Can spectacle ever just be spectacle, an end in itself? Not at this year’s Super Bowl.
In case you missed the halftime extravaganza, Latina popstars Jennifer Lopez, aged 50, and Shakira, aged 43, sang alongside children in cages while enacting scenes from a high-end strip club. Some argued that the routine had been a powerful anti-Trump statement of female empowerment (for what better way to avenge a president with a penchant for porn stars, than by presenting women like porn stars?). Others feared it was the mainstreaming of sexual depravity, the ruin of a nation’s culture and the corruption of its children.
Since I’m foreign — and don’t really understand the Super Bowl: sorry — I’ll tell you what I saw. And that’s a whole lot of leg, boob, stomach, and (this is a thing, apparently) “butt cleavage,” belonging to two beautiful — if slightly overripe — women; who pranced, prowled, gyrated, and spread their legs on stage. On the one hand, it was a genuinely impressive display of energy and sex appeal.
First up was Shakira, whose extremely flexible hips (draped in cherry-colored pompoms), you recall, do not lie. After some impressive butt-shaking, the Colombian goddess lay on the floor, the cameras sneaking some close-up shots of her panties, whereupon she bounced back up for more (much more, in fact). Next up was J-Lo, who — boobs and butt a-flashing — slid down a pole with her legs wide open (like she did in Hustlers, remember?) before teasingly wiggling her bottom in front of a man’s crotch.
Leaving nothing at all to the imagination, the performance was how I picture a pre-gladiator prostitute performance at the Colosseum. In Dominion, Tom Holland wrote that “In [Ancient] Rome, men no more hesitated to use slaves and prostitutes to relieve themselves of their sexual needs than they did to use the side of a road as a toilet.” Modern attempts to enforce such “hesitation,” without actually withdrawing the sexual invitation, have been largely unsuccessful. In The Madness of Crowds, Douglas Murray considers the male perspective in Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda” music video as a particularly pertinent example of this. Having been told multiple times to “look at her butt,” and Minaj having thrust said butt in his face, a young man initiates physical contact only to find himself having committed some terrible crime.
A similar incoherence made its way into the Shakira/J-Lo routine when an angelic chorus of young girls appeared: virginal, draped in white and silver American flags. They held hands, as a teen soloist — J-Lo’s daughter — sang: “If you wanna live your life, live it all the way and don’t you waste it.” Is that so? “Every feeling, every beat, could be so very sweet you gotta taste it.” The camera then zoomed out to the female gender symbol and the singing continued: “Let’s get loud, let’s get loud, come on turn the music up.” Shakira re-appeared to deliver the punchline: “Ain’t nobody gonna tell you whatcha gonna do. No, no.”
And with that, the performance buckled under the weight of its own hypocrisy.
“How is resurrecting every stereotype of female sexuality that feminism endeavored to banish good for women?” asked Ariel Levy in her 2005 book Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture. “How is imitating a stripper or a porn star — a woman whose job is to imitate arousal in the first place — going to render us sexually liberated?”
At least the Romans had the decency to be upfront about it. For, truthfully, the Super Bowl’s Latina-women-in-bed fantasy — attended by thousands and played before millions — was no more about Trump than it was about “female empowerment.” Instead, it was about what these things are always about: (in order) vanity, sex, money, and power.
Of course, for superhumanly attractive popstars like Shakira and J-Lo, there is nothing to lose from caricaturing female sexuality in front of the nation. Actually, there’s a lot of money and admiration to be gained. But if you aren’t rich and famous, this kind of behavior is much less glamorous.
I once interviewed a stripper who told me what life in a club is really like. She’d be caked in cheap make-up, dripping in sweat, slamming down “shot after shot after shot” just to get through her shift. She also had deal with some extremely unpleasant characters. As for what happens when we mainstream raunch culture, for one thing, teen girls — who misguidedly pick cynics like Shakira and J-Lo as role models — take to Instagram, posting pictures of themselves in swimsuits, in tight dresses, and at provocative angles. They learn from a young age that their body, and a quick dopamine-hit from “likes” on their pictures, is their best shot at validation.
It’s a trashy state of affairs. In America, the debate about the objectification of women is perpetually in circular motion, propelled by the competing forces of fanaticism and puritanism. But from the sidelines, I see something else: a whole lot of leg, boob, stomach, and butt cleavage. And a contemptible farce.