Feb

05

2013

Trillia Newbell|10:00 PM CT

Beyoncé: Power or Bondage?

Bold, black, and beautiful, Beyoncé took center stage at halftime of Sunday night's Super Bowl. Commanding the stage in a black leather swimsuit (?) and boots, she strutted as she sang several familiar pop tunes.

She certainly grabbed attention. But what was the message? Writing for the Progressive Christian channel of Patheos, David Henson argued, "If what you saw was an offensive, inappropriate hypersexual display of legs and barely covered unmentionables, let me suggest you saw only what you were staring at, not what actually happened on that stage." So what really happened? He writes:

Beyoncé's performance Sunday night in New Orleans wasn't about sex. It was about power, and Beyoncé had it in spades. In fact, her show was one of the most compelling, embodied, and prophetic statements of female power I have seen on mainstream television.

I agree that she powerfully embodied strength and boldness as the world would see it. But I could no longer ignore the sexual suggestiveness of her performance when she licked her finger, drug it down her body, and wrapped her hands around her head. However you interpret such an act, we can't deny that Beyoncé's performance carried a message that sexuality and sensuality are powerful and attractive.

Women say they want men to stop objectifying them, yet I wonder. Are we helping our cause with hyper-sexual performances such as Beyoncé's? I do not fault her alone. I believe she is a product of her environment, the pop music industry. Sex sells, and she's a smart businesswoman. I don't deny Henson's general premise, either, because sexuality is also powerful. Beyoncé wields power in her decision to use only female performers and musicians and celebrates it in her song "Run the World (Girls)."  Even so, I can't help but ask: How are we supporting women by celebrating when they flaunt their sexuality in public?

Equality and Empowerment

Some third-wave feminists have sought to liberate female sexuality in an effort to achieve equality and empowerment for women. In the book Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future, authors Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards explain that they wrote to bring "down the sexual-health double standard, which will require better sex education, distribution of free contraception, and elimination of the potential shame and embarrassment associated with the consequences of sexual freedom." They decry the "false perception of immorality" and speak specifically of eliminating unplanned pregnancies through abortion.

At one time, the authors observe, the images we regularly see on television would have incited feminists concerned about objectification. Now these images have become signs of liberation and power.

Historically, women's bodies in ads have always been conflated with the product, something that feminists worked hard to identify and critique. . . . But consciousness of sexist imagery has changed for the better, as have the rights of women. . . . Whether or not you believe, as Camille Pagalia and others do, that showing herself in sexual ways makes a woman feel powerful and men powerless, there are positive examples of women's "subjectification." These women aren't objects, because they hold the power.

Writing more than a decade ago, the authors cite several examples of this newfound empowerment: pop pioneer Madonna, hip-hop diva Missy Elliot, soccer pinup Brandi Chastain, and movie star Angelina Jolie. "All have parlayed their sexual selves into power in feminist ways," the authors argue. "These women aren't exploited. They are whole women—both confident and conscious."

Freedom and Power?

Year to year, the visual standard of conscious confidence changes. The skinny-cocaine model look that swept the 1980s is out. Now the sexually provocative, forward, "free" woman is in. Each shift has consequences. Ubiquitous images affect adult women as they struggle to compete with porn stars for the attention of men. And according to a shocking recent article in The Telegraph, girls as young as 13 years old feel the pressure to perform in an increasingly sexualized world. The article cites the devastating case of a young girl who died when she slipped out of a window. She threatened to jump if a young boy didn't delete a video he had recorded of their sexual encounter.

Is this the freedom and power we seek? It's naïve at best for women to believe the widespread acceptance of sexual imagery will not objectify them. And how has such empowerment aided women in practical terms? If women rule the world, why does there remain a wage discrepancy among men and women in executive positions? If women rule the world, why do sex trafficking and slavery claim more victims today than any other time in history? I don't believe this is what feminists really want for women. Sexual images sell, but the cost is high.

