No performance in recent memory did more to spark dialogue on women’s empowerment, misogyny and sexuality than Beyoncé’s Super Bowl Halftime show this past Sunday. The mixed reactions show how Beyoncé’s seemingly conflicting messages can be a conundrum for many. For those whose religious traditions place an emphasis on modest clothing, it can seem that Beyoncé is wholeheartedly buying into the woman-as-object form of marketing and consumption.
For many others, who are likely in the majority, she represents something entirely the opposite. They argue that her fierce displays of sexual energy kick aside the notion that a woman can be owned and objectified by a man. As Ashley McGuire recently commented, Beyoncé’s performances are seen as a “defiant dance of power.”
At the outset, you might ask, “Who cares? Why does it matter?” It matters because our most beloved entertainers both reflect and portend social trends and shape the collective psyche. Because of her immense appeal, and the fact that she is a role model for young women, it does behoove us to examine her with a more powerful lens. The Prophet Muhammad was such a successful social and spiritual leader because he had such a profound understanding of the culture he operated within. Muslims would do well to seek the same understanding of any culture we become a part of.
Before coming to a critique, it is important to acknowledge the largely positive effect Beyoncé and her image have had on American culture. Although we associate skimpy outfits and aggressively sexual dance moves with a culture of sexual promiscuity, her lyrics, somewhat ironically, run counter to the promiscuous bent of other popular artists. Songs such as “Halo”, “Love on Top” and her early hit “Bonnie and Clyde” revel in the ecstasy of hard fought and well earned romantic commitment.
I would contend that one of the strongest critiques one can make of popular television, films, and music is the glorification of unhealthy relationship models. Repeated retreats to “the wrong type of guy”, or the minimizing of the emotional weight of casual sex for both men and women are examples which come to mind. In contrast, not only Beyoncé’s hits, but her personal life, serve as a testament to the power of monogamy, and lets young women know that a man who lacks commitment or fidelity is not worth her time (“everything you own in the box to the left”). Seeing a beautiful young starlet waiting until after marriage to have children, and one who has never been associated with drug use or salacious scandal is something positively unique in the TMZ era. Many women do feel energized by her confident, powerful strut and find in her power a message of self-validation. For example, Beyoncé’s comfort showing off her thicker figure has helped many women feel more comfortable with their own bodies, and there is something to be said for this. No critique of Beyoncé can be socially relevant without acknowledging the above.
With that being said, I think there is room to lay the critique that Beyoncé shows recklessness, a knowing disregard, to the dangers of contributing and buying into the steady hyper-sexualization of society. While there are choreographic and other reasons for the particularities of Beyoncé’s choice of attire, in contrast with her defiance of other social norms, there is no defiance of our ever-increasing use of the female body as family entertainment and marketing tool of choice. Pelvic thrusts in a lacy outfit can convey female empowerment, but the fact that such performances are considered par for the course is generally more representative of a cultural fixation on sexual stimuli that receives a boost from the female singer’s obedience to this model. There is a place for sexuality in society, and a very prominent one, but our society, particularly the entertainment industry, has crossed the line dividing a healthy grasp of sexuality and an overwhelming obsession with nearly constant sexual stimuli. This particular imbalance is reflected in Beyoncé’s performances as well, and we should be able to grasp the nuanced effect popular artists such as Beyoncé are having on us.
On a final note, I address Muslim men in particular to be honest with ourselves. We are likely kidding ourselves if we think that watching a performance like Sunday’s is something we will learn grandiose ideas of women’s empowerment from. The same way Muslim men know when it is time to leave the mehndi or wedding party so that women can dance and enjoy themselves out of the presence of male eyes, so too should we admit when a particular performance is not something we can take wholesome pleasure or lessons from, and to refrain.
Photo Credit: nonu | photography