thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

What Beyoncé Wore

In Uncategorized on February 11, 2013 at 3:25 pm

Sarah T.

People have a lot of thoughts about Beyoncé’s Superbowl outfit.

A Huffington Post headline screamed, “Beyoncé Goes XXX at the Superbowl Halftime Show.” Conservative corners of the blogosphere fretted that Beyoncé was too sexy for the Superbowl, as well as, presumably, her car (too sexy by far). Meanwhile, some feminists and cultural critics–including people whose opinions I respect very much–expressed disappointment with the way Beyoncé’s wardrobe catered to the objectifying male gaze.

I’m not surprised that conservatives dredged up beef with Beyoncé. If the goal is for all female musicians to act and dress like pretty pretty wholesome-family-values princesses, obviously lots of them are going to fall short. (Although Beyoncé really is remarkably apple-a-day wholesome: Besides being one of the most successful performers alive, she’s a devoted wife and mother, friend to the Obamas, and ready to fight childhood obesity with the power of the Dougie.)

Reactions on the other side of the ideological fence, however, took me aback. It’s not that I disagree that part of the point of Beyoncé’s outfit—a leather bodysuit with lace accents, fishnets, and knee-high boots—was to emphasize her sexual allure. But her costume didn’t strike me as anything out of the ordinary for a pop star. Nor did her dancing seem particularly risqué. Because she is Beyoncé, she obviously looked like a blazing blinding goddess of beauty, but beyond that her appearance seemed like nothing to write home about. She definitely didn’t look XXX to me.

Partly, I’m sure, this is because I’m immersed in a culture that objectifies women all the time. My sensitivities on this issue are probably dulled. But I also didn’t spend much time thinking about Beyoncé’s outfit because I was too busy cheering for her awesome lady guitar player, and for the reunion of Destiny’s Child, and for her all-women-of-color band–a first in Superbowl history. And now that I have devoted more time to contemplating Beyoncé’s Superbowl outfit, the main thing I’ve concluded is that it’s counterproductive to spend time worrying about what other women ought to wear.

I’m not trying to deny that popular culture frequently objectifies women in ways that are dehumanizing and harmful, or argue that a Maxim cover photo of a celebrity with her thumbs in her underwear is a trailblazing monument to women’s empowerment. Nonetheless, it does not matter to me if Beyoncé performs onstage in a bodysuit or a Snuggie. Because the second I make a moral judgment about whether or not a woman should be wearing the clothes she’s in, I have lost the game.

Women already have plenty of people trying to shame them about the choices they make when they get dressed in the morning. There’s every ignoramus who dares to suggest that sexual assaults and street harassment could be prevented if only women didn’t wear short skirts or tight jeans or low-cut tops or high heels. There are the bloggers who ignore the actual words a woman has written to focus on the “ill-fitting, tatty thrift store dress” in her author photo. There’s this guy, who proclaims that all women who wear makeup do so in order to look good to men–an opinion that disregards all the ways women use makeup to perform and disguise and play, to influence and destabilize and change skins. (Let alone the gall of anyone who informs women–all women–what their real motivations are.)

Beyoncé is an extraordinarily popular performer, and part of the way she’s managed to achieve sky-touching levels of success is by, as Anne Helen Petersen says, playing the game. The woman keeps the male gaze trapped in a closet at her house, so clearly she understands how it works. Her outfits are strategic. She chooses what to wear, how to pose, whether to wear a cropped top for her GQ profile or post pictures of herself without makeup on Tumblr. And as long as she’s the one calling the shots–even if some of her choices play into patriarchal standards–I’m not going to suggest that she should look any other way, because all I can see is a giant sign that says SLIPPERY SLOPES AHEAD.

This is obviously a hugely complicated issue. But I don’t think it’s wrong for a woman to play up her sex appeal, though she certainly shouldn’t be expected to. And I also don’t think meaningful change is going to come from convincing lady celebrities to stop wearing short-shorts and ice cream bras or string bikinis. Real change comes from a place that’s deeper. Maxim covers are the symptom, not the disease.

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