The 2020 Halftime Show Isn’t About Objectifying Women

It’s a courageous display of women taking up space

Cara Harbstreet (She/Her)
Feb 3 · 7 min read
Image by Roy Harryman from Pixabay

If you haven’t heard the news yet, the Kansas City Chiefs won Super Bowl LIV. After a 50 year drought, it’s fair to say the city is buzzing with a kind of energy we haven’t seen in a long, long time.

As I listened to fireworks, chanting, and triumphant celebrations in the streets outside my building, I reflected on something likely far from the minds of most. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not an avid sports fan — I couldn’t even be described as a fair-weather Chiefs fan despite having lived in Kansas City for nearly my entire life. But I am a fan of supporting women, which is why I tuned in to stream the halftime show, and the halftime show only.

Shakira and Jennifer Lopez absolutely killed it.

I was in awe of that performance.

And I wasn’t alone, although some people don’t agree with me. Social media, texts from friends, hot takes and early reviews. The internet was ablaze with opinions ranging the entire spectrum, from reverence and “Girl Power!” to slut-shaming and petitions for a GoFund Me to purchase pants for the performers.

Many were quick to claim this was an overt display of hyper-sexualized women flaunting their assets on camera and diluting the conservative family values of the families watching.

But here’s why this Super Bowl Halftime performance should be considered one for the ages.

Two unapologetic, talented, successful Latina artists shared one of the world’s biggest stages to make a statement that women can be as powerful, as sexy, as in-your-face as they want to be without explanation or justification.

If anyone feels tempted to objectify their bodies in a time like this, it’s a reflection on them and the perceived threat they feel when women are empowered to claim a public space and share a message that needs to be heard.

The double standard between men and women in our culture sucks.

This is not about reducing the gender spectrum to the binary, but rather to emphasize that the double-standard between the normalized culture creates a gap for anyone who lands outside of it.

Just think back to the dud that was the 2019 Halftime Show. Maroon 5 was the headliner, and I don’t know about you, but I barely remember what happened on the stage a year ago. The numbers weren’t impressive. And although Adam Levine did indeed remove his shirt at one point, it hardly caused the stir that Shakira and J. Lo’s outfits did.

Lopez’s black leather assless chaps were a bold move, I’ll admit. But I was loving it. Same for the flapper-esque fringe on their thigh-high, shiny, sequined bodysuits in the closing number. Throughout the set, the costumes worn by the dancers were revealing by anyone’s estimation, but I can’t say they were any more provocative than what we see elsewhere in pop culture or professional sports.

The fact that seeing two middle-aged Latina women in these outfits rubbed so many the wrong way suggests this is not about modesty. I think it has more to do with the fact that it doesn’t align with our society’s vision of what a 43- and 50-year old woman should be wearing and doing.

Why aren’t we bothered when NFL cheerleaders parade past the cameras in hot shorts and crop tops? Why was it fine for Taylor Swift to wear nearly identical numbers on her Reputation Tour, later viewed by millions on a Netflix special? Or for men to be rewarded for flaunting their masculinity and athleticism, while women must defend their every move?

I suspect it’s because these other examples are primarily young, less voluptuous, and predominately white. Enforcing the idea that there is a more acceptable way to exist, one that is more white, more demure, more culturally normalized.

There’s not only a societal double standard between men and women but between women in general. Damned if we do, damned if we don't, we can’t even get it right amongst ourselves. I hate, absolutely HATE, the idea that two or more women cannot possibly share the spotlight without it becoming a competition. I didn’t see that last night, and I don’t see that in my everyday encounters with other women.

I also hate that in order to have our voices heard, we have to play a ridiculous game of Goldilocks, trying to get it *just right* so we don’t offend or acquiese in the wrong moments. Far be it from me to say that a woman can’t leverage her sexuality to attract attention to the political and social issues important to her. So be it if we have to weather the storm of criticism to advance a dialogue or shine the spotlight on what matters to us.

I recently read a Medium piece by Vicki Larson urging us to change the narrative. Her piece spoke to the challenges of being a multi-faceted human being, particularly when the world wants to reduce you to a singular form, such as a mother, an older woman, or a sexpot trope.