Even so, we Christians do not merely separate ourselves from our neighbors who believe sexuality will liberate them. Instead, like Jesus, we share the truth about the consequences of sin that leads to death. Isn't this how we love our neighbors as ourselves? All of us identify with the tax collectors and prostitutes who enjoyed the company of Jesus. We have sinned greatly in our hearts. And now we know there is a better way. The gate is wide, and the way is easy that leads to destruction. But there is a gate, even if narrow, that leads to eternal life.

We warn, we share, and we fight, for the sake of others and the sake of Christ. When our neighbors see power in Beyoncé but we see bondage to our over-sexualized culture in this fallen world, we seek to guide them to the Father who promises security and healing, whose Son claimed glory through humility. 

Trillia Newbell is a wife, mom, and writer who loves Jesus. She is the author of United: Captured by God's Vision for Diversity (Moody, 2014). You can follow her on Twitter.

  • zilch

    This is an issue for us atheists too. Although I affirm the right of women to not be ashamed of their sexuality, and even to flaunt it if they feel the need, I agree that the power of sexuality alone is not enough, and that it's likely to be commercialized and abused. Women need to be recognized for what they are: people.

    cheers from chilly Vienna, zilch

  • Anonymous

    I cannot thank you enough for responding to that Patheos article. You were far more cordial in your rebuttal than I could've been. The burden of proof rests on they who would argue that an army of near-nude women on a stage was not about sex. Unfortunately, while Henson made lots of assertions, he made not a single argument that supported his claim. Not to mention that he treated power and sex as mutually exclusive. Thank you.

  • Anonymous

    Bravo! Beautifully stated and right on target. This is a message that every feminist - Christian or not - should be able to embrace.

  • http://www.housewifetheologian.com Aimee Byrd

    Great thoughts, Trillia. There are so many layers to what was "wrong" about that performance. I am most bothered by the fact that the super bowl is supposedly a family entertainment event. That was a very anti-family performance (of course, previous performances and commercials have proven that they don't care about the children watching anyway). And I think I remember her saying something "thankful" to God afterwards?
    Also, Beyonce is in her thirties now, and a mother herself. To me, she looks like she is just trying to hard to compete with the younger artists & it smells a little pathetic. Don't get me wrong, she looks fantastic. But that's my point. When you look that good, a mature person doesn't feel the need to advertise it for shock value. That seems to be the road that these women take in their thirties and forties.
    And this whole thing about power is definitely the world's way of thinking. As Christian women, we know who holds all power, and he chose to be humiliated on a cross, and be cursed for the sake of his beloved.

  • Tara

    Western women SAY we are independent, but are we really more free than those of the eastern muslim cultures? Our attire completely reflects the desire to be accepted by men. For Islamic women- that means full coverage. For Western women- that means less.

    The feminist movement will not progress positively unless women recognize they are endowed by the Creator as beautiful in HIS eyes.

    In fact, our desirability will (ironically) increase once men realize we care not for their satisfaction about our sexuality.

    Great article, Trillia.

  • http://thenface2face.wordpress.com Karen Butler

    I breathe a sigh of relief that you answered so well.There is a question still remaining for me, though.

    If the way Beyonce's grrrls choose to run the world is so wonderfully free from any naughty bits, and what we see on stage is strictly a construct of our patriarchal Victorian mindset, why does Beyonce insist that it is not really *her own self* that is strutting half-clothed? Why must she split in two to perform the way she does? She says, "“I have someone else that takes over when it’s time for me to work and when I’m on stage, this alter ego that I’ve created that kind of protects me and who I really am”.

    She named this personality, "Sasha Fierce", and has a whole album dedicated to its genesis. She must disassociate so that her Christian witness, is not compromised, not at all. She goes into an altered state of consciousness, does what girl power's gotta do to get the job done, and then -- as her eyes clear to a normal gaze -- and the applause swells, the 'good girl' gives her benediction, a breathy, "God Bless."

    • pentamom

      Brilliant point, Karen! If it's all good, why can't Mrs. Knowles-Carter own it?

