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Super Bowl show poses questions of sex, sexism and double standards

Alyssa Rosenberg



Shakira and Jennifer Lopez. Photo: Reuters

Shakira and Jennifer Lopez. Photo: Reuters


Shakira and Jennifer Lopez. Photo: Reuters

What is more obscene, sex or war?" Woody Harrelson, playing the pornographer Larry Flynt, asks in the movie 'The People vs Larry Flynt'. The Super Bowl half-time show posed a more complicated version of this question: what's more obscene, sex or sexism?

The show, starring superstar singers Shakira and Jennifer Lopez, was intended to accomplish a number of things: to boost the American National Football League's lagging Latino viewership, to nod to Miami's Latino cultural traditions, and to provide a spectacle more engaging than last year's wholly generic performance by Maroon 5.

The two Latina headliners sparked conversations about a range from the role of zaghrouta in Arab cultures to Puerto Rico's essential Americanness.

But one debate overshadowed the rest: whether Shakira and Lopez had dominated the stage - or been demeaned by a show that was undeniably sexy.

The Super Bowl is one of the manliest cultural displays on Earth, a celebration of huge men doing lightly regulated violence unto themselves and each other.

So it's easy to miss that Super Bowl LIV's half-time show and the response to it offered a concise statement of the challenges and contradictory imperatives that women, even ones without Las Vegas contracts, are facing today.

J-Lo entered the stage on a stripper pole, wearing leather chaps that gave way to a bedazzled, barely-there bodysuit, while Shakira's already tiny outfit shrank as the night went on. Both women looked astonishingly good for their respective ages, which are 50 (Lopez) and 43 (Shakira). More importantly, they both have to look the way they do if they want to keep making a living in the same way.

The unholy union between sexism and capitalism means that women in the entertainment business are expected to maintain and display their bodies to a truly preposterous degree.

Few men - those who play increasingly ripped and depilated superheroes excepted - are expected to rise to the same level.

One of Shakira and J-Lo's shared gifts as performers is the ability to come across as commanding up on that enormous stage.

But you only get to present yourself as that free in front of an audience that big if you've already reshaped yourself to become what the audience wants to consume.

And that appearance of liberation is constantly at risk.

The ghost of Janet Jackson, whose 2004 "wardrobe malfunction" at the hands of Justin Timberlake effectively made her a pariah in the music business, haunts every female performer at a Super Bowl show. Shakira's and J-Lo's costumes stayed firmly in place.

But Fox seemed determined to remove all mystery anyway, aiming cameras at their crotches so frequently.

The only way - and the more fun way - out of a mess is through it.

If you're inevitably going to be valued based on your body, you might as well make a whole lot of money off the one you've got.

If you're inevitably going to be characterised as a whore or a Madonna, why not insist on the best of both, as J-Lo did when she alternated between working a stripper pole and delivering a moving duet with her daughter?

Women such as Shakira and J-Lo have found a way to survive these double standards and turn the competing imperatives to their advantage.

But that doesn't mean the deal is good. It just means women are resilient - too resilient to give in to the sexism of a system that demands women make a living off their bodies and then blames them for giving the market what it demands. (© Washington Post)