Last night, Miss Representation hosted a conversation on Twitter called #NotBuyingIt to push back against sexualized and sexist messages in big budget, big audience Super Bowl ads. (The hashtag is used for media critique year round, too.) Media literacy is a passion of mine, and I loved all the conversation sparked last night.
But then came half-time. Beyonce took the stage by storm and some started wondering, why weren't the same folks objecting to Sasha Fierce's emboldened sexiness?
Here's why: sexually confident, powerful, and beautiful women may make some people (and especially Christians) nervous, but public expressions of female sexuality are not inherently objectifying.
A woman can be sexy and desirable, and she is still human. Dancing or dressing a certain way--or simply existing in the world in a female body with breasts and feminine curves--does not turn a woman into a sexual object. That kind of thinking can lead to draconian (and dehumanizing) modesty codes and "she asked for it" rape apology.
Many ads last night treated women's bodies like commodities to be traded, invaded, won, or owned--degrading messages that reduce women to consumer objects to use, abuse, and discard. That is objectification, and it is exploitative and ugly.
Beyonce's sexy performance was not remotely the same thing--not even close:
So here, in the midst of commercials and a culture that objectified women and their bodies and in the middle of a sports spectacle that construes power in terms of violence, Beyoncé began her performance by upending the narrative. As she walked the length of the stage, Beyoncé showed more power in a handful of purposeful, defiant strides than both sports teams had during the entire first half. In short, during those few steps, walking as a woman, Beyoncé declared ownership of that stage — that stadium — and, more importantly, claimed ownership of her own body in the most misogynist and objectifying four hours of mass culture. (David R. Henson)
Women's bodies do not belong to men, corporations, or the court of public opinion. We do not exist for public consumption or critique. Beyonce is a grown woman who wore a costume on a stage; it wasn't a high school fashion show (and her bodysuit was a good deal more conservative than most swim suits at church pool parties).
Our bodies are part of our humanity, and our sexuality is, too. In creating people in the imago dei and having Jesus live a fully embodied life, God affirmed the goodness in human bodies and humanity. Female bodies are not to be feared, hidden, or ashamed of--and it's not the place of Christians to cast shame upon them either.
Now, do I think that the entertainment industry often caters to the male gaze, capitalizing on sexism, sexualization, and the objectification of women? Of course. Am I buying all the messages they're selling about sexuality, value, and beauty? Not at all.
We need to be having these conversations about media and sexuality, especially with young people, but we need to be careful with how we frame them, not conflating all expressions of sexuality with objectification. Modesty policing, body shaming, and gnostic suspicion of female sexuality do not honor women. Additionally, they betray terrible theology and won't change our culture's narratives about gender or sexual ethics.
Women are people. Men are people. Being sexy is not a crime, nor does it make anyone less human. Objectification is something that is externally projected on embodied, sexual people (like us!) who are made in the image of God (like us!). It is dehumanizing and degrading, so let's refuse to engage in it anymore with our libidos, checkbooks, or attempts at moral control.
Let's be not conformed to the patterns of this world. Let's re-train our eyes and take every thought captive.
Let's take responsibility for ourselves, our own lusts, and our judgments.
Let's honor one another above ourselves and give glory to God. We are all fearfully and wonderfully made.