The Super Bowl, Sex and What to Tell Your Daughters

Sunday’s Super Bowl is over. The players have gone home. The confetti has been cleared. But I have been drawn into the post game debrief conversations centered around sex and sexism at the Super Bowl. As a woman, a Christian, a wife and a mother of two young girls, these conversations are important to me.

First and most disturbing, is the news that the Super Bowl is the single largest human trafficking event in the U.S. Women in our country have made huge strides in equality in the last century and are arguably the most free women in the world. Yet sexism and slavery are alive and well. This fact is magnified during the greatest show of male athletic strength and aggression – and juxtaposes the startling disparity in power between men and women.

Contrasting man’s sexual dominance over woman, were the conversations about Beyoncé’s Half Time performance.  Some folks praised her as she “claimed and owned her power during the misogynist, consumerist celebration known as the Super Bowl”. Others decried it as a misguided misuse of sex and power.  From what I could tell, opinions were not divisible along the predictable lines of gender or faith. Both men and women, Christian or not, either loved her performance and it’s message of female empowerment or they didn’t love it and didn’t get that message. In light of the love/hate responses to Beyoncé’s performance, one blogger wondered if it was in part a result of culture’s comfort with masculinity and male sexual expression and discomfort with femininity and female sexual expression.

Moving on to the Super Bowl commercials – while some ads were fine and family-friendly, the blatant sexism of others was harder to miss than the last attempt at a touchdown during the game itself. The award for “Most Misogynist Ad” goes to a company aptly named “Go Daddy” who implies that beautiful women are dumb and smart men are geeky. Then it tops that little message off with the sloppiest makeout session because somehow a beauty and a nerd making out is the kind of sex that sells in our country. As if our sons don’t already have unrealistic expectations of women.

One of the most thoughtful articles I came across looked at the Super Bowl as a Theology of Women. One point stood out to me: if women are viewed no more highly than the consumables they are being used to hock, how do we as Christians respond to this event and what do we tell our daughters? The author, Matthew Voss, challenges us to think about how we respond to the Super Bowl and gives us some starting points:

“I wonder how we, as the people of God, might counternarrate the Super Bowl—this iconic event so disturbingly representative of what counts as sacred in our culture. In a way, our collective witness in the midst of this nation-defining event—the story we tell outside of church—is so much more important than the story we tell inside of church. For this outside story bears witness to our inside story. Will we imagine women in the way Doritos does? Will we pretend that we can simply mentally dismiss particular components of the Super Bowl “package” and in this way resist its hegemonic control? Or will we provide a compelling and alternative story about what it means to be image-bearers, in physical bodies, who live for a different sort of world. Perhaps we could suspend our practice of watching the Super Bowl, at least temporarily, as we work to construct an embodied counternarrative—an alternative to the dominant reality, a world that can be, and a world that must be. Maybe we could watch the Victoria’s Secret and Doritos ads intently and with our children—really thinking about them, rather than skipping quickly over them as though they are of little consequence for what are watching and doing. Or, of course, we can just download the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit “app,” plan our parties for Super Bowl XLVII, secret our ecclesial practices inside the church, and go on with life as normal. But what will we tell our daughters?”

In response to Voss’s article, two thoughtful bloggers discussed their decisions to boycott the Super Bowl. Or not. Meanwhile some of my Facebook friends chose to turn off the TV during the Half Time show. My husband and I took a different tact. We allowed our daughters to watch the Half Time Show with us. We knew what to expect from Beyoncé and it was definitely something that gave me pause. I didn’t feel quite ready to open the can of worms with my daughters, but when will I ever? In the end, we decided to use it as a teaching moment and the launch of a long conversation that we will have with them as they grow and mature.

During the show, we noticed and appreciated the all female cast. We talked about how women can do many of the same things men can do. My youngest daughter thought it was cool that the musicians were all women. We discussed the hard work and preparation that went into the show. We admired the women’s talent. We “oohed and aahed” at the set and stage design, and discussed how we can, with great discipline and drive, master our crafts. At the same time, we also discussed what is appropriate and not when it comes to the way we dress and dance. As a mom, there were moments during the show when I cringed. I wish I didn’t have to start this conversation with my girls. I wish we lived in a different world where sex and sexism weren’t part of the equation. But we don’t. And it is. It was by no means an exhaustive conversation, but a starting point that was appropriate for their ages and maturity levels. Our continuing goal as parents is to teach them the skill of critical thinking – to help them learn to think for themselves by identifying good ideas as well as ones that don’t line up with kingdom values.

If I’m to be entirely honest, I enjoyed the show. I was in awe of Beyoncé’s talent, her drive and discipline to master her craft. I also appreciated the female empowerment message she was trying to send, even if I feel in some sense that it’s mixed. I can appreciate beauty in all its forms, and make no mistake, Beyoncé and company, as well as their performance was beautiful, strong and affirming in some ways. To the majority of American women who are dissatisfied with a body that doesn’t meet the American beauty standard, she taught us that we can be comfortable in – even love – the thighs God gave us.

