The conservative backlash to Beyoncé’s Super Bowl show: Objectification and slut-shaming go hand-in-hand

http://youtu.be/1rbnikVO1rs

The predictable conservative hand-wringing about Beyoncé’s Super Bowl show is exactly why the recent “feminist” slut-shaming of Beyoncé bothered me so very much. In general, if you find yourself agreeing with the right-wing modesty police concerned about “the children” (and, weirdly, also “old people”?), it’s usually a red flag.

It’s interesting–and telling–that every conservative critic I’ve seen who took Beyoncé to task for “gyrating in a black teddy” acknowledged that, aside from all that awful sexiness, she’s a great performer. Kathryn Jean Lopez says that she “is talented, has a beautiful voice, and could be a role model” if only she wore “another outfit, perhaps without the crotch grabbing.” S.E. Cupp–who is no stranger to slut-shaming herself–notes that some performers need to rely on their sex appeal, but Beyoncé is “immensely talented” so it’s odd that she “would choose to make her sex appeal the main attraction.” Though “Single Ladies” is an “ode to female empowerment and self-worth,” Cupp writes, “humping the stage and flashing her lady bits to the camera” is “sad.” Rich Lowry says her performance “was stunning and athletic,” before going on to add, “as well as tasteless and unedifying.”

But flaunting her sex appeal automatically undermines Beyoncé’s talent and credibility as “role model” for these conservatives. (Just as it did for Freeman, too.) Since there seems to be some sort of superficial agreement between feminists and conservatives that “sexual objectification” is bad, let’s pause for a second to talk about exactly what it is and why it’s bad. For conservatives, it’s generally because of the sex. For feminists, it’s generally because of the objectification. And, importantly, objectification is not about presenting yourself as as sexual being–or even as an object of sexual desire. After all, that is a normal and fairly universal human urge–who doesn’t like to feel attractive sometimes? Objectification is about being dehumanized by being reduced solely to a sex object.  

In this way, objectification and slut-shaming are intimately connected and mutually reinforcing–as we can clearly see in this case. Step #1 involves looking at a woman and instead of seeing a full, complex, and multifaceted human being, all you see is ALL TEH SEXXX. Say, for example, by watching Beyoncé’s show–where she demonstrated enormous professional skill by singing live, with an awesome all-women band I might add, while dancing her ass off in front of millions of people–and not being able to see anything besides her sexy outfit. Step #2 is deciding that women who display their sexuality in any way (and remember, you were the one who in Step #1 reduced them to their sexuality) are not worthy of admiration for all the other aspects of who they are.

These twin dynamics support a culture in which many people seem to believe that women sacrifice their right to dignity–and, ya know, basic bodily safety–if they are at all sexual. (And I do mean at all–if there’s one thing we know about slut-shaming it that it can target basically anyone. Posted a picture of yourself on Facebook? Slut.) It’s a culture in which, to paraphrase this year’s Super Bowl ad from GoDaddy, “sexy” and “smart” are considered mutually exclusive–as are “sexy” and “innocent” or “marriageable” or “self-respecting.” And it’s a culture in which too many people seem to find it difficult to understand that it is possible to simultaneously find a woman sexually attractive and treat her like a full human being deserving of basic respect.

After all, if sex is shameful and a woman is out there–up on the stage, in the bar, on the street–being all sexy, she’s already given up her “self-worth.” As S.E. Cupp asks, “Doesn’t she know that she’s too good for that?” And if not, why should you?

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13 Comments

  1. Posted February 6, 2013 at 4:34 pm | Permalink

    I would appreciate if we could stop calling it slut-shaming. It’s woman-hating. http://feministcurrent.com/6845/its-not-slut-shaming-its-woman-hating/

    Thanks.

    • Posted February 7, 2013 at 5:41 am | Permalink

      Thank you, Smash. I so agree. Thanks for saying it.

      • Posted February 8, 2013 at 11:51 am | Permalink

        Glad to hear you agree :)

    • Posted February 7, 2013 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

      I really, really disagree, and I’m sorry.

      That article is a piece of really hateful writing from an author who more or less consistently judges other women for wanting to be in touch with their sexuality… Before this, she wrote a piece that insulted women who do burlesque dancing and accused them of doing nothing but serving the patriarchy. That author would HATE what Beyoncé did in her performance… She’s probably one of the people doing the same slut-shaming.

      And I use the word “slut-shaming” because her only argument against it is “It’s an evil word that holds power over women, and therefore cannot ever be reclaimed, and should never be spoken again.” Me and the word slut have… history. Bad, bad history, and I’d probably be happy if I never heard it again, but that doesn’t mean that calling attention to its use and the power it still holds is a bad thing.

