The Super Bowl is an American cultural phenomenon. It’s a super-hyped event– glitzy, loud, overdone, and completely commercial. When it’s game time, everything else comes to a grinding halt, including church activities. Stores are barren. Emotions are rampant. It’s truly an unofficial American holiday.
No matter who is playing, most of us tune in to watch. The game itself is only part of the spectacle, of course. The commercials and the halftime show are every bit as significant, and my goodness, they certainly were last night.
For years now, the National Football League has found itself in the midst of several volatile culture wars. I don’t need to review them here. (Well okay, I’ll list off the big ones anyway: player safety, drug use, and behavior on and off the field, fights over mascots, patriotism, freedom of expression, race, standing or kneeling during the National Anthem, and… what to do with the Super Bowl halftime show.) The NFL has certainly capitalized on all these controversies. Some would say, “Don’t let a good controversy go to waste,” and the NFL in all its excessive flamboyance hasn’t at all been wasteful with its inherited and self-imposed controversies. Then again, I don’t entirely blame them. Much of what I see in the NFL is a mirror of the state of our country, culturally and politically.
That is especially true in the case of last night’s halftime Super Bowl show when so many of us were tuned in and watching the same thing. Jennifer Lopez and Shakira, two superstar Latina artists performed. It was an explosive performance. And our responses to their performance have been even more explosive!
People have tried to describe what happened in the halftime show. But describing what happened is not nearly as important as answering this question: What did you see?
If you didn’t actually watch the halftime show and went by what people said they saw, you might wonder if we were watching the same thing. Trust me, we were.
Here’s a sampling of what people observed:
- A celebration of Hispanic culture, led by two Latina women (a first for a Super Bowl halftime show)
- A soft porn show
- Further objectification of women
- Empowerment of women
- An anti-Trump demonstration
- A lewd, disgusting display of sexuality
- A fantastic dance and music production
- A totally inappropriate show for families
- A family celebration empowering young people
- Entertainment that’s really no worse than anything else on TV
Look again at these descriptions. Why are they so vastly different? Could it be that they say more about the eye of the beholder than the show itself? I think so.
(Quick time out: if you’re tempted right now to write me off as a wishy-washy moral subjectivist, resist that urge. I had a definite, strong moral reaction to what I saw. Just keep reading.)
Our conflicts didn’t stop with our differences over what we saw or didn’t see. It got worse. We then had to navigate through our differences. How do we respond when a passionate perception of ours runs up against someone else’s perception? That’s where we failed so badly.
Let me illustrate.
I watched the halftime show. Admittedly, I knew very little about Shakira and Jennifer Lopez. Their music is just not in my wheelhouse. So right at the beginning of the show, I did a quick search, and I learned that they are both middle-aged Hispanic singers and dancers. No, I’ve not been hiding under a rock! It’s a big world, and I know what I know. (Can you list the entire discography of Rush from memory while rattling off Bible verses and the details of coffee roast profiles? I can. But I digress.)
Once I got more familiar with Shakira and Jennifer Lopez, it all began to click. Aha… yeah, their music and dancing indeed looks culturally Hispanic. Okay. Amazing talent. Still, what in the world am I watching?
The following is a recollection of my various reactions while viewing the show with my wife and son:
Wow… Shakira is a beautiful woman, but gosh, she’s wearing very little. She came out with a red rope which she rubbed across her body. Was that some kind of S&M thing? That’s… unsettling. Where is this going?
Wait a minute. She’s doing a lot of very fast, sexually suggestive pelvic thrusts, like she’s having sex in midair! At one point, the cameras were positioned right under her dress as she was thrusting around. Her crotch was right there, for crying out loud! Hey, stop the bus! Did Jennifer Lopez just rub herself down there? Yeah, I think she did. Several times. What is this?
Some guy was grinding Shakira. More very erotic, sexually suggestive dancing and flailing. Hey, Jennifer Lopez! Wait a minute? Is she pole dancing?? Yes, she’s wrapping her body around a pole. Strippers do that. What the heck is this?
But wow… amazing dancing and choreography. “Born in the USA” with Jennifer Lopez donning a Puerto Rican flag. That was daring!
Kids in cages? What’s that all about?