Did she need to dress scantily to give a great performance? No.

Was I traumatized by it? No.

Do I want (and want my daughters) to emulate her oozing onstage sexuality? Uh, no.

Did I expect her to be a role model of godliness? No. She’s a pop star, not Mother Theresa.

But does she have nothing to offer me because she doesn’t exactly line up with my ideal of an empowered woman or even a godly one? Once again: no.

What I want to teach my girls is something I think evangelicals often miss: That we can learn truth even from those who do not live within the confines of our faith. Just because something is secular doesn’t mean we cannot find something of the sacred within it. All truth is God’s truth. At the same time, by thinking critically, we can identify areas where kingdom values are lacking and look for ways that we can bring them to bear. That’s what I want to teach my daughters.

I really don’t know where to begin to create a counternarrative to the sex and sexism that pervades the Super Bowl, but for me, the conversations in the blogosphere and at home are a start.

So how did you handle the Super Bowl? What did you think of the ads, the Half Time Show and the game itself? If you have children, especially daughters, how did you handle it with them and why? What can we do to construct a counternarrative that values women and puts sex in its proper context?

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11 Responses to The Super Bowl, Sex and What to Tell Your Daughters

  1. Jen … First things first. Welcome to Bloodstained Ink. I really enjoyed the article and I’m really looking forward to hearing your voice on a regular basis.

    With regards to your post, I had a question. Hypothetically speaking, let’s say you had all boys instead of girls. Would you (and your husband) have wanted them to watch the Beyonce performance? And if not, why not?

    Again, welcome aboard!

    • jennifereaby says:

      Scott, thanks for the welcome! I’m glad to be a part of BSI.

      Your question is a really good one and honestly, I hadn’t really thought about it. That’s difficult for me to say, but I’m not sure that my choice would’ve been too different. While I have taken the lead in these discussions with my girls, I’d want my husband to take the lead in the discussion with boys. I think that what a man models in his views and treatment of women to his sons would probably carry more weight than anything a mother could say about how women should be treated and viewed. Typically I am the libertine in this marriage; I’d okay kid shows that he outlaws and yet he was the one who allowed them to watch the Half Time Show before I knew what was happening. As I mentioned in the post, I took pause at this and it’s usually the other way around. I asked him why he thought we had a “role reversal” in this case, and what he said makes me think I could speak for him and say he would let sons watch. His parents did a great job of framing sex in the context of marriage. He didn’t grow up feeling shame for being attracted to the opposite sex. Anecdotal conversations with his father let him know that it was okay to be aware of female bodies, in a respectful way. All this to say, that my husband is raising our girls the way he was raised; watching and discussing and it’s not a stretch to guess he’d say the same for boys if we had them. But let me also add there were indeed restrictions in his childhood home and there are some in our home too.

  2. Richard Armour says:

    Kids are all gone. (2 boys, 1 girl) So no lessons in my household other than for me. I didn’t watch past a few seconds to honor my wife of 36 years with my eyes. My line in the sand when the kids were at home was MTV. I found that to be the most offensive channel on basic cable back then. I did not let them watch and explained in detail that I did not want them to think or live their life as if MTV was to be any kind of norm. I still find no redemptive qualities in MTV no matter how much talent there may be there. We all do the best we can for our kids in protecting them, and preparing them for world hostile to their faith. I do have one question for you though. You speak of female empowerment. Wouldn’t Biblical thinking be there is neither male or female in Christ? Many ills have come of male empowerment. I don’t know if female empowerment is the answer for that. Seems like another troubled road to go down. I always taught my 29 year old daughter in this way and thank God she has turned out to be a “powerful” person in faith, vocation, and in life.

    • jennifereaby says:

      Thanks for your reply. How wonderful that your reasons for not watching the show were to honor your wife (a woman). That’s the point of this post. If your actions expressed that to her, that’s beautiful and affirming. As woman/wife, it didn’t bother me at all that my husband watched and even enjoyed the show, it’s not a issue for us. But I do appreciate that it is for others. I can relate to drawing a line in the sand at MTV. I was not allowed to watch that growing up, but I didn’t have a choice to at home because my family didn’t have cable. But don’t be fooled into thinking that I didn’t when I was in a home that had it! All that to say, that in this post I am by no means saying that we should not have restrictions. I’m just pushing back on the evangelical tendency to restrict everything that is secular.

      Your question about female empowerment is interesting. Yes, in Christ (and in the church) there is no male or female, etc…That is why I’m egalitarian in my theology. As I raise my daughters, I will certainly point them to Christ’s teachings so they know where they stand as a woman in the body of the church. Interestingly, even within the body, I find inequality where that truth is not lived out. But when I look out at the world, we use a different language. In Christendom, it’s Christ who gives us “power”. In the world, power is given and taken by humans. In this sense, I think empowering women is an important thing to do and as much as I can do that with my children I will. I will have to flesh out the reality that men and women are equal in Christ in the church and help them figure out how to bring that to bear in the world. If I’m misunderstanding your question, let me know. As your daughter has turned out to be a “powerful” person in her life, I’m open to hearing how you helped her grow to be so. That’s what I want for my daughters too.