      The author of the article you linked seems to miss the point entirely. The Slutwalk – and people offended by slut-shaming – are not using the word to mean “Yeah, we want to be sluts, so what!” We’re using the word to say “This is a word that people have been using to oppress us, and that’s not okay.”

      • Posted February 8, 2013 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

        I didn’t get that from the piece at all. Hateful? Really? I’m happy to discuss this if you want to tell me which part you found to be hateful.

        As the article says, “slut-shaming” is often used to describe the way women are shamed for their sexuality or clothing choices. These women are often not self-identifying as “sluts”, so it’s somewhat offensive to use the word “slut-shaming” to describe them as it implies that they are actually sluts being shamed on that basis, when they really may not want to self-apply the term.

        Also, analyzing a practice like burlesque or slut walk through a feminist lens is not “judging”. We’re feminists, but that doesn’t mean everything we do should be immune from feminist analysis.

  2. Posted February 6, 2013 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

    I love your articles and talking about Beyonce’s place in the world right now is awesome.

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

    We should all be in awe as a black woman claimed and owned her power during the most misogynist, consumerist celebration known as the Super Bowl. Quite frankly, it only highlights Beyoncé’s brilliance and boldness.

    Perhaps as you say, people 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 either, 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!

    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.

    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.

  3. Posted February 6, 2013 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    Opposing messages: You are supposed to be sexy and love sex. But if you are sexy or have sex, you’re a terrible person.

    This is why our young people are insane. (Not to mention our old people, and everyone.)

  4. Posted February 6, 2013 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

    The author’s vivisection about sexual objectification is absurd. She says that for conservatives it’s about “the sex” which is a straw man that denies the reality of conservative sexuality (it’s obviously about the publicity), whereas for feminists it’s supposedly about “the objectification.” She goes on to say that it’s not really about objectification but the objectification of others; it’s ostensibly a problem because the viewer doesn’t additionally look more deeply into “personality and sentience,” as described by Bartky and LeMoncheck. It seems like a marketing scheme designed to guilt people into overconsumption of media in order to find a pithy substance behind the plastic façade that’s been programmed for them.

    It begs the question of universality: if it’s okay for her to do it and it’s a deliberate effect of the system she’s engaged in why is it wrong for other people to do it? The dehumanization took place long before this song and dance routine hit my TV screen and no bland hermeneutics of male gazing changes that.

    Views of objectification in philosophy go beyond sexuality; one is the concept of instrumentality: “if the thing is treated as a tool for one’s own purposes,” which is no doubt what nearly everyone does in reference to Beyoncé, including herself. The fact that both sides make no objection to the idea of Beyoncé as “immensely talented” shows the adulation involved and the desire to get on the right side of the publicity angle: who wants to alienate Beyoncé fans by making a thoughtful review of her performance? You could definitely view the show as mediocre and pseudo-sexual, or question the “athleticism” of someone who choreographs bouts of fatigue. But that would mean you’re taking the performance seriously, which is to miss the point about instrumentality.

    I challenge the author to show how Beyoncé’s performance was tasteful and edifying (i.e. Rich Lowry’s “tasteless and unedifying”) since Super Bowl performances by definition aren’t… Why should I believe that Beyoncé is “worthy of admiration” for “singing live, with an awesome all-women band… while dancing her ass off in front of millions of people?” It’s a cheap spectacle.

    • Posted February 7, 2013 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

      By that logic so are all live performances. Or recorded performances for that matter. That or it’s simply not your taste. But that doesn’t invalidate her performance. Other people liked it which is all that matters.

      Not to mention you haven’t established why the performance is NOT tasteful and edifying – sure you questioned the super bowl as a whole – but you fail to show how what she wears is relevant to whether it was a good performance or not.

      • Posted February 8, 2013 at 2:40 am | Permalink

        I’m not sure what logic you’re referring to given the density of my comment. It’s not really my intention to “invalidate” her and of course mediated performances are a mixed bag (some are legendary, others are tripe).

        The idea that “other people liked it” is not “all that matters” to an evolving artist, a real critic, or a loyal fan, but again this is to take the act seriously.

        It was entertaining at times (the stagecraft was interesting, “Single Ladies” is catchy, “Halo” is a pretty song, although I don’t really like how she sings it). It’s not surprising that her lyrics with the exception of “Halo” seem limited to men, sexuality, materialism, and independence. It’s not coming from a soulful place, which makes sense given her lifestyle.

