Growing Up Girl

This afternoon I was driving my kids to their first day of gymnastics class and I had one of those moments when you want to throat punch the universe. Some days, it feels like you can’t win for trying when it comes to raising strong girls. Let me explain.

My daughter was so excited for today. She finally had a *real* gymnastics outfit and looked like a pro. She’d been talking about this for weeks. I looked at her in the review mirror, the late afternoon sun shining behind her as brightly as the smile she flashed back at me. I was excited for her to learn new ways her body could be strong, to see how powerful her muscles could be.

But oh, the irony….

When we stopped at the first red light, to our immediate right was a “gentlemen’s” club. The sign out front said, “Girls! Start those college savings. Dancers Wanted.” My daughter read it, speaking quietly as she tried to make sense of the message behind the words. And then she went silent. She has a nine-year-old’s understanding of what goes on in those places thanks to an over-informed classmate. I said nothing, giving her time to process and knowing her questions would begin any minute.

We made it a mile or two down the road and came to a second red light. This time, to our immediate left was a girl in the tiniest bikini and highest stilettos you can imagine teetering by a fence for what looked like a commercial photo shoot. For yard sheds, the kind you throw in your back yard to hold lawn mowers and patio furniture. Her nearly naked body was being used to market and sell yard sheds, and my daughter was figuring this out as she gazed out the window on her way to gymnastics class where she was so excited to wear her new uniform and learn to do a cartwheel.

And I started to feel the hot rage you get behind your eyeballs when you are just so sick and tired of the fuckery your daughters have to experience as girls growing up in this world.

This is everywhere. All. the. Time. Everywhere the objectification of women, the turning them into objects for sex and nothing more. Mind you, I live in the Heartland. We weren’t driving down The Strip in Vegas. We were on the 51 in Beloit, Wisconsin.

No matter how I try to raise my kids – my daughter to be a strong woman and my son to be a man who respects all women – it is stuff like this afternoon’s drive that make me feel like I needed Joan of Arc battle armor at my baby shower instead of a diaper genie. 

Because I’ll will never stop fighting for my daughter’s heart to be free and unburdened by messages she gets from so many places that her sex is her worth. To hell with that.

I will never stop fighting for my son to know that all girls and women have worth simply by being. Neither of my children will fall victim to a society that treats women like disposable objects.

I feel rage because the offer to strip for college cash isn’t offered to boys. It isn’t a choice they have to make. Why are there not billboards up and down the highway offering these same girls internships in the business world? As a mother to a daughter I feel like a mother to all daughters, and I am angry for them. These girls are barely 18 years old and they are immediately being pulled into the sex trade.

The messages about the value of a woman’s body that my daughter got on the way to class are the exact opposite to those I hoped she would get in class.

Her body is strong. Capable. Graceful. Powerful. Her body has value because it houses HER. She is nobody’s object. Full stop.

We arrive at the YMCA for class and we have to pass through the gym to get the the gymnastics room. In the gym are a dozen high school girls playing volleyball. They are all different sizes, they are sweating, and they are playing hard.

I thought about pausing with Amelia in the gym and giving her some kind of pep talk like: “You know that sign about college we passed at that club and that girl in the bikini….you don’t have to do those things to make money for college. You can get all kinds of jobs or start a business or do an internship. You can earn academic scholarships. And see these girls playing volleyball? They could go to college on an athletic scholarship. Just like your swim teacher.”

I didn’t say any of that. I didn’t have time.

Because as my daughter walked through the gym and saw the volleyball players her mouth briefly dropped open in awe of all the teenagerness around her and then she turned to me and said, “Oh, and by the way, THAT is how you get to college using your body. Yes, I read the sign on the road and saw Ms. Bikini and what a bunch of bullshit.”

Friends, we live to fight another day.

