Super Bowl Sunday and Female Sexuality

There were two examples of healthy female sexuality that come to mind in the Super Bowl commercials. Did you notice them? They depicted agency and the woman in control of the encounter.

First was Amy Poehler’s spot for Best Buy, when she repeatedly hits on her sales guy, asking if “he’ll deliver” and “read 50 Shades of Grey in a sexy voice” to her. She also asks for the “most vibratiest” dryer. She is clearly showing herself as a sexual being, and wanting company.

The other spot was for Taco Bell, when a group of elderly friends hit the town in scenes reminiscent of my twenties. (I can only hope my ending days of adulthood are as much fun as the days I started it with!) We see the women in the group taking off their clothes for a skinny dip, dancing in a club, and making out with men of various ages. I liked the message that women don’t stop seeing themselves as sexy or feeling sexy when the wrinkles and gray appear.

You may not have recognized that as female sexuality because it wasn’t wrapped in shiny black leather and knee high stiletto boots, grinding pelvises and sexualized dance moves. The two examples I shared were women acting as sexual agents in their own space and own time. Tricky, I know.

We’ve become so accustomed to defining female sexuality for what is actually packaged objectification for the male gaze. I have no desire to police or limit how women choose to express their sexuality and empowerment, but can we please aim for something higher than the porniest version possible?

You wouldn’t know it from the advertising, but 50% of last night’s viewers were women and girls. I was one of those women, and I love football. It is a complicated love affair to be sure. I’ve seen some people say that we shouldn’t really be complaining about the commercials because “Football is for men, what do you expect?” With the exception of the wicked funny Amy Poehler or the uniformed Servicewomen in the Jeep ad, the rest of the females depicted in the commercials were mostly: needing to be rescued, arm candy or prizes for men who drive amazing cars, delivering beer, nagging wives, non-verbal wives as car passengers, princesses (the Toyota princess gets a pass), fembots, showgirls, and stripper waitresses.

I have a husband who loves football, and to say that all men who watch football are sexist neanderthals who don’t have a problem with the sexualized and sexist portrayals of women is unfair. Actually, it is sexist.

It was my husband who pointed out to me during the “Fast & Furious” move preview that we saw “five female asses in bikinis and miniskirts before we saw one female face”. He denounced the GoDaddy ads and also found the halftime show to be really distasteful.

The morning after the Super Bowl I posted this: Lots of folks were asking my reaction to the half time show. I answered by asking a question — Would we ever see U2 or the Rolling Stones or Bruce Springteen perform without pants? Does Bono ever slap his ass or suggestively lick his finger and run it over his mostly-exposed breasts with a sultry look for the camera on a tight shot while wearing a leather dominatrix-like ensemble? Do any male performers lay on their backs with a stillettoed leg in the air as they punctuate the refrain on one of their biggest hits?

When we are looking at advertising we often say, “If your product was any good, you wouldn’t need sex to sell it.” I think the same can be said for performers. Beyonce wasn’t just a performer last night, she was a product — she has a reunion album with Destiny’s Child soon to release and she is going on tour. So if we’re going to be spending the night calling out sexism and objectification in the commercials, we have to apply that same lens to halftime.

There is no doubt Beyonce has talent and she brought her A-game last night. The performance was electric, and you could tell she was living and loving every moment. I enjoyed her performance, but definitely felt like I was in a strip club and I’m glad my 7yo daughter was in the bath tub and not watching. Her band and her backup dancers are also talented, but why does the show need to be packaged as a burlesque troupe? Was Beyonce and her all-female band owning it and, or were they performing for the male gaze? When does self-objectification come into the picture? And when it does, can we be strong enough to call it what it really is?

Well, this comment led to an explosion on my PPBB facebook page, with nearly 600 likes, 200 some comments, and 200 some shares. Two follow up posts equally received hundreds of likes, comments and shares. But they weren’t all in favor of what I said. Many were, most were. The ones not in favor of my opinion made points about the performance depicting strength, independence, owning female sexuality, etc. There were the usual comments suggesting prudishness, jealousy, being old and out of touch, and of course the requisite (and racist) Taliban/burqa trope.

I don’t think anyone doubts Beyonce is strong. The woman is fierce and you could literally see her muscles rippling. Her body is thick and athletic and in many ways defies the stick thin Photoshopped version of femininity we see everywhere else. In that way, I think it is great we see so much of Beyonce’s body. The woman has nothing to be ashamed of there.

What I was questioning was if the Super Bowl was the right place for that kind of performance, and is that kind of performance one for “female empowerment” as it was being heralded? If it had been during her world tour (named “The Mrs. Carter Show”), I wouldn’t be writing about it. That is her space and as an artist she should be free to do as she wants. During half time she was a guest of the NFL, and from Pop Warner on up football is an American family tradition. The Super Bowl is the culmination of that tradition, and it would have been great if Beyonce had considered that as she developed the 13 minute program.