Wait a minute… Why am I seeing so many bare bottoms… on national TV… with my son watching all this? Why all this blatant sexuality on my TV screen? This is just more-of-the-same flagrant selling of sex and women’s bodies for corporate profit while furthering the objectification of women and women’s bodies as sexual objects. It’s well known that human trafficking is a colossal problem around Super Bowl venues. These women, as talented as they are, are only contributing to this human travesty, all in the name of greed, fame, and power.
And this is 2020?? Yup, it sure is.
Those were my responses. In my gut, they still are. Then on Facebook, I asked the question, “Soft porn halftime show?” I thought it was. Yet I was totally unprepared for the numerous, varied, passionate, and argumentative responses I got. It was like I inadvertently waded into a shark pool. Then I jumped right out of that pool and began to ask myself, Whoah, what did I just get myself into? Did I miss something. Did they?
A little later, I read the posts from friends who clearly saw the halftime show very differently than I did, and they labeled people with my kinds of perceptions as racists, sexists, prudes, policing brown bodies, snowflakes, “white boomers,” and vulgar descriptions I won’t share here.
This is a clash of cultures, pure and simple. And, worse still, we just do not know what to do with our cultural differences.
Within the comments of folks who responded to my “Soft porn halftime show?” post, I saw at least 11 different cultural, ideological and demographic representations:
- White Christian culture (religious and non-religious)
- Hispanic culture
- African-American culture
- Feminism– representing at least two very different points of view
- Generation X and older
- Millennial and younger
- Married with children
- Married with no children
To make things even more complicated, people from these various cultures, ideologies and demographic groups did not all agree, but they clearly diverged from the same starting point.
My personal cultural descriptors are male, white Christian, married with children, Generation X with particular feminist leanings. That should explain a lot. Modesty, especially female modesty, is very important to my white Christian culture. As a father with feminist leanings, I taught my daughters to be very careful about how they dress. There is way too much sexual objectification and sexualization of women (my particular feminist leanings). Sexual expression is to be shared between two married people behind closed doors. So be careful about how you present yourselves to others. Be strong, independent, pure, and wise enough to show your beauty, inner and outer, with modesty, respect, and discretion.
Now, is my particular cultural view superior to someone else’s? It has historically been the majority view. But does that make it intrinsically better? That’s a pivotal question. And here is where we get into trouble.
Hispanic culture is far more openly erotic and sensual than my own culture. They might find my culture to be too formal, quiet, reserved and discreet. And there are many feminist voices who see women like Shakira and Jennifer Lopez as empowering. They are choosing what to do with their bodies, the argument goes. They are not at all ashamed of their bodies and are resisting a Western patriarchy that has sought to constrain how women use, show and treat their bodies.
I obviously don’t see things that way at all. But are they wrong? Am I? We’ll probably never agree.
Therefore, the more pertinent observation from last night’s halftime show is our collective failure to navigate through the storms our cultural differences without demeaning, dismissing, or fighting against other cultural perceptions and the people who hold them.
Think about this and be honest. What are we really accomplishing fighting this brutal cultural war of attrition where the unstated goal is to name, ridicule, belittle, blame, and destroy people from different cultural understandings? These arguments almost always end in a stalemate and at the expense of respect and trust.
What if more of us, myself included, could pause, take a breath, step back, and attempt to comprehend our differences and, just as importantly, to mutually discern the reasons why those differences exist? Instead of holding an attitude of suspicion, could more of us approach differences with an attitude of curiosity? Instead of cultural arrogance, could we practice cultural humility? Rather than engaging in fruitless arguments, could we listen, seek to understand and share? Instead of needing to be victoriously right and righteous, can we strive to be empathetic? (It is extremely difficult, if not downright impossible to do both.)
Last night, when I finally calmed down a bit and listened to other folks’ points of view, I (re)learned several things. First, disagreements are often misunderstandings in disguise. Our initial and untested perceptions are often wildly inaccurate. Secondly, I can learn things from other points of view that I didn’t know before. In some cases, that has changed the way I think. In other cases, I’m just as convicted as I was before, but at least I can understand and respect a different way of seeing.
So I did learn. And hopefully, that has made me a more understanding and compassionate neighbor. I am who I am. They are who they are. In the meantime, I’ve had enough of football and halftime shows… until next season!