OK, I will admit that, in spite of living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I was pretty uninvested in the Super Bowl. Just really not a sports fan. I did, however, find it entertaining to track my friends’ Facebook comments throughout the trouncing, the power outage, the rally and the 49ers eventual defeat. But what interested me the most were the comments on Beyoncé’s half-time show. Some people thought it was one of the most incredible performances they had ever seen. Some people hated it. Some people thought that she was the embodiment of feminine power. Some people thought she was an emblem of sexual exploitation. Some people were offended by the booty shaking and some posted articles which declared that seeing Beyoncé as sexualized was in the prurient mind of the beholder.
Here’s what I know: when I picked up my 14-year-old daughter from a Super Bowl party that evening, it was Beyoncé’s performance, not the game, that had her aglow. She dragged me to the computer so that I could see the performance for myself on YouTube. Here’s what I saw. There the singer was onstage at the biggest homage to testosterone in the nation. She was up there with her all-female band and women dancers and the gal with flames shooting out of her guitar, having, as far as anyone could tell, the time of her life. Yes, she was powerful, receiving the homage of all those roaring fans, all those hands reaching out to her. And yes, she couldn’t have been more obviously, writhingly sexual. Which was, at moments, a bit jaw-dropping as something to watch with my teenage daughter. But the more I think about it, the more I wonder what exactly there is to object to about her hip-swinging, hair-flinging sexiness.
As I have engaged in discussion around the issues surrounding abortion, I’ve heard from a number of people who disapprovingly regard abortion as a way for a woman to shirk responsibility for her sexual choices, to have sex without having to live with the consequences. I have heard from people who are quick to remind those who will listen that sex is for procreation, and that having sex without being willing to take on procreation is a misuse of sexuality, a sexual sin. If that’s your opinion, then Beyoncé’s rampantly sexy performance would be repugnant.
But my religious tradition doesn’t say that. My religious tradition says that sexuality, in its variety of expression— bodies, in their variety of expression—are good and holy. Yes, sexuality can be abused, and sexual expression that causes physical or emotional damage to another person is wrong. But what is sinful is not the sexuality, but rather the abuse. And as far as I can tell, Beyoncé was hurting no one, being hurt by no one, having a grand old time being beautiful and talented and scantily clad in front of all those people.
But is that what I want my daughter to see? Is that the role model I want my African-American teenager to look toward? Wouldn’t I rather than she aspire to be like Michelle Obama when she grows up? Sure I would. The First Lady is brilliant and classy and refined. She is Athena, the goddess of reason. But my daughter isn’t. My daughter is a dancer, a performer, a little bit wild. She is athletic, embodied, more Artemis than Athena. When she sees Beyoncé she sees a massively talented Black woman surrounded by fans, surrounded by fire, putting her whole self out there in a glorious, ecstatic show. That’s what my daughter wants for herself—not the rigors of Harvard Law School, but the joy and the passion that she experiences when dancing. She’s a person who dwells more in her body than her head, and while school tells her all day every day that her way of being is a failing, Beyoncé put it all on magnificent display.
One day, far sooner than I will like, my daughter will make the connection between the pleasure and power of her body in dancing and the pleasure and power of her body as a sexual being. And it will be my job to make sure that she understands about protecting herself and others, about making decisions that are right for her and not just what someone else wants, about keeping her head when making choices for her body. But it will not be my job to squelch her fire or her passion or her pleasure in her big, strong, beautiful body. And if that’s what she takes away from Beyoncé at half-time, it’s OK by me.