What the Super Bowl Halftime Show Really Taught us

Referring to the much-discussed half-time show that took place at the Super Bowl earlier this month, Hannah Yasharoff asked an intriguing question at USA today: “In a #MeToo era, is a show filled with scantily clad women, suggestive dance moves and pole dancing really what we should be promoting?

I didn’t watch the half-time show, or even the Super Bowl for that matter. Yet after hearing about Jennifer Lopez and Shakira’s controversial performance, I found myself asking a similar question to that of Yasharoff. How are these types of displays empowering to women when they normalize their objectification, promote conceptions of the good life that encourage the worst elements of our over-sexed society, and influence the still-forming arousal profiles of young boys?

Given these concerns, you can imagine my surprise when Yasharoff went on to answer her own question as follows:

But the #MeToo movement is about exposing wrongdoing and allowing victims to take back power. What better way to honor that than putting women in the driver’s seat? In the debate over whether something is empowering or objectifying, it’s important to check who holds the power. Lopez and Shakira did nothing Sunday night if not command power.

Having a choice is big here: Concerns about objectification arise when the women in question don’t have a say, or feel pressured into performing a certain way. The empowerment comes from the women onstage deciding on their own terms that they want to show off not just the way their bodies look, but all that they’re capable of doing.

There is much we might question about this assessment. Consider the issue of pressure. Yasharoff observes that objectification arises when women “feel pressured into performing a certain way.” This is true, but it hardly helps Yasharoff’s point, for an entire body of social science now exists that link the ubiquity of this type of entertainment with the pressure young girls feel to act out in a certain way. This includes the pressures that have arisen from an increasingly industrialized and monochromatic notion of what it means to attractive. (I have discussed this in more detail in my Salvo article “The Drug that Fuels Human Trafficking.”)

But leaving that point aside, the really interesting thing about Yasharoff’s assessment is the way she–in concert with so many others–is content to collapse female dignity to a narrow concern about not being victim of violence. Do we really want to live in a world where the assertion of female empowerment has been reduced to women “deciding on their own terms that they want to show off not just the way their bodies look, but all that they’re capable of doing”? Have we lowered the bar to such an extent that concern about objectification only applies to criminal behavior, and not to a dozen men surrounding a half-naked Jennifer Lopez and collectively groping her legs?

Violence against women must always be fought, but that is not enough. The best way to work against misogyny and violence is through encouraging society to put a high premium on the virtues, including the virtue of treating each other as persons and not as sex objects. Earlier feminists recognized that virtue is empowering to women, yet the modern feminist movement has generally retreated from this stance, preferring instead to define empowerment in terms of omission and the absence of violence. Ironically, this has hollowed out any context for opposing violence from the high ground of human dignity. The real tragedy of this progression can be seen in the cavalier treatment of rape among some feminists (for examples, see my article “The Massacre of Valentine’s Day.”)

Plato and Aristotle understood that art is always political – it always teaches us something about ourselves. For example, the ancients believed that certain forms of music inspired the martial virtues, others poetic inspiration, and so on. That is why Plato advocated strong censorship of music for his ideal republic. Plato was basically correct (at least, as concerns music, not censorship), as I showed in my article ‘Music: Myths, Meanings, Messages and Mediums.’ Music and dance bring with them inherent meanings that are independent of intentionality. Aristotle also agreed, “Music,” the great Athenian philosopher is widely quoted as saying, “directly imitates the passions or states of the soul.” He continued,

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“when one listens to music that imitates a certain passion, he becomes imbued with the same passion; and if over a long time he habitually listens to music that rouses ignoble passions, his whole character will be shaped to an ignoble form.”

If this is true of music by itself, it is even more true of music when combined with a multi-media presentation involving song, dance, and costume. Through music, dance, and costume, we command power. Hannah Yasharoff is right about that much. Lopez and Shakira did command power, but what type of a society were they empowering?

Disclaimer: the quote from Aristotle is widely attributed to him on the internet, but I have yet to track down the original source to verify the quotation.

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