      • John S

        Doesn't surprise me but wow that is a frightening statement. She is claiming she's not responsible for what she says and does. Certainly any girl or person can then take on an 'alter ego' in the bedroom (or any other part of life) they choose. It would be better for her to have a millstone tied around her neck than...

        Sadly she is in bondage, but it's deeper than gender objectification or sex. She wants to be God. The same way the first woman fell. And the first man. You can be like God. Right and wrong are in her hands, perhaps she gets some advice from God. So ultimately I agree that this is an issue of power, who does she say Jesus is? Evidently not Lord, she is not willing to give up that throne to anyone.
        Pray for her. She's no different than the rest of us apart from Jesus' amazing love.

  • Anonymous

    I don't think anyone even notices when male artists perform. It is all about sex and objectifying both males and females in the entertainment industry. You don't think Usher prancing around stage and rubbing his freshly oiled abs, or even in some of Britney Spear's performances she has male background dancers almost naked acting like her slave.

    It isn't a female or male issue, no one is being objectified more than others in the american music industry. Sex sells and the people on top who are making the decisions know that. It may be wrong but it is the same for both genders.

  • http://lisadelay.com/blog lisa delay

    Yes. It may have been a blatant expression of power...but what kind of power? That's the conversation to have.

    I'd argue hers is simply the kind of this world and not the upside-down, servant-leader "power" we are called to have as Christ's followers. (Beattitudes/Kingdom of God)...

  • http://thediscerningchristian.wordpress.com Chris

    I'm of a more moderate theological position than I understand Gospel Coalition to be, but I have to agree that it ends up being about sex. The thing is that in an age of digital media, flaunting your parts for the camera is anything but powerful; it's quite the opposite. Now, everyone in the world with an internet connection can go and use her image to think about her in relation to their sexual fantasies, and I guarantee that's happening. She is absolutely powerless to stop it, and her willful action to wear revealing clothes is what gives everyone that power.

  • Jennifer A.

    And sexuality distracts from art too. It's all part of the spectacle that we've come to expect with big performers. Beyonce has a beautiful voice, and when all three members of Destiny's Child were up there, they made sublime (and I don't use that word lightly) harmony. But the sexual spectacle overwhelmed the art.

  • Anonymous

    Maybe another issue that needs to be discussed is why Christians are desecrating the Lord's Day by watching and engaging in the obscene filth that parades itself once a year in the name of sports. As far as I know, the 4th commandment still stands and the "to keep it holy" part isn't nullified one Sunday a year for the sake of football.

    • Jon

      Doesn't Paul talk about the Sabbath in Galatians, about one person who keeps the a day as holy, and the other who does not, and them being equally holy?

      • Melody

        The "Sabbath" is the seventh day. If a person wants to get legalistic then they should keep that in mind. The other thing, when it came on at my house(the game). It was sunset already so the remade Sabbath was over too. Add to that the fact that we have recording devices AND it has been all over the news. So even those of us that didn't watch the game know all the details too.
        I'm pretty sure that nothing is kept holy with a bad attitude about it. Jesus said something to that effect.

  • http://www.dorothygreco.com Dorothy Greco

    Wow. I have chills. This is a very insightful and prophetic piece. Thank you for the work it took to write it.

  • Earl

    But sex *is* the female's power. That is the power she has over men. That is why men had to put women into a place where they could be managed. That is why patriarchy was developed in every culture around the world. Women have a power over men and this power cannot be left unchecked. Sure, it is not the same power men have over women, but it is a special and unique power. For every egg there are a trillion sperm. Only one man is really needed for even hundreds of women. Males are disposable, and they'd be mostly disposed of if it were not for females taking compassion on their baby boys, if not for male moral codes, and if not for civilizations being constructed to ensure some kind of working gender equity in the face of biological disparity. Unfortunately, when the woman's power is not checked by civilization, barbarism will check it; Ghengis Khan rides again.

    • http://thediscerningchristian.wordpress.com Chris

      I hope you are trolling. If not, this is horribly offensive.

      • Earl

        But was it false?

        • Melody

          It's extremely false and certainly would be a reason for isolating some men and to keep them from parenting any offspring.