Joan of Arc


Melissa headshot 1 fb sizeMelissa Atkins Wardy is a speaker, media consultant, and the author of Redefining Girly: How Parents Can Fight the Stereotyping and Sexualizing of Girlhood, from Birth to Tween. She is the creator and owner of Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies, a company that has been offering empowering apparel and gifts to Full of Awesome kids since 2009

Find her at You can connect with her on Facebook (Pigtail Pals Ballcap Buddies) and Twitter (@PigtailPals) and Pinterest (Pigtail Pals & Ballcap Buddies). 

Men and Women in Media: A Big Difference

“When we first started, I thought this isn’t going to be as biased as we think….but when you look at the wall, the two sides are utterly different. The men are nearly all active, doing things. Not posed….the women are all passive. It’s all about how [the women] look.
When I look at the men’s side, I see real life. But when I look at the women’s side, it doesn’t seem real. It’s all manufactured.”

This video is for a petition calling to end an exploitative page in a popular British paper, but the message in the video applies to us all. Women are used as ornaments instead of being shown as instruments. Men are active, display a range of emotion, and are clothed power holders and power brokers. Women are nearly naked and either smiling or pouting.

These images are not unique to tabloids, we see similar in all forms of media and advertising. When we are exposed to this message over and over and over and over again, it becomes harder and harder to ignore or fight back against.

Now imagine you’re a child.

"The Experiment" wall created by the No More Page 3 Team.

“The Experiment” wall created by the No More Page 3 Team.

Watch the full five and a half minute video below:

(Thanks We Are More blog for the link!)



When Do We Allow Our Girls To Partake in Commercialized Sexualization?

That is a serious question, when do we or when should we allow it? I hope your head and your heart are saying never, but often times that gate opens before we are ready or give our permission. How do you push back a marketing tidal wave? How do you keep your children from breathing toxic air?

The thing is, none of us are raising our children in a vacuum. They live in our homes and grow within our families, but they are also members of the culture at large and try as I might, I have no control over how other people raise their children or what media they decide to consume. I also don’t walk around protecting their ears or covering their eyes.

Case in point, while dropping my kids off at school today we were walking behind a first grade girl wearing this backpack featuring the Winx Club.

Winx backpack seen at school this morning, on the back of a six year old girl.

Winx backpack seen at school this morning, on the back of a six year old girl.

Why would you send your young child to her place of learning with THAT on her back. What messages does that reinforce? Where are the Amelia Earhart and Maya Angelou backpacks? Why is it okay to sell adult sexuality to kids? If the actual six year old were dressed and posed like that on the internet people would be screaming about child pornography but because it is a cartoon, it is okay for the six year old? Folks, I just don’t get it.

Try this test: If the image can be lifted from the child’s toy/backpack/t-shirt and placed on the billboard for a strip club and not look out of place, then things are seriously fucked.

You have to be blind not to see it.

Given what we know about how early sexualization harms young girls,  I cannot understand how parents allow this kind of imagery and media in their homes. Isn’t their some pause at the store, some alarm bell that sounds internally that says, “Ya know, my daughter is six years old and these characters are oozing adult sexuality. I need to tell her no and that we need to make a different pick.”

The problem is that this isn’t happening frequently enough and marketers then argue back to activists like me that they are just giving the people what they want. I mean, it is selling, right? But when sexualization is the only choice so widely available, how much of a choice do we have and can we be successful avoiding it? How much can parents be to blame? And why is it that many times we have to spend two to three times as much money on healthier options?

Our girls are being turned into mini-adult consumers at a fast and furious pace. Where is the respect for girlhood? Why are we in such a rush to grow these girls up? We’ve been talking about this for so long that I am now the second generation of parent to come behind trailblazers like Jean Kilbourne, Susan Linn, Sharon Lamb, Mary Pipher, Lyn Mikel Brown, Deb Tolman, and Diane Levin. I am continuing to carry the torch because over my dead body will my daughter get this as her definition of girlhood and femininity:

Bailey Richards Shoemaker took screen shots of the top selling dolls. What common denominators do you see?