Why can’t women be all of the above, and then some?

Answer: We can, and we should.

On the surface, this may look like just another pop culture moment that objectifies and sexualizes women’s bodies. But when you can direct how you look, move, and exist with an absence of self-objectification, you are actually exercising control in a profound way.

I’ve written before about why representation matters in in media and last night’s performance was a testament to exactly that. Seeing a wide swathe of color, ages, and genders gracing the stage, sharing the spotlight, and showcasing massive amounts of talent in the arts provides the inspiration and validation needed for us to pursue our own talents and passions.

The setlist in and of itself carried undertones of women’s liberation, empowerment, and celebrating diversity. From the lyrics of the opening song, Shakira’s 2009 song, “She Wolf”:

A domesticated girl that’s all you ask of me
Darling it is no joke, this is lycanthropy
Moon’s awake now, with eyes wide open
My body is craving, so feed the hungry

There’s a she wolf in the closet
Open up and set her free (ahoo)
There’s a she wolf in the closet
Let it out so it can breath

To Jennifer Lopez’s 1999 song, “Let’s Get Loud”, which was a call to seize opportunities and live a life by design:

If you want to live your life
Live it all the way and don’t waste it
Every feelin’ every beat
Can be so very sweet you gotta taste it

There’s also the line from Shakira’s 2001 song, “Whenever, Wherever” that seems to give a nod to the ethnic melting pot that is Miami (as well as America in general:

Lucky that I love a foreign land for
The lucky fact of your existence

In the era of “build the wall” and increasing tension among ethnically diverse communities, it seems fitting to me to share this subtle reminder that were it not for foreign lands, many of us wouldn’t be here at all. Had a few events played out differently, I myself would not have been born to the opportunities and freedoms my life in America allows me. It’s lost of many that they themselves may only be a handful of generations removed from a similar, fortunate twist of fate.

These songs have been around for two decades now. Can we really say we’ve progressed in those 20 years?

The lyrics weren’t the only thing forcing a reflection on the state of affairs in America in 2020. From the traditional dances to the metaphors of bondage and captivity, there were many teachable moments throughout the show.

In today’s meme culture, I applaud the courage it must have taken for Shakira to perform a traditional vocal expression straight into the camera. The zaghrouta, to an untrained ear like mine, initially sounds like little more than an overzealous vocal call. I admit it left me a little confused but Twitter was quick to swoop in with an explanation.

Screenshot by author

And sure enough, it wasn’t long before it was reduced to meme-ified versions trying to be relatable to the masses. Comparisons to a turkey call, jokes about putting incorrigible toddlers to bed, and toxic comments about sexual vocalizations abounded. In reality, it’s an Arabic expression that can be used during times of celebration or excitement.

If performing at the Super Bowl doesn’t fit that criteria, I’m not sure what would.

But perhaps one of the most stunning, and bold, commentaries of the show came when Lopez’s daughter, Emme, took to the stage to sing. Her entrance was beautiful, with artfully designed and brightly lit pods delivering her to the main stage where she joined the rest of the youth choir.

I don’t think it was accidental that the pods resembled cages.

And I got chills watching Lopez strut to the center of the stage in a custom Versace cloak with the Puerto Rican flag on one side and the American flag on the other. Their rendition of “Born in the USA” was at once entertaining, joyous, and moving. Music is meant to make you feel something, and I was feeling all of it last night.

It’s tough to summarize my thoughts on the Super Bowl LIV Halftime Performance. So I’ll use one more Shakira lyric, this time from one of her first-ever chart-toppers:

“Don’t you see, baby, this is perfection?”

Yes, yes it is.

Because when you are allowed to use your voice on behalf of underrepresented and marginalized groups of people, you get as political and loud as you need to. And I hope the subtle and overt messages displayed during the performance won’t fade from our memories anytime soon.

The Culture Corner

All things pop culture.

Cara Harbstreet (She/Her)

Written by

Lover of carbs and puns, call me Cara Carbstreet | Anxious Millennial | Coffee Enthusiast | Non-diet Dietitian

The Culture Corner

All things pop culture.

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