        I briefly made the point that I was not impressed by the pseudo-sexual persona she presented based on the adulation she receives for it (she confesses it’s not a part of her personality), I found her knack for choreography and athleticism disused (e.g. strutting her stuff looked to me like treading water, laying on the ground and kneeling in front of a groping crowd bored me, dozens of women immobilized by high heels and conforming to Beyoncé’s image seemed uninspired, etc.).

        My point is that it’s not some kind of moral obligation of Proles to look deeply into show business. The half-cocked disparagement of morally bankrupt superstars by virtual nobodies doesn’t get me worked up in the least. The world is home to more than 1.29bn people suffering in absolute poverty. I’d rather not waste my compassion on the vanity of the rich and beautiful.

    • Posted February 7, 2013 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

      So what if it’s not “tasteful” of “edifying”? It is, as you have said, cheap spectacle. To expect anything else at the Super Bowl is to be looking for Shakespeare in a comic book. But that doesn’t mean that the criticisms (including yours) aren’t tantamount to slut-shaming. The author wasn’t arguing that it was “tasteful” (a culturally loaded, elitist term if ever there was one), but that the critiques of the performance were based more on a fear of sex (that manifests itself on both right and left) than on any aesthetic qualities. You appear to have entirely missed the point.

      Additionally, your reference to instrumentality is not edifying. You make no argument based on the concept; you merely mention it. One imagines that your sophomore philosophy professor is proud, but it added noting to the conversation.

      • Posted February 7, 2013 at 10:24 pm | Permalink

        Ah, but you forget that Shakespeare was also mainstream!

        I don’t restrict myself to the author’s point and exclude my opinions on the subject. Like I said to begin with my view is that the representation of conservative views is pretty dismissive and doesn’t reflect on competing views of sexualization and raunch culture. Never mind that Beyoncé’s leotard or whatever is pretty tepid; “the point” is not exactly cut and dry.

        Of course it has to be the case that I’m “slut-shaming” if you accept that shame is an inevitable reaction to criticizing sexuality, rather than a form of cognitive distortion (like anger, depression and guilt). But playing the victim in regard to my voice in the wilderness is totally absurd. If you were concerned with the moral content of my argument you might assume out of charity that my intention is not to shame but to criticize, and that feelings of vicarious shame on the part of Beyoncé’s advocates are distorting a more heterodox reality. It’s like you’re suggesting that criticizing a person’s sexuality is wrong per se. Why shouldn’t people consciously articulate their views? And why should people uncritically accept others’ sexuality if it’s used as a means of empowerment?

        I wouldn’t use the needlessly speculative construction “One imagines” but rather “I imagine,” a small point about the passive voice a teacher imparted to me.

        You’re mistaken. My argument about instrumentality is that feminists and conservatives use Beyoncé for their own purposes because she says little or nothing of substance on the topic of women’s rights. It goes well beyond sexuality; her amorality extends to all sorts of branding and endorsements. My view is that delving into “personality and sentience” is still a gloss missing the crucial point about character. You may find it unedifying but I’m not alone in concluding that Beyoncé and Jay-Z have “turned their backs on social responsibility” to paraphrase Harry Belafonte. I’m skeptical of people who worship the power of celebrities.

        I’m not particularly concerned if you find my views “elitist” for such reasons. They’re the real elitists, not some pseudo-intellectual who’s never even taken a sophomore philosophy class. My view is often shared by music professionals in regard to the vogue use of “melisma” as exemplary of “technical virtuosity” but not “quality.” And I’m sure that desiring a “tasteful” performance is no more “culturally loaded” than accusing people who want it of “slut-shaming” and sexual “objectification.” Real artistry whether popular or not bears criticism and “a supreme concern for mastery” in the words of Erich Fromm. Robert Bly also makes the point that tending our spiritual garden leads to “passion as opposed to raw sexuality,” and “cultivation as opposed to rawness,” etc.

        It would be interesting to see her fans push her to develop as a moral agent, role model and performer instead of closing ranks and taking what they can get.

  5. Posted February 9, 2013 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    I can’t believe that woman are calling this slut shamming. Beyonce is an entertainer and thats what she did half time. Beyonce is a well respected woman by many and she has much respect for herself. Beyonce is the model that I would want my little girl to follow. We are so focused on negative things and bringing woman down instead of focusing on the positive. Beyoncé Knowles has won 16 Grammy Awards, sold 88 million albums and has spent 36 weeks on top of the charts according to huffington post. She waited until she was married to have children. So who are you to say she is slut shamming. It’s 2013

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