Amid the frenzy of reactions to Jennifer Lopez and Shakira’s Super Bowl half-time show, I saw several people on social media wondering who could possibly have clutched their pearls about, arguably, the most athletic performance of the night.
Guilty as charged.
This was the first year I didn’t watch the broadcast with my parents and sons, and I was so grateful, because I would have been incredibly uncomfortable and embarrassed sitting next to them during the butt shaking, twerking, pole dancing and crotch thrusting.
But, that’s just me.
Growing up in a Hispanic household, Spanish language TV channels brought shows like the infamous “Sábado Gigante”—and its bevy of string-bikinied eye candy—right into my kitchen and living room. These days you can’t even watch the weather report on Latino cable channels without being confronted by incredibly proportioned and scandalously clad meteorological goddesses.
Basically, I’ve been tyrannized by Latina beauty my whole life.
From my cousins teasing me about not having anything like the breasts “all” Latinas are supposed to be endowed with, to my family members constantly remarking on my fatness or lack of Latina “style” (I was an 80s new-waver who adored gothy, boyish, black clothes and accessories), I was regularly shamed when I was held up against the ideals of Latina beauty.
It was super weird to me that I was expected to aspire to wearing skimpy clothes, lots of make-up and to dance in a suggestive manner. But if I had done this, I’d likely have been called a slut for it. In a devout Catholic family, that was not right. (And, the fact I was super-secretly lusting after all those sexy Latinas was problematic as well, because being bi- or homosexual was definitely not right.)
So, yeah, as an “out” gender-fluid, pansexual, 45-year-old feminist, J. Lo and Shakira’s butt-shaking elicited many, many feelings.
Not that the show was too inappropriate—it’s an evening performance during one of the most violent, trauma-inducing games in the world. Anyone worried about their little kids being exposed to content not right for young children should have kept them away.
And it’s not that the women were too sexual—sex is the currency of modern-day entertainment; it’s everywhere.
Also, the poles were not “too much.” For Pete’s sake, athletic/artistic pole dancers have petitioned for pole dancing to be included in future Olympics. Even senior citizens use pole dancing to keep fit in some of our nation’s retirement homes.
Shakira and J. Lo were magnificent and entertaining. They highlighted Puerto Rican, Colombian and Middle Eastern culture, made political statements against holding kids in cages and showed that you can love America and other countries at the same time.
But my angst persisted. Were these performances empowering because of their skillfulness and joy, or embarrassing and cringe-worthy because they feed negative stereotypes?
Unsure, I asked my favorite feminist, Veronica Arreola, the assistant director of the Center for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
“It’s very complicated when you factor in the oversexualization of Latinx bodies, balancing wanting to be sex-positive and embracing that we have this cultural sense of music and moving our bodies. It’s art, but, unfortunately, that art does follow us into the workplace and the rest of our lives,” Arreola told me, the day after watching the halftime show with her husband and 16-year-old daughter.
“It brings up the question about how, as Latinas, we can be ourselves and still be respected,” Arreola said. “It’s hard because there are stereotypes and bias, but I’m moving into a space where I’m more comfortable with having tension in my beliefs; in having my feminism tested by appreciating two amazing artists in an amazing show and, at the same time, wondering what it means for them to be dancing around partially clothed in a society that values women more for their looks than what’s in our brains. There will always be those questions, and we will always be able to appreciate a performance and still be able to critique it at the same time.”
It’s true: Complex, multilayered works of art like J. Lo and Shakira’s melting pot masterpiece cannot be distilled into either-or sentiments. They can be declarations of strength that also make us question how we represent ourselves in the world.
Ultimately, my discomfort will persist until Latinas are judged the same as everyone else. When white artists like Britney Spears, Madonna and Lady Gaga dance suggestively or wear revealing costumes in performances no one projects their behavior onto all other white women.
Why should Latinx women be any different?