    • pentamom

      I agree with you about women holding the power in this sense. But ultimately, it is not civilization that can effectively check it; it has to come from women refusing to use power (of any kind) over others, instead submitting all our abilities and potential for power, to the call of Christ. What civilization can do only lasts for as long as civilization lasts, and not in places where ordered civilization is not present. But even barbarian women can learn to exercise their sexuality godly wives rather than power-goddesses, and barbarian men to be Christlike husbands rather than either takers of or beggers for sex. Come to think of it, that's what happened (in a limited fashion) a couple of millennia ago in Europe.

      • Melody

        It is not true. In the animal kingdom it is the male that must dress up and make himself attractive and prove himself worthy in parenting offspring. Only in humans is it turned around where every pot-bellied slacker is a potential father because women have rarely had a say in what they got stuck with.
        Only in Christ is there any hope of an even playing field. Even still we have pastors carrying on about what their wives look like giving the example to the younger men that ultimately you want to make sure that you have a good looking wife. As to if your looks warrant it never seems to enter into it since men always see themselves as more attractive than reality.

        Don't take what I'm saying too too seriously since I may be a little testy today.

  • amy m.

    SO TRUE!!! Great article, Trill.

  • bill royland

    Big kudos, great writing that is truthful and thought provoking,

  • Caleb Scott Roberts

    This appears to be a lone voice of dissent, but this article falls flat in so many ways. Firstly, the author brings in the quote from Patheos about how misguided a solely sexual assessment of Beyonce is only to then commence in a solely sexual assessment without ever explaining why the Patheos quote is flawed. She injects her argument with the venom of an opposing viewpoint but never gets around to supplying an antidote. Secondly, she's not convinced me that any of the social pathologies she mentions have anything to do with Beyonce specifically. If you're going to go after Beyonce in particular, you will soon encounter a stark distinction between her and many other current female pop stars. If anything, much of her lyrical content deals with a reinvigoration of domesticity ("all up in the kitchen in my heels, dinner time") as opposed to Rihanna or Nicki Minaj's cheap appeals to tackiness. All in all, the only thing that comes through is the author's dislike of pop culture in general, which is fine -- there's much to criticize in its extravagance and vapidity. But it's lazy to gaze as a faraway onlooker upon a culture you care little for, notice the latest manifestation, and pull together a random assemblage of comments you already hold and assign them to it without defending the assignment.

    And, returning to the Patheos quote, until someone actually confronts Taft argument, this article coupled with the handwringing of the comments above only prove the guy's point.

  • Caleb Scott Roberts

    ^^ *correction* "that argument".

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  • jonathan

    I think what is most disturbing are all these Christian blogs discussing Beyonce and her performance and clothing attire. It is very questionable of a christians profession if his heart is still in the world and disturbs not his conscience.

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  • S.

    Sorry for my english as it is a second language, but couldn't resist to comment the article.

    I am a christian woman, married for almost 20 years, mother of 4 and teacher. Became christian at 25, lived as a promiscuous young lady and was influenced by the mix-match messages about sexuality and womanism and have lived with the long term negative effects of it. I have heard that message (sexy means power) and lived it. BIG BIG BIG dissapointement. Shame. Abuse. Almost depression. Thought i was the one who had the control because i was cute and sexy! But no. Not at all, actually! I have wrongly thought and hoped i have been chosen by those young men because of who i was (personality included). Cause even at that time, i have hoped for a serious and strong relationship. Nope! They were there because of the image i was sending, because i have filled there minds with fantasies. After i was conquered, guess what? They all left! They were not there for me, for engagement, for love, for respect. No, no, no! They have used the image i was sending. And we, women, think, we have control and power? I guess they, at the end, were in power and control as they got what they wanted without any compassion or empathy for what would come after: leaving without any sensability. I don't see how i can have power and control, if , by the end of the day, someone is there to use me...

    No thanks! Big huge lie! That is what i teach the young girls and young lady at church: be very careful with the image you are sending about yourself towards guys as they can badly interpret it and you will be the one that will live with the hurts it brings...

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