Monday, February 4, 2013

What Super Bowl Halftime Shows Reveal About Us

The halftime show at the Super Bowl reminded me yet again that we live in a very confused culture.   
On the one hand, we hear a myriad of voices rightly warning us about the ways in which women are objectified in our society.  Maybe it's because there is already a recognition bias built into all of us. Both men and women tend to see women as a conglomeration of particular parts rather than a complete person. We even manage to do this when pictures are upside down. It seems sensible to warn us away from a cultural trend wherein we are increasingly bombarded with images and messages that bolster an already flawed way in which we all perceive women.

On the other hand, we use our biggest platforms to celebrate one of our most serious problems.  Beyonce may be a very nice person, and she certainly is a talented singer, but dressing up in leather lingerie complete with the standard wardrobe malfunction (no, I'm not linking to it) is hardly striking a blow for a renewed appreciation of women as women.

Unfortunately, just about every form of media portrays women in ways that increasingly influence us to view them not as people worthy of respect and honor but as a conglomeration of parts meant to entertain us. There's a name for this: sexual objectification.
  • The International Women's Initiative has noted: "Sexual objectification occurs when a woman’s body or body parts are singled out and separated from her as a person and she is viewed primarily as a physical object of male sexual desire.... [it] is likely to contribute to mental health problems that disproportionately affect women (i.e., eating disorders, depression, and sexual dysfunction) via two main paths. The first path is direct and overt and involves SO experiences. The second path is indirect and subtle and involves women’s internalization of SO experiences or self-objectification." 
  • Tamar Saguy led a team of Israeli and US psychologists in a study seeking to quantify the existence and impact of objectification. Saguy’s study was "one of the first to provide evidence of the social harms of sexual objectification – the act of treating people as “de-personalised objects of desire instead of as individuals with complex personalities.”
  • The L.A Times reported a story that shocked nobody anywhere: music videos objectify women. Cynthia Frisby, an associate professor of strategic communication, noted:  “The images coming from these music videos are very powerful and influential. Young audiences may interpret these sexually objectifying images as important ways to be seen as attractive and valuable to society, especially with how pervasive these videos are throughout our culture.”
  • Ms. Magazine's blog notes that we are a culture filled with widespread sexual objectification, and that "women (especially) tend to view themselves as objects of desire for others. This internalized sexual objectification has been linked to problems with mental health (clinical depression,“habitual body monitoring”), eating disorders, body shame, self-worth and life satisfaction, cognitive functioning, motor functioning, sexual dysfunction, access to leadership  and political efficacy." 
  • Felicia Reid, writing for, concludes "When Objectification Sells and Women Buy It" in this way: "Progress demands that women disassociate from objectification’s strictures by increasing positive presences and refusing to participate in its alignments. Action with these aims must be absolute, less fractured and marginalized. How does society take a more meaningful step? How do women?"
  • Fashion designer Norma Kamali has at least tried to take a meaningful step. After watching Bridesmaids, she started a website called Stop Objectification. It may or may not accomplish its goal, but it's an effort, which is more than CBS can say.
Cameron Diaz once remarked that all women want to be objectified. Apparently she was not aware of Ms. Kamali's website. Perhaps the best response to Ms. Diaz came from the Huffington Post's  Mary McGill, who noted: "Being objectified is not a compliment. No one ever changed the world because they learned to walk in heels that require a pilot's licence. Jumping up and down to participate in your own objectification is generally not a good look."

"Jumping up and down to participate in your own objectification is generally not a good look." Dare I say that neither is "aggressive, sexually charged, hip-thrusting"  during a Super Bowl half time show?  It may well have been "the sexiest Super Bowl halftime since 2004," but why is that a reason to applaud, exactly?

    There have been competing stories about the increase in sex trafficking and prostitution during the Super Bowl. Whether or not those numbers are accurate (other sources suggest the numbers are exaggerated or untrue), everyone is noting a disturbing increasing in the number of men worldwide who are willing to pay quite a bit of money to treat women as objects of entertainment, self-gratification and pleasure, not as actual people who deserve to be viewed and treated with respect and dignity.

On the one hand, most of us cringe when we see how brutally objectification impacts the weakest and most vulnerable.  On the other hand, many of us either write or agree with rave reviews when the beautiful and powerful help to create a climate in which that mindset flourishes.

Apparently, we are entertained. And in our culture, that's all the justification many of us need.


  1. For a woman, sexual objectification is a means of power and control. Like Esau, she sacrifices her "birthright" for a mess of pottage. She sells her soul (her personhood) to gain the world. It doesn't help, of course, that society tells her that her value is in being devalued. Jesus says to seek Him instead to find her true worth. [Michele Marshall]

    1. I wonder if the desire for power and control stems from living in a culture where women often feel powerless and controlled by the men in their lives. Perhaps these trends could reverse if men acted with honor and integrity.

  2. Thank you for this post. As someone who is trying to raise awareness around the issue of human trafficking this really hits home.

    1. Your cause is a worthy one. If this post can contribute in even a small way, I am grateful.