This is what I expected of Beyonce, so my kids weren’t watching. I was not expecting the halftime show to be family friendly, it hasn’t been for years. I’m not uptight about what she was wearing, I’m disappointed by it. If I were at a burlesque show, I would have loved it. But I wasn’t. I was playing checkers with my four year old in my family room.

I’m a sex positive person who sees problems with the Pornland our culture has become, and I am a feminist concerned about the women and girls who buy into it. Or worse, defend it.

When we look at the forest through the trees, we need to think about all of the kids and teens whose parents aren’t talking to them about media literacy, sexualization, and objectification. A performance like Beyonce’s is widely celebrated in the media and becomes the benchmark for female success and “empowerment”. The reach of her performance will extend FAR beyond the 12-13 minutes she was on stage. That is what I want to be questioning, especially the next day when I get a half dozen emails from parents asking what to say to their young children who are now trying out Beyonce’s dance moves.

Now I’ve got some incredibly smart women and men in the PPBB Community, one of whom said this, “You know, at first I noticed the all female aspect and thought “how nice, girl power” which, I think, is what you are supposed to think but only on a surface level. How are they getting their power? By “grinding” on each other, by being as sexy as they can possibly be, by performing their sexuality. Bey knows what feminism is and she weaves bits of female power into her performances, videos, and songs but it’s all a backhanded nod to feminism or girl power. She still knows her place (unfortunately) and that’s what we saw last night. Beyonce is such a force of nature she could easily turn the whole industry on it’s head by refusing to be part of the “male gaze” but I don’t believe she will.” (Thank you, Natalie B!)

As the conversation went back and forth all day and into the night, I wondered if I had missed something when I first watched the performance. Maybe with my kids nearby I was distracted and I missed some context that would change how I viewed it. So I watched it again. Nope, the only thing I had missed the first time around was the “wardrobe malfunction” that exposed a nipple and some vulva.

This puts me back at my original question of if this was really necessary (not whether or not she has the right to do it) for this time and venue, especially by someone who touts herself as a role model for girls?

My problem is a question of *why* a woman as talented a singer, dancer and all-round performer as Beyonce might feel as though she has to sex things up to be successful. She even gives her performing self a different name. Although she portrays this as a way for overcoming stage fright, she has made it clear again and again, that “Sasha Fierce” is not her. There’s part of me that wonders whether or not she would feel the need to make the distinction if she were able to perform, dance and sing without the massive amount of sex appeal imbued in that character.

Actresses also play different roles, but they try to make the roles their own and attempt to inhabit their characters. They don’t feel need to make sure the audience knows that who they are playing is not them. Quite the opposite. Beyonce could easily be playing a role, as many singers probably do, without stressing the point. She does though, and furthermore, she says the character, the very sexy and sexual character, makes her feel powerful, fearless.

That is women being taught that their power lies in what is, essentially, objectification. A woman even as talented as Beyonce feels that she must be sexual in order to be powerful, valued and successful, yet does not like the character and feels, when in that persona, that she isn’t even aware of her body – that her body is literally not her own.

“I created my stage persona to protect myself, so that when I go home, I don’t have to think about what it is I do. Sasha isn’t me.” Beyonce, Parade Magazine, December 2006

“I wouldn’t like Sasha if I met her offstage.” Beyonce, Parade Magazine, December 2006

“I have someone else that takes over when it’s time for me to work and when I’m on stage, this alter ego that I’ve created that kind of protects me and who I really am.” Beyonce Press Statement, October 2008

-facebook comment from PPBB Community Member Jen Prowse

So my question to Beyonce would be what about the girls who look up to you, who you encourage to look up to you, who are not able to make such easy distinctions? Because they do answer for the sexualized climate you contribute to. They don’t have the money or celebrity to walk away or hide from it. You may not have to think about it, but they sure do.

But it is not just about children. It is about how this affects all of us, long after the halftime show is over. When the most pornified version of female sexuality becomes the benchmark for “female empowerment”, we’ve got problems. Big. Problems. Female sexuality should not belong to the male gaze. We need to take the responsibility to make sure it belongs to us.

I don’t mind sexy, in the right time and place. I mind “all sex all the time”, and having it defined by men. Beyonce’s performance was hot. It wasn’t appropriate for the Super Bowl. And it wasn’t empowering for me.

Comments

  1. It’s depressing that women have to keep explaining that not wanting sex (and a particularly narrow, heteronormative version of it, at that) shoved in our faces all the time doesn’t mean that we object to all sex.

