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?