Wednesday, February 13, 2013

About Those "Ugly" Beyonce Super Bowl Pictures

You may have heard that Beyonce performed at this little thing called the Super Bowl recently. You may have also heard that she pretty much dominated that performance, with many calling it one of the best Super Bowl halftimes of all time.

Love her, hate her, or love to hate her, you have to admit that performance was full of a superb physicality that demonstrates athleticism and talent. (How did she get to the ground (gracefully even) in those boots?!) Immediately, people began to cry that Beyonce's performance was "too sexy" for primetime. As several smart people have already pointed out, the cries of "too sexy" are just the same tones of slut-shaming and body policing that permeate our overall culture on a daily basis magnified to Super Bowl proportions. 

Perhaps my favorite response to this criticism comes from David R. Henson (If you don't click on any of the other links, you should still click on this one. It's really good.), who explains that Beyonce's performance was not about sex, but about power:
That a Black woman claimed and owned her power during the misogynist, consumerist celebration known as the Super Bowl only highlights BeyoncĂ©’s brilliance and boldness.
It’s no wonder some people attempted to wrest back control over her and her body by marginalizing her performance by sexualizing it.
He goes on to say that (emphasis mine):

BeyoncĂ© 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.
It takes a warrior to be able to do something like that.
A warrior. That's powerful stuff.

That's why I am somewhat frustrated to find out that Beyonce's publicist is trying to get some pictures of her performance removed from the internet because they are "unflattering." These pictures (which you can see at that link), are mid-action shots that have left her looking slightly less polished than usual. These pictures have since started cropping up in memes across the internet, like these:

Sure, these are not the glamour shots that usually represent Beyonce in the media, but they are most definitely shots that demonstrate a powerful performance. Just look at the memes! They're comparing her to Conan (a warrior!) and having her heft Olympic-worthy weights. Those faces are the faces of someone using their strength to perform. 

It made me think about other times when we see "unflattering" faces on our pop culture icons. 

I wonder if Lebron James' publicist is upset about these magazine covers:

Or this one of Kobe Bryant:

Or this one of Tom Brady:

No. For those men, those pictures of "unflattering" faces are on the covers of magazines. They weren't arbitrary shots in a series of still frames from a larger performance. Those shots were chosen specifically  because they exude power. When people are famous for their physicality (among other attributes), then that physicality often shows up in their faces. It is the way that we can recognize the physical power of exerting energy in the otherwise insufficient medium of a single photo. 

Those "unflattering" photos of Beyonce are anything but unflattering. They serve to display exactly what she did during that halftime performance: she used her body to be powerful. 

The reason we don't like those photos is the same reason so many people called her "too sexy." Beyonce's body was no more on display than most of the cheerleaders on the field. We are not denouncing her because we've caught a sudden case of Puritanism. Culturally, we denounce her because she refused to give her body up for consumption. She was on display, to be sure, but there was no doubt that she was the one in control of that display, and that's the thing our patriarchal culture doesn't like. (It's the same reason people get up in arms about breastfeeding pictures on Facebook, but seem to have no problems with entire Facebook groups dedicated to "Big Titties" or "Bikini Girls"). 

I understand that the publicist of a megastar like Beyonce has a tough job, but I really believe that her image is better served with these pictures out there. When I look at those pictures, I see a woman who is not afraid to use the strength of her body. That's a good thing. 


  1. I agree with everything you have said except the part about "the reason *we* don't think those photos..." The only person who doesn't like the Beyonce photos is Beyonce. If the general public didn't like them, they wouldn't have gone viral. Yeah, most people see them as funny as opposed to empowering, but at least it helps people see her in a new light.

  2. That's true. Seeing them as funny is still enjoyment. I wonder if they would have went viral if her publicist hadn't tried to get rid of them, though.