    Beyonce’s great; she’s immensely talented and it’s great to see a woman – especially a woman of colour – being given a platform to speak out about a whole variety of things. But it seems like the media’s price for that is access to her body and (a performance of) her sexuality, and that’s not okay.

    It’s simply not right that in order for women’s voices to be heard, it has to be through the medium of sex, sex and more sex. And lest anyone think this is a woman-only issue: please think for a second at the way it defines men and boys. Though I honestly believe it’s worse to be reduced to a mere sexual object, it’s not exactly flattering to be reduced to little more than a sexual consumer, either.

    Amazing post, Melissa.

  2. eHungerford says:

    I am really, really enjoying your commentary on hyper-sexualization of females, especially your coverage of the SuperBowl ads. THANK YOU!

    “When the most pornified version of female sexuality becomes the benchmark for “female empowerment”, we’ve got problems. Big. Problems.”

    YES!

    I am commenting because I don’t think that Amy Poehler was expressing “healthy” sexuality in the Best Buy ad. I thought her behavior was totally inappropriate. I guess it’s nice that she knows what she wants, but no sales person–male or female– should be objectified or propositioned in the course of their job. That is predatory. I’d be PISSED if someone treated me that way on the job– in fact, it’s ILLEGAL. And for good reason. Further, sexually bonding with a dryer is not healthy intimacy. But *most* importantly, 50 Shades of Grey is totally dysfunctional! It glorifies controlling behavior and eroticizes a dom/sub power dynamic as meaningful sex. That is not healthy. It’s abusive sexuality. And it’s a very, very scary model to present our daughters with. I don’t like the sexuality Poehler represented in the ad and I just wanted to point these things out.

    I LOVE YOUR WORK, thank you for blogging!!

    • There are problems with the Best Buy/Amy Poehler ad, and you did a great job pointing them out. I don’t know if it is illegal for a customer to hit on an employee, but the issue raised on the facebook page was that the employee is a captive audience, so it is not very fair.

      Your comment about sexually bonding with a dryer has me chuckling, but isn’t it just kind of a big sex toy? I’m okay with sex toys. Although I don’t use my dryer that way!

      And yes, 50 Shades is messed up six ways from Sunday and I hated it, but it is female-orientated erotica in the mainstream.

  3. Loved Alicia Keys! Such a class act!

  4. oh my gosh, you are my soulmate sister! I live overseas and can’t stay up late enough to watch the SuperBowl. On Monday morning, my American friends’ FB posts were full of adoration for all the ads and the half time show, so i YouTubed Beyonce. I watched 2 minutes until she started to writhe around on the floor like a stripper and had to stop. As the mother of an 11 year old girl, i just want to start shaking people: what is wrong with the world that this pornification is considering innocuous? Most of the women I know don’t even notice. A friend posted your blog to me, so i wouldn’t have to feel so alone in my outrage. thank you, thank you.

  5. Ginny Bain Allen says:

    Sex was created by our Almighty Creator to be sacred between one husband with one wife. Period.

  6. Before porn, the only role models women had were French women from like, the 50′s, lol! We need more women who are sexy in a natural way – does anyone remember how?

    It seems men are starved for some form – any form – of sexiness but really, do you expect to turn your woman on with your pot belly? When did pot bellies become ok? Maybe if men would trim down and get rid of their flab, the average women might be feeling a little more sexy and we might not have this epidemic of porn style extremism…I love men and know it might be painful to hear, but you’re all so out of shape!

    But since porn seems to be the only kind of sexiness allowed (and that is a profound thought, to me), in the US, anyway, it’s like a disgraceful national obsession to the point that Superbowl Sunday is unapologetically infected with it. If trashiness has become so integrated in the US that even a force of nature like Beyonce has been duped into creating an “evil twin” to perform like a tool in service to male baseness…well, that’s the epitome of a weak and disempowered female citizenry, if you ask me. Clearly women are trying to take back their sexuality, but is the path of porn really the way? There are definitely better ways.

    Thanks for this excellent post, it is so helpful to the dialogue that will help people learn to recognize the difference between pornography and sexiness.

  7. Thanks, Melissa. I watched “the show” with a similar WTF? sense as you. Makes me wonder if the top dogs at the NFL (producers of Beyonce’s “show’) have families of their own. I’m thinking at least one or two must, right? And how did those producers feel as their sons and daughters watched that stuff? How comfortable would those producers be if their daughters take-away the message that their worth, as a woman, is directly related to her ability to shake it in the face of every guy she wants/needs attention from.” Look, we can’t change the Culture (not on a meta level) but in each of our families we have tremendous influence for whatever values we prioritize. Sure, kids have many other influencers (aka peers, mainstream media, and social media) but we’re a big part of the mix. And if we do our job right, our voice will be inside their head, helping to guide their decisions and their actions, whether we’re right their beside them or they’re out there on their own.

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