Bailey Richards Shoemaker took screen shots of the top selling dolls. What common denominators do you see?

Things were not this far gone when I was a child. This is why the “But I did ______ and I turned out fine” argument never holds water. Our generation and those younger than us have always been swimming in the waters of objectification and sexualization to the point that they don’t realize when they are soaking wet. (Peggy Orenstein said this to me the other day.)

In fact, this great series of cartoons does an excellent job of pointing out just how much pop culture has changed for our girls, and how raunchy it has become. Please make sure you read the follow up post that goes with it.

So I do everything I can to keep the sexualized garbage away from my kids, but no one can do this with 100% success. And while today it is my almost-eight year old asking me about Monster High, soon it will be the bigger questions that come with raising bigger kids (like the one shared below).

As I parent my kids and respect their right to childhood I will continue to look this slide of sexualized and objectified sludge in the eye, stand toe to toe and say, “Oh HELL no.”

I do not accept this. Not for my kids. And hopefully, not for yours.


PPBB Community Member Question: My daughter is 12 and wanted to watch the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. I am against most fashion focused things for all the obvious reasons, so my first reaction was no way is she watching that. She mentioned that she’s recording it, so that got me to thinking this could be a great discussion point for dress and media. Can anyone point me in the direction of the Psychologist who spear headed the exposure of all the ugly sides of marketing? Also any thing else that might help me have a good conversation with her.

Models from the Victoria's Secret 2013 fashion show.

Models from the Victoria’s Secret 2013 fashion show.

Melissa’s answer: I think you are smart to turn it into a conversation starter instead of a stopper by saying “no way”. My first reaction would be “no way” as well, but then we need to dig deeper and allow our kids to learn media literacy skills and resiliency to these messages marketed to them.
Ask her why she wants to watch the show and why it is important to her, maybe it is because Taylor Swift is performing. Not by accident, mind you, because VS desperately wants brand loyalty out of Swift’s young fan base.

I would make a deal with her. She can watch the VS show, but only after she watches Miss Representation or Killing Us Softly by Jean Kilbourne (I think this might be the person you were thinking of) with you.
You can find Miss Rep here:
And Killing Us Softly 1-4 here:…

If, at 12yo, she is grown up enough to handle one of those documentaries then she is old enough to handle the VS show. I would tell her that your concern with her watching the VS show is that as she reaches puberty and her body starts to look more womanly you don’t want her growing with the idea that there is only one way that women can be beautiful. The ideal height of a Victoria’s Secret Model is 5’9” standing barefoot with body measurements of 34-24-34.
I would expose the ugly side of what the VS models go through to look that way, despite looking glamorous and sexy for cameras. A good, scary read:

I would Google some of the models names like Jessica Hart or Adriana Lima, then I would Google that name (model + no makeup) to see what they really look like.

Finally, I would review with her the findings of the APA Task Force:

And if, after all this, she still wants to watch the show I’d let her. I guarantee you she’ll no longer enjoy it because you’ll have shifted the way she sees those things forever.







Miley, Robin, Race, Raunch and Kids

Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus perform. (Image via HuffPo)

In this age of slut-shaming hypersensitivity and the slipping of a culture based on a shared sense of morals regarding decency and self-respect we sometimes fail to have the conversations we should be because no one wants their head chopped off for speaking up and no one wants to be made to feel bad about a lack of morals. Or common sense.

Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus are being talked about everywhere, in different ways and by different communities, but the conversation is valid. It is not acceptable to attempt to shut up and silence people concerned about the impact of media with the cries of “slut-shaming!” simply because we are discussing how raunch culture impacts our families and society as a whole. Critical analysis and media literacy require us to examine these things, and we can do so in a way that does not include slut-shaming. What is so interesting is that all of the kids and young adults I have spoken to about the performance and who I have seen interviewed in the media all had the same reaction, “That is so unfortunate. It is really inappropriate.”

