Pole-erized: The Ladies of Super Bowl LIV

If you can’t please 100 million Super Bowl viewers, who can you please? This seemed to be the question put to women this week. I didn’t watch the game. I haven’t in many years. Last year I spent Super Bowl Sunday attending a one-woman feminist art and music performance. This felt like a satisfying way to not support a million-dollar industry with an atrocious record on domestic abuse and gender equality.

There are three components to the Super Bowl: the game, the commercials, and the halftime show. Maybe four if the New England Patriots are in it that year and you count cut-away shots to Irish pubs in Boston with people doing keg stands on fire escapes and mooning passing motorists on the Zakim Bridge. What can I say? We are a proud people. Of the trio, the halftime show never fails to polarize. I’m convinced that a puma could run out on the field and try to mate with one of the teams’ mascots, but people would still feel very strongly about The Red Hot Chili Peppers being out of tune. So it was with Shakira and J-Lo.

According to social media, a lot of people did not like this halftime show. Also according to social media, a lot of people loved this halftime show. I’m heartened to see that we are willing to dig our heels in and take a stand on something! This is refreshing. We don’t have anything else to feel strongly about these days, so thank you Shakira and J-Lo for pulling us out of our stupor and forcing us to articulate opinions about the square footage of spandex. This is vital stuff indeed.

I watched the show on YouTube and struggled to be incensed or lauditory. The performance felt very on brand for both women. Did I miss the Shakira tour where she showed up in something from the Ann Taylor collection? More than a few people took note of J-Lo’s stripper pole work, casting it in the pejorative, needlessly tacky or tasteless. I found myself thinking deeply to the effect of: What if she had used a rope or series of pulleys and swings like a Cirque du Solei performer? Would that have made it less smarmy-seeming? Or would it have just made it more BDSM-ish? Wait, are the Cirque du Solei shows simply giant traveling sex spectaculars disguised as “dance acrobatics?” They do tend to use a lot of scarves and harnesses after all. That’s when I knew that maybe I was also guilty of wanting a little too much from this stick of pop culture candy.

Nevertheless, when you hand over such an awesome chunk of exposure to anyone, it makes sense for expectations to run high. Both women made powerful statements about cultural identity and inclusion, which was no small thing given the xenophobic, racist policies of the current administration. Both showcased their respective prowess as dancers, which also deserved a huge amount of respect. When I was a teenager, I auditioned for a regional production of Grease. As part of the audition we had to learn and perform a 16-bar dance sequence from the “We Go Together” finale song. I still break out into flop sweat picturing myself messing up steps, flailing around on stage to some kind of Philip Glass time signature. And I wasn’t even wearing heels or booty shorts.

A few friends said they were dismayed that the women didn’t do much to elevate their gender. That got my attention. The first rule of feminism states that pearl clutching is never just pearl clutching. The second rule states that a monthly offering must be made to our patron saint of badassery, Ruth Bader Ginsberg. I thought, now we’re getting somewhere beyond the knee-jerk reaction that all the thrusting and twerking was unpleasantly aggressive and demeaning; it was as if these pop stars were trying too hard to be SO SEXY (all caps) that they cheapened their talents and themselves.

Whenever the locus of women’s power is concentrated solely in her body and pointedly yoked to consumerism and massive objectification, that’s a problem. I’m not sure that’s what was happening in the show. Presumably, J-Lo and Shakira worked with the producers to choreograph the look, style, and overall execution of the performance. I can’t imagine one of those meetings including the sentence: “Can we make it less flashy? Could I wear one of those bee keeper jumpsuits and, like, get a comfortable chair to sit in while I sing?”

However, I understood my friends’ disappointment. I want any women who have considerable influence and a significant platform to use those things to fight for gender equality in any way they can. I want them to make the smart, provocative, empowering moves that turn the tide, that change attitudes, and shift policies. And if that means possibly tanking your entire career on live television in front of a 100 million people, so be it. The fate of the sisterhood hangs in the balance (where it’s been hanging since the first cave man said to his wife, “Maybe if you smile more while skinning deer.”). Is this so much to ask? Maybe so. After all, we also have Gwyneth Paltrow trying to convince us that our vaginas smell like sandalwood and bergamot. Perhaps if you went a little nuts with your smudging stick, I guess? Not everyone wants to be the champion of more than their own bottom line, not everyone is up to the task of taking risks and refusing to back down from their convictions. Nor should we demand it. We can hope, we can nudge, we can ask loudly and strongly suggest this of our public figures and icons, but ultimately it’s their call as to how to use their voice and what to use it for.

And when they don’t live up to our expectations, when they fumble the ball, we should remember that we might not have their reach, but we have voices and responsibilities of our own.