Unless you have managed to escape all popular culture within the United States, you are likely aware that the Super Bowl happened not too long ago. You are also likely aware that Beyoncé performed the halftime show alongside Coldplay and Bruno Mars.
Even if you did not watch the event, it is likely that you have heard or read about the way that Beyoncé and Coldplay “ruined what should be a family entertainment event” by promoting #BlackLivesMatter, the LGBT community, and by making explicit gestures to the Black Panthers and Rainbow flags.
This was even a matter that was hinted at in Krissy Peterson’s post last week when she mentioned the SNL sketch, “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black.”
What is lacking from this parody, however, is any real discussion about why this would be an issue. It also conflates the idea that white individuals did not realize that Beyoncé was black and the notion that they were not used to Beyoncé being political about blackness – these are two very different issues and it is the latter that made people feel uncomfortable. While Hip-Hop and R&B started as very political forms of expression, as they began to become more popular among a white, mainstream audience, the political messages became diluted and almost unrecognizable. While they did exist within some areas of the Hip Hop/R&B world, the more popular artists were not overtly political. For example, MC Hammer’s hit song “Can’t Touch This” was an anthem about how great his music was, not a statement against police brutality. This was safe and fun music that seemed to erase racial discrimination; white people could listen to these black artists and not have to deal with issues of white privilege or racial injustice. Even though Beyoncé has gradually become more and more political (just look at her evolution from “Crazy in Love” (2003) to her girl empowerment anthem “Who Run the World” (2011)), however this politicization matched a current trend of popular feminism and focused on empowerment and not on confrontation. In this newest evolution, however, Beyoncé is full on confrontational, forcing white america to (at the very least) contend with constructions of beauty, police brutality, and white privilege.
This is not the first time that someone has used their fame or sporting events to voice their opinions about serious issues, especially about racism, however it is often met with a huge backlash against the athletes, actors, or musicians who do this. In 1968, John Carlos and Tommie Smith used their Olympic wins to make a statement in support of the Black Rights movement.
More recently, five players from the (then) St. Louis Rams made their entrance onto the field in the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” pose that was widely used to protest the death of Michael Brown and the subsequent lack of charges against the officer who shot him. This silent act caused an eruption of discontent on Twitter and other social media sites, with some individuals supportive of the message and others who were very upset about that these football players would use this venue to voice their opinion on this matter. Now, to be fair, some people were upset about the message in general however there were others who focused their discontentment on the timing and location of the message, even when seemingly supportive of the message itself. When I witnessed this happening, my colleague and I decided that we needed to look into what was happening with this incident and ended up presenting this paper at a conference, where the first question we were asked was actually more of a statement (from the moderator no less) about how it was inappropriate for these athletes to voice their opinion on such a topic. However, despite the claim that the message was not the issue, we clearly are ok with some opinions being expressed at these events as nobody seems to complain when football players wear pink to support breast cancer awareness month (as long as they do not do it outside of that month).
While a lot has been written about Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance, I wanted to take some time to think about why this performance created such an uproar. To begin to think about why this performance could be considered such an affront to some people, we need to understand the role and place that football, and especially the Super Bowl, has in popular culture within the United States. I want to start by proposing that, while not conventionally religious, the following of football shares many commonalities with other religious beliefs and habits and constitutes what I consider to be a secular US religion. It is because the Super Bowl is this sacred (white, cisgender, heterosexual male) location that many individuals felt offended by Beyoncé’s statement that seemed to be an affront to the norms and rituals that typically surround the event.
When you think about it, football contains in it many of the symbols of US identity presented in a ritualistic way – from beginning with the Star Spangled Banner with US Fighter Jets flying overhead to a competitive sport in which anyone can win to finally celebrating the one individual who stood out. It is also a space to a complete glorification of consumerism, as there is never a moment when we are not confronted with some type of advertising (as an aside, in market research of video games, sports games are the one location that consumers wanted advertising because they could not imagine a word of sports that did not contain numerous corporate sponsors). The comparison between football and religion is one that has been made by others, (including our own blog, several times actually) so I will not spend too much time on this, as it only serves as a launching point for discussing why anybody cared about Beyoncé. I will however, say one more thing and that is that football can be seen as a “pure” part of US culture that is deeply rooted in an idea of escapism – everyone knows that there is nothing that they can do to affect the outcome of the game and that the outcome of the game rarely ever has any tangible impact on their lives (unless that person gambles significant amounts of their income on the games), yet thousands upon thousands of US citizens gather in costumes to support and root for their teams. This is a time to forget about whatever other issues you may be facing and enjoy something that is solely for entertainment. We even enjoy the commercials – something that on any other day most people will try to avoid, yet during the Super Bowl people anxiously await each new commercial to see which ones will be talked about the next day at work.
This notion of escapism is important for this conversation, because this is what Beyoncé did not allow to happen. People who tuned in to watch the game, be distracted, and eat pizza and wings were not able to just discuss what outfit Beyoncé wore for her performance, but instead were confronted with dancers dressed like the Black Panthers holding their hands up in the black power gesture singing her new song which tells police to stop shooting black men.
This is where the concept of Third Spaces becomes important for consideration. While often on this blog we speak of third spaces as existing in the digital realm, places where individuals can come together in order to coalesce around alternate readings of common cultural norms and resist the hegemonic ideals of society – they are not necessarily online. Another feature of a third space, especially ones that exist in the digital realm, is that they are, by definition, not part of mainstream culture – they actively work to fight against and resist those dominant narratives. While these can be very productive spaces, they do not always work to actively challenge thoughts and perceptions for the general public. So, in conceptualizing the Super Bowl as a sacred place that highlights the ideals and norms of mainstream US culture, we can understand why some individuals were offended by Beyoncé’s message (even if we do not agree with that fact) as people who were unhappy to be confronted with a third space that removed them from their comfort zone. The message not only made references to #BlackLivesMatter, the Civil Rights movement, and the LGBT Rights movement, but it refused to allow individuals to escape from or to be ignorant to many of the struggles of everyday life for many individuals within this nation and around the world (Chris Martin also wore an armband to promote an end to world poverty). Even last year, we saw similar (albeit not nearly as vocal) outrage over the choice for Nationwide Insurance company to feature an advertisement about a child who died – a commercial that took people away from their carefree enjoyment of the game day rituals to be reminded of the fact that there are a lot of issues with the world.
In the United States, we often fall into what some call “The Happiness Trap” in which we feel that everything that we do should be done in order to make us feel happy and that things that make us feel uncomfortable should be avoided. However, for many individuals, the happiness trap is an unattainable goal because they are constantly reminded that they are less than others on a daily basis. The happiness trap allows those within the bubble to ignore that the world is often not always a happy and safe place, and not consider those who may not be able to live in this trap. This is why we need to talk about Beyoncé’s performance at the Super Bowl and why her statement that day was such a big deal. She was not going to let anyone ignore the connections between the symbolism of her outfits and choreography with her statement about what it means to be a black woman in the United States.
Beyoncé’s performace, music video, and people’s reaction to them are only controversial or cause people to become upset in so much as issues of privilege (in this case white privilege) are often invisible to the populations benefiting from them. One of the first steps is making people aware of these “hidden” privileges, which is something that is being done in the media on an increasing basis (not just from Beyoncé), especially for audiences that feature a largely white, middle- to upper-class, heterosexual audience. The ways in which individuals and organizations are doing this is a topic that will be explored in greater depth in the follow-up to this post.
To be continued….