Both performers should be held accountable for what they did. It was rehearsed, there were many adults involved in making the decisions about what the audience would see. I think we can hold performers responsible for their art free of censorship, as the audience we have every right to comment on and critique. This act went on stage with those responsible knowing plenty of young people would be seeing it. I’m rather certain they were banking on that.

I’m not sure too many people had high standards for Thicke, whose rise to fame came on the wings of this summer’s rape anthem. On the TODAY show his mom spoke of her shock over the way Miley danced with her son, but said nothing of Thicke’s sexist, degrading video to his hit song about date rape. It is the perfect example of the double standards we hold in society. She says she can’t unsee Miley’s rump twerking on her son, just like I can’t unhear Thicke’s lyrics about wanting to tear a girl’s ass in half during anal sex because she’s the sexiest bitch up in this place. I wonder if that makes his mom blush, too?

People feel differently about Cyrus than they do about Thicke, and when we discuss this we are falling short when we shrug it off by saying she doesn’t want to be a role model, doesn’t owe anyone anything, and can express her sexuality any way she wants. That falls short because she is a role model and how she expresses her sexuality impacts the millions of girls with less fame and less money. Miley becomes part of a media culture. Media shapes perception, and perception becomes reality.

People are chalking it up to her being a mistake-prone 20 year old. She can wear what she wants, do what she wants. Other people are saying she is at the mercy of her management and production team. Still others are saying she is a lost child star who still needs some guidance and the pressure of the spotlight is so hard.

I was once a hard-partying twenty year old young woman who will forever be grateful social media did not exist during the years I was 17-22. But here’s the thing – You aren’t a badass or a sexual grown up when you have to try so hard to prove to everyone that you are. And you don’t get street cred for exploitation.

Another special moment from the Cyrus/Thicke duet. (Image via HuffPo)

Miley’s performance wasn’t about her authentic sexuality, it was about her sexuality as a product. When every single female pop star has the same version of sexuality, perhaps we should start questioning how authentic or manufactured it is. It was a racist and raunchy display of how women have to try to obtain media power given the normalization of porn culture in the mainstream, appropriating dance moves from Black strip clubs of the South, and using her Black female dancers as sexual props. Friends, that ain’t feminism or empowerment. I need you to stop pretending that it is.

The sexualization of and by Miley Cyrus matters. The self-objectification to boost a career and ratings matters. During a discussion about this my friend and colleague Nancy Gruver of New Moon Girls said, “When the BEST option for wielding power in our culture that a privileged, intelligent, ambitious and hardworking young woman sees is to manipulate media by purposefully turning herself from a person (subject of her own actions & thoughts) to an object (a non-human thing) of other people’s actions and thoughts it’s the culture that needs change – and that’s what we want to focus attention on. The need to change the culture to help ALL girls and young women be seen and treated as people, not objects.”

In her post “Miley Cyrus joins the boys’ club” my friend Soraya Chemaly writes how Miley was just acting like one of the guys, but being judged for it like a woman. Soraya is right, much of this criticism is linked to Miley’s gender and is the reason she swings and misses but Robin Thicke gets walked to first. The thing is, no one in the audience was cheering her on with a “Yeah, get it girl!” Most of the audience and the online reaction was “Dear God, girl get off the stage!”

But there is another part to this conversation. In order to be “one of the guys”, Miley had to sell other women out.

“In your quest to swing a big dick you made other women the objects. You made them bend over to you, just like you bent over to Robin Thicke. You grabbed them, leered at them, and diminished them to build yourself up. Maybe they’ll let you in their club. Maybe, for a while, you get to be the subject instead of the object.” – Emily Heist Moss

So I can’t spend time trying to convince people how wrong the sexualization, objectification, and racism were in this performance. You see it or you don’t. The new Miley is a brand, you like it or you don’t. This is not a rare occurrence, it is one more drop in an overflowing bucket of  media reeking of sexism and racism.

