I buy the argument that Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance was not about sex. I think. But that doesn’t make me feel much better about our cultural conversations.
When Beyoncé showed up onscreen Sunday night, most of the adults at our party got up and moved to the back of the rec room to watch from the food table. Sitting directly in front of the TV on a long couch was a line of girls whose feet didn’t touch the floor. When Beyoncé grabbed herself in front of a row of six-seven-and-eight-year-olds, it was hard, for this dad at any rate, to think clearly about the semiotics of the thing.
But a few days have passed. So let’s try again. Let’s posit that our national language today is Ooh-lah-lah. If you want to get by in our society, you have to have at least speaking proficiency in Sex. Here’s a quick grammar tip: thighs and pecs and butts and boobs function, in this peculiar language, not as nouns but as adjectives and adverbs. Erotic bodies do not titillate so much as they modify. The question for us, then, whenever we encounter body parts, waving in grandeur across our big-screen TVs is, What are they about? Because you can be pretty sure they’re not about eroticism merely, any more than the f-bomb is about copulation.
You’re not convinced. But doesn’t it strike you that lusting after Beyoncé requires a lot of work? Sure, she’s utterly beautiful. And her sundry limbs and parts are gloriously proportioned. But ye gads, people, she’s as big as the sky. When she slings that hair, you expect the trees to whip. The woman is everything majestic. Can you actually hanker to hold all that glory and power? I dunno. Maybe. It would take some real imaginative labor, though–like craving buttered bread when you see a wheat field.
So, at the risk of tremendous disrespect to the woman herself, let me ask, what is Beyoncé about? What is the noun for which her body is the adjective? Let’s imagine a wonky question on a semiotics quiz the morning after the game.
What cultural ideals did Beyoncé’s magnificent thighs modify at the half-time show of the Super Bowl?
a. Eroticism: She represented the momentary advantage to be gained by drawing the male gaze and, in so doing, apprenticed women in navigating an erotic attention economics (to use a phrase of Richard Lanham’s).
b. Consumerism: Her body became a gyrating commodity, thus stirring to a frenzied pitch the infinitely deferred desires of the populace who suddenly felt a yearning for box stores.
c. Womanism: She transcended the masculinist virgin/whore dialectic too often directed at African American women and became something wholly other—a strong, free, black woman.
d. Narcissism: She exhibited the art of intense public self-consciousness tutoring viewers in how to be performers and spectators at the same time, like Arthur Jones taking a glance at himself on the stadium screens as he ran 97 yards for a touchdown.
e. Nationalism: Given her performance at two recent national rites—the Inauguration and the Super Bowl—she embodied America’s aggressive, brash-bodied, with-us-or-against-us lip-synch to the nations.
Do you, like me, find yourself wishing for another option? (I didn’t even mention the spiritualism invoked by the flailing arms of the Hindu goddess.) All of these answers sound right to me, depending on where I’m standing in the room. If I’m on the couch with the little wide-eyed eight-year-olds at the Super Bowl party, I’m marking “a” on my scantron. If I’m at the back of the room with the adults, munching, I might go for “b”—“And pass those Doritos, would you?” When I talk to my academic colleagues the day after the Bowl, I’m coloring in “c” with dutiful archness. When I talk about Beyoncé with my students, I might reach for “d.” If the subject comes up with my disgusted, blue-collar, male neighbors, who insist that they don’t do half-time shows like they used to do, I’m nodding at option “e.”
But you know, I’m struck by the sheer desperation of each of the options on our multiple-choice quiz. You might call ours an age of irony and weary sophistication, but I’m not sure that Beyoncé’s performance bespoke the sophistication of our culture. She herself may have been fierce and courageous and shrewd. But what if we think about how her performance functioned in our cultural grammar? What if she herself wasn’t the subject of the performance but rather an adjective or an adverb? You have to lament that whatever that subject was, it must be in a very bad way to require such desperately gigantic modification.