A Defiant Dance of Power, Not Sex: Beyoncé, the Super Bowl and Durga

A Defiant Dance of Power, Not Sex: Beyoncé, the Super Bowl and Durga February 4, 2013

If what you saw onstage last night at the Super Bowl’s halftime show was a singer wearing too little clothes, let me suggest it is says more about the eye of the beholder.

If what you saw was a singer selling sex to the masses in a skimpy outfit, let me suggest you saw what you hoped to see.

If what you saw was an offensive, inappropriate hypersexual display of legs and barely covered unmentionables, let me suggest you saw only what you were staring at, not what actually happened on that stage.

If what you saw was a performer causing men (and women) across America commit the sin of lust in their hearts, let me suggest you completely missed the point.

Because Beyoncé’s performance Sunday night in New Orleans wasn’t about sex. It was about power, and Beyoncé had it in spades. In fact, her show was one of the most compelling, embodied and prophetic statements of female power I have seen on mainstream television.

That a Black woman claimed and owned her power during the misogynist, consumerist celebration known as the Super Bowl only highlights Beyoncé’s brilliance and boldness.

It’s no wonder some people attempted to wrest back control over her and her body by marginalizing her performance by sexualizing it.

Was Beyoncé attractive, sexy even? To be sure. But more than anything, she was powerful. Few things are more threatening to a male audience than a beautiful, powerful woman who doesn’t need a man, or even a male gaze.

Perhaps folk didn’t consciously notice there wasn’t a single male performer on stage. But for those few minutes, there were no male voices and no male bodies in control, only women who refused to be owned. And it wasn’t women just dancing up there, though the cameras largely focused on that. The women onstage were creating, everything.  They appropriated traditional male images and transformed them female ones — not women just imitating men. They were claiming roles and instruments traditionally held by men: the horns and saxophones, the pyrotechnic guitar solo.

They were fierce, but refused to be masculinized or objectified.

A number of my male friends scoffed at Beyoncé, posting insults like “worst halftime show ever” and “get this crappy excuse for music off the field.” One simply labeled the entire performance “Breasts of the Southern Wild,” a decidedly racist and sexist quip. My friend Joy has even more here.

The response from my female friends were markedly different. One exclaimed, “Her body is amazing! I love that she has meat on her bones! I want her figure and her stamina!” Beyoncé’s body is important — not because it is hypersexualized — but because it was a women’s body only, not a woman’s body sculpted for a man.

So here, in the midst of commercials and a culture that objectified women and their bodies and in the middle of a sports spectacle that construes power in terms of violence, Beyoncé began her performance by upending the narrative. As she walked the length of the stage, Beyoncé showed more power in a handful of purposeful, defiant strides than both sports teams had during the entire first half. In short, during those few steps, walking as a woman, Beyoncé declared ownership of that stage — that stadium — and, more importantly, claimed ownership of her own body in the most misogynist and objectifying four hours of mass culture.

It takes a warrior to be able to do something like that. No surprise then that halfway through (6:04), the Hindu warrior goddess Durga shows up, incarnated by Beyoncé. Against the pop-up screen, hands emerge and encircle Beyoncé from behind. These are not male hands. These are not Justin Timberlake’s hands threatening to disrobe her in a “wardrobe malfunction.” These are her hands and they reach out and around her, not to possess her but to expand her power.

Durga at Kumartoli
Copyright Shahnawaz Sid

Durga is a fitting image for Beyoncé’s performance last night. Durga, whose name means a fort which cannot be overrun. Durga, the mother, the warrior, the protector from evil. Durga, the female warrior who battles demons, who defeats them.

For the past two weeks, criticism has been heaped on top of Beyoncé for lip-syncing the national anthem at President Barack Obama’s inaugural festivities. She has been lampooned and dismissed. But last night, Beyoncé laughed last.

When the former members of Destiny’s Child left the stage, Beyoncé erupted into a powerful dance number. In that moment, it seemed Beyoncé was dancing on the fresh graves of sexism, male supremacy, all her talking-head concern troll critics that sought to reduce her to anything other than the powerful woman and artist she is. She dared them to think of her as something less than beautiful, something less than talented, something less than powerful, something less than a woman.

It was a dance of defiance.

And all the women on stage joined in.

There was no shame.

This is a gift Beyoncé gave to the world last night in her performance. For 14 minutes, women were owned by no one. Instead, for those few prophetic and powerful minutes, Beyoncé and the women onstage with her owned the night.

Last night, men, misogyny, objectification, or sexism didn’t win, even though they got most of the airtime.

Rather, last night, thanks to Beyoncé, women owned Super Bowl XLVII.

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UPDATE: I have written a follow-up here all the challenging and helpful conversations and criticisms that have occurred following this post. Thank you all for commenting and reading.

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