What I’m more interested in is guiding parents in how to discuss this with your kids. This post and this post do a nice job of addressing Miley as a person and would be good to read with your tweens/teens and discuss.

Here is what I asked of my facebook community, and you can see the discussions play out here and here.

1. Give examples of how we deconstruct this kind of media and its messages to our kids.
2. How we differentiate sexual expression vs putting raunch on display for ratings.
3. How you explain to kids why they might hear Miley taking so much heat but not Robin.
4. How you explain the difference between critiquing media and critiquing a person to your child.

Nearly everyone is focused on Miley and girls. Well, what about Robin and boys? Let’s look at this….
– How would you talk to your tween/teen BOYS about older men using younger girls like sex objects and male performers being surrounded by barely-dressed female backup dancers?
– How would your boys answer: When so many of the female performers are so scantily clad, is that self expression of sexuality or the symptom of something larger? Why were none of the men nearly naked?
– How would your boys answer: How do you feel the representations of women last night affect your female friends and family members?
– How would your boys answer: What expectations does our family have around how you will treat girls and women? Did what you see or heard about from the VMA’s live up to that or fall short?


And here are some of the best responses:

“I do see that she is taking all the heat and its sad that he isn’t, not to mention any of the other grown adults with much a more developed prefrontal cortex who green lit the performance. It’s interesting to show children that se is getting all of the attention (however negative) but there is an unseen puppeteer in the way of management, agents, PR people, production teams, marketing, etc that all have their hand in the till. I remind my daughter that we don’t know Miley. We can’t say she’s a “bad girl” but we can say that she performed inappropriately and made decisions that would not be considered good choices in our family. The thing that bothers me the most about the whole performance is the teddy bears. It’s almost as if the set decorator (who obviously had a hand in the video as well) is making the statement that she’s “a little girl with her stuffed animal but look at how naughty she can be.” That, to me, is the worst “artistic” statement and contributes to the allure of over-sexualization of young girls.” -Jessyca Haddix

“It was a great example of what is called The Patriarchal Bargain. A patriarchal bargain is when a woman willingly accepts gender rules that generally disadvantage women in exchange for whatever power she can then wrest from the system. It is an individual strategy designed to manipulate the system to one’s best advantage, but one that leaves the system itself intact. Miley fulfilled the bargain in textbook fashion – sexualizing herself, turning the Male Gaze on herself, in order to manipulate the system, which benefits her personally, but at the expense of all other young women, who feel the repercussions of male gaze, without being able to subvert it for financial gain. This isn’t about making the world G-rated. It is about making women objects, instead of letting them be subjects. It isn’t a healthy take on female sexuality at all – there is no empowerment for women in that performance, or in singing a song that glorifies the interchangeability of objectified women for men’s pleasure.” -Kristin Yates Thomas

“I think our society has crafted a script that Miley is just following (as are many of us). It’s a script where someone appeals to children, and then in order to try and broaden that appeal, they resort to incredibly raunchy, provocative, disturbingly over-sexualized performances. In this script, our part as grownups is to be horrified and disturbed, and our teenagers’ part is to be fascinated by the sexuality and enjoy that their parents are so horrified.
I think we need to find ways to get around that script. We need to create an environment where young performers can break into an older market without needing to resort to shock tactics. We need to help teens understand that there are so many other ways to be an grownup performer than these overly sexual tactics… maybe offer them some awesome examples of music stars who appeal to adults in a non-sexual way. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I don’t think it can just be “oh that’s so awful!” because that’s just playing into the script of “child star gone bad” that Miley is intentionally playing, and teenagers are buying.” -Scott Gendel

“I think an important thing to discuss with our kids is what’s the purpose of media. It’s attention to and selling of a brand, message or product. So I would ask what are they attempting to “sell” or bring attention to. Women often times have to try harder to stay in the limelight and constantly push the sexuality boundaries to stay “relevant”. -Angelica Amador

