front of 100 million viewers. The potential for objectification is high, no doubt about it.
I kept waiting for the red flags to go up, for my sexism-seeking instincts to kick in, but the flags never budged and the instincts remained quiet. The accoutrements of Beyonce’s performance look like what we have seen before—stiletto boots, black leather, the removal of clothing, item by item—so I’m not surprised that Lopez is confusing her performance with the traditional narrative of an objectified pretty girl taking her clothes off. To the untrained eye, or the uncritical eye, it certainly looks familiar.
But it’s not the same, and let me paraphrase Peggy Orenstein, the author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, to explain why. Expressing sexuality is not the same as being sexualized; you can be pro-sexuality and anti-sexualization. Expressing sexuality through wardrobe choices, dance moves, or song lyrics can be the intentional, purposeful approach of any artist. Being sexualized, on the other hand, is not about agency or choice, it’s about how other people view you, as purely an object to lust after, the unwilling or reluctant receiver of sexual energy. For someone to be sexualized, there has to be another agent in play making decisions, a mom painting lipstick on a 6-year-old pageant girl, for example.
Beyonce’s performance was indeed sexual, and anyone who denies it clearly had their eyes closed for the full 13 minutes. But agency and ownership matter significantly more than the tightness of her dress or the height of her heels. Beyonce owned that performance. It was powerful, it was impressive, it was creative, and literally brought the house down in New Orleans. If I had a daughter watching that Super Bowl, I would not worry about what messages she might absorb from that halftime show. In fact, I would hope she sees what power there is to be found in owning your own sexuality as something separate from how others might attempt to sexualize you.
Compare Bey’s performance to the Go Daddy commercial featuring supermodel Bar Rafaeli and the “nerdy” software developer. “There are two sides to Go Daddy. There’s the sexy side represented by Bar Rafaeli and there’s the smart side that creates a killer website for your small business, represented by Walter.” Rafaeli is valued exclusively for how she appeals aesthetically to others, she has no agency or worth aside from the desire she incites. Walter drives all the value; he is intelligent and owns the only action-verb in this sentence, “create.” That is the sexist bullshit I want to keep my hypothetical daughters far, far away from.
All displays of sexuality are not alike. They are not all equally undermining, equally exploitative, or equally empowering. The most popular artist in the world in a leather bustier rocking out with her all-female band on the country’s biggest stage cannot be reduced to “gyrating in a black teddy.” To do so is to negate her agency in her own performance, and that is some seriously sexist condescension. Context matters. She is not Britney Spears at 16 in the plaid skirt and pigtails. Beyonce’s context is, effectively, world domination.
In the scheme of sexist bullshit out there, all of the triggers little and big that get my sensors flashing, Beyonce’s halftime show will never register. There is too much other garbage to wade through to focus on an adult woman rocking a sporting event with serious lung capacity and some black leather. There is too much other crap out there, crap that uses the props that she mastered to more nefarious ends, to trap women into thinking that being the “sexy” side of Go Daddy is the quickest path to success. Let’s all tirade against that, shall we?
Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has been published at Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.