  3. Richard Armour says:

    I think we are mostly on the same page though I would not make a distinction between living our life in the church, and living our life in the world. We are called as men and women to live in Truth and dispense it with grace. Equal in God, but with different roles and responsibilities that overlap and intertwine. If you truly show love to people in the world that takes care of the religiosity and “churchspeak” problem. We taught Alyssa to live like this not so much in a theological sense but by how we conducted ourselves, our marriage, and how we treated all of our kids. We did take extra care with Alyssa because of her mild form of dyslexia, and having to repeat the 2nd grade because of that. (That’s when I found out little girls are meaner than little boys) When she would come home crying and feeling like she was “stupid”, we would never let that stand. She had to work 3 times as hard as her brothers but graduated Illinois State with a 3.2. Now she is a professional photographer and graphic designer, and runs a business with confidence for her sexist Assyrian boss. She also loves Christ and lives her life accordingly. Am I bragging? Anyway, we are very proud of who she has become on her own with some help from her mother and I. We never did teach her about “empowerment” as a tool to find equality with men. Sometimes I think that sets up a weird kind of competition between the sexes in the world. We just raised her to be proud of her femininity, and to know what that means in Christ, and not to care what the world thinks about it.

    • jennifereaby says:

      Your daughter sounds like a fantastic woman and it’s wonderful that you’re bragging on her! I think we are really on the same page. You said, “We taught Alyssa to live like this not so much in a theological sense but by how we conducted ourselves, our marriage, and how we treated all of our kids.” To me, that’s “empowerment” through modeling. It takes a theological truth and brings it to life, speaking out/going against cultural norms. I don’t use the word “empower” with my girls. Rather, like you, I discuss and model what I believe. I know some might take exception to this, but as an example, I felt “empowered” when I saw Beyonce go against the cultural beauty standard and love the body God gave her. In a world that tells women their outward beauty is measured against a certain standard, she bucked it and told us all she doesn’t have to meet it all to be happy about her beauty. Maybe the problem with thinking about empowerment is more an issue that arises in this secular example: the way that empowerment is communicated? In this case, many have taken issue with the way communicated Beyonce empowerment through her dress (or lack of it).

  4. Richard Armour says:

    Totally agree. Leading our daughters in different ways towards the same ends. Beyonce is a bridge to far for me as an example. Not so much the costume but the overt sexuality of the dance moves. Whether it is my evangelical tendencies, or generationally I’m old school, I would look elsewhere for my examples. There are plenty of them out there.

  5. Sybille kostelny says:

    There was one word that popped out to me in your post and maybe you can elaborate on it. You said you ” cringed”. That’s exactly what happened to us and we chose to turn the TV off till the game resumed. If children would have been present we would have explained our choice. Titillating suggestive entertainment is not what I’d want my children to accept as honoring to the Lord. Teach them , as you said. But teach them to make wise, discerning decisions that build and edify their faith.

    • jennifereaby says:

      Thanks for responding. Had my children not been there, I wouldn’t have cringed. I wrote, “As a mom, there were moments during the show when I cringed.” I’ll be honest, the thought of having to talk to my girls about sex/sexism makes me cringe, but I have to get over that. If I don’t talk to them about it, someone else will and there are large ramifications if I fail to step up. As a woman, it didn’t offend my sensibilities because in context of the event, it wasn’t out place. This kind of show during Half Time is par for the course and has been for some time. So, I knew what to expect from it. As for “honoring to the Lord”, it’s wasn’t a church service, so no, I didn’t expect it to be that either. And our decision to allow our children to watch it was for the purpose of building and edifying their faith. That was the point of the post. I don’t think that a defacto response to avoid everything secular and that isn’t “God honoring” is very helpful. We live in a real world that doesn’t honor God. At some point in their lives, my children will be exposed to this kind of entertainment when I’m not there. And I’d rather open the lines of communication with them when I am around so I can teach them to think critically about what it is they are consuming.

  6. Sybille kostelny says:

    Yes, I wholeheartedly agree that half time shows are not church services. But I think you’ve missed my point. We live, breathe and have our being in Christ no matter if we are at church or watching football. Therefore our lives are to certain degree a constant worship of the One who ransomed us. I know we can’t live in a bubble and neither will our children but we can guard and filter what we allow to permeate our minds.

  7. jennifereaby says:

    I get your point, Sybille. I think what we may disagree on is what we define as constant worship. Yes, we can guard and filter what we allow into our minds. I notice you use the word “filter” because that is what I view critical thinking to be. Using my mind critically is an act of worship and faith. And I also think perhaps you and I have very different tolerance levels for how we think critically. And I’m okay with that.

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