“If I were having this conversation with my kids, I’d talk about how some former child and teen stars introduce raunch into their performance when they reach adulthood, in order to distance themselves from the “child” label that no longer fits them. It has a marketing aspect–telling the world they’re no longer (hopefully) marketing to a child audience, but to an adult audience. A lot of teenagers change their dress and demeanor to show that they’re growing up as well. However, there are classy ways to do this, and ways that make a person (male or female) look foolish. This performance was an excellent example of how to make yourself look foolish.” – Jessica Goeller

“Media is a vehicle. It is how messages and imagery are transmitted publicly when you are not there in person to directly see or hear information, a performance, etc. It is how material flows through video, internet, radio, print, etc. Children can understand that media is a tool for making money as well as transmitting information, and that the people who control media control information and messaging, and make money doing so. Their motives, therefore, are not always pure. They are selling the public something. In the case of Miley’s performance, media is trying to sell music, and also a message about women: that they are valued for their sexuality above their talent, and that they must perform sexuality in order to sell anything else. Miley herself is both used by the media, and a user of the media. She is used in that she has bought into the idea that media ubiquitously promotes about female sexuality being the primary worth of females, and a necessary path to success. She also used media to promote herself, regardless of the message it sends to young fans. Therefore, media literacy is important for children to understand and a skill to be developed–so that they will learn to think critically about the complex relationship between human beings and media. In my opinion, in the case of Miley Cyrus, there is enough blame to go around for everyone–Media, her managers, patriarchy, and Miley herself. But kids need help deconstructing this.” -Lori Day

“I am raising 3 boys to be men and did some thinking on this after breakfast, as I was looking at your page and other posts on line about the performance last night. We don’t have cable now and my husband and I debate whether we ever will. We want to be careful about what our kids are exposed to – but we are also coming from the point of view right now of parents of very young children (ages 1, 2, and 5). We know as they get older we will start to lose some control over what they are exposed to in the media. We try to focus now on teaching them certain values – such as respect for all people. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Hopefully then, when they are older, we can have frank discussions about issues like this. I can’t help but worry about this topic because – holy wow! – how will things be different in 5 and 10 years and how in the heck WILL we talk to our sons about things like this and remain confident that we are giving them the tools to live their lives like gentlemen, with a healthy and realistic view of the world and the ability and confidence to make good decisions and not be afraid to stand by their convictions!” -Shannon Cooper Woodward

“I feel like it would go something like this. “You see those girls up there that are half naked and making very sexual gestures? They are people. The simple fact that they are people means they deserve to be treated with at least the most basic level of respect even if they are not respecting themselves right now. Sometimes respect means not participating in another person’s disrespect of themselves. This could mean trying to quietly take them to the side and talk to them, to let them know that they are worth so much more then the side of themselves they are showing to the world right now; or in the case of things in the media it could mean looking away, closing the magazine, not buying the mp3 etc. etc. If that man up there in the stripes thought that Miley deserved more respect what do you think he could’ve done differently?” -Theresa Costello

“The incident was, to me, very sad – but not so unexpected. Why are we surprised when a 20 year-old young woman sexualizes and objectifies herself for an audience (and to make money)? She’s acting out the messages that our culture has sent her for years. Let’s get angry at the culture that teaches girls and young women that objectifying themselves is okay. It’s not. It’s ironic that this conversation is happening on Women’s Equality Day. The performance last night with Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke was an out and out demonstration of inequality. In honor of Women’s Equality Day, let’s talk about the real issues – and let’s include men and boys in that conversation or there’s no way that we will be able to change our culture and the messages that it sends to both girls and boys about how to behave individually and how to interact with each other.” -Julie Simons

A still from Miley's entourage performance of "We Can't Stop". (Image via HuffPo)







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.