Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Beyonce Is Who We Thought She Was

Look at that fancy dancin'!
by Ben Howard

In 2006, the Arizona Cardinals blew a 20 point lead to the Chicago Bears in less than 20 minutes. In the press conference afterwards, their coach Dennis Green launched into a memorable tirade that was eventually turned into a beer commercial a few years later. In the climactic line, Green uttered a now infamous phrase, “They are who we thought they were.”

It's that phrase that has been spinning around in my head in the wake of Beyonce's Super Bowl halftime performance. Or, more appropriately, she is who we thought she was.

Here's the kicker, the operative word in that sentence is “we” not “she.”

You see, Beyonce was just Beyonce on Sunday. She sang her songs, danced her dances, and did her whole Beyonce thing. She neither made a revolutionary proclamation of feminist values, nor did she undermine the moral fabric of American life by injecting lust into the hearts of weak-minded men everywhere.

She sang some songs. She danced really well. She reunited with her Destiny's Child cohorts. It was what we thought it was. If anything, it was more predictable and less provocative than Madonna's halftime performance last year (that's what happens when you keep M.I.A. off the stage).

No, Beyonce's performance during the Super Bowl changed nothing. Don't let anyone fool you into thinking this discussion is about the 15 minute musical montage/commercial for Pepsi that happened on Sunday night. It isn't.

The striking thing about almost every piece that came out of Beyonce's performance is that they mirror exactly what the authors would have written on Saturday night. Or a week ago. Or a month ago. In fact, if you go back far enough you can probably find an evangelical reviewer taking Beyonce to task for the exact same things in 2003 when she released Dangerously in Love. I'm not certain of it, but I bet you can find the same feminist angles in articles around that time too.

Dangerously in Love Album Cover from 2003
It's fascinating to me that the opinions regarding this event seem to have been shaped entirely based off the pre-conceived notions of what the writer in question perceived Beyonce to be. If you thought she was a representation of strong female values, that was what you saw on stage. If you thought she was a representation of over-sexualized pop music, then you saw that on the stage.

Ironically, with all the claims about what Beyonce did or didn't do during the Super Bowl halftime show, the person with the least agency may have been Beyonce herself, yoked as she was to the weight of her own iconography.

But I'm not writing this in order to give “my take” on Beyonce. I'm writing it to say that I get bored.

I get bored of warmed over culture wars served with a bitter slice of piety. I get bored of pre-determined answers being given to pre-determined questions. I get bored of hearing the same conversation over and over and over again with a different pop star, athlete, or movie serving as the object of adoration/derision.

What I crave, what I absolutely crave, is a little creativity. People allowing themselves to stretch and consider other views, refusing to let their assumptions become static or immutable. The kind of creative thinking that allows us to change our minds and think about things in a new way. That allows us the freedom to let our ideas shift and develop. The kind of mindset that lets us accept that we might, just maybe, be wrong.

I say this as one of those in the firing line. I'm sure I've written plenty of hack pieces, either intentionally or unintentionally, where I recycled tired party lines for the Nth time or held up some aspect of a moral code as a shibboleth against which to gauge all actions. I'm sure many will read this as no more than a backlash article bred out of annoyance (and they wouldn't be entirely wrong), but I hope that it can be something more.

I honestly believe that the more open we are, the more we push ourselves to question and doubt the things we hold to be so clear and obvious, the more hospitable we can be. I believe that we can have better dialogue and create relationships that cross ideological lines.

Who knows? If we try hard enough we might even remember to treat the Beyonce's of the world like they're human again.


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