Beyoncé’s performance at the Super Bowl inspired the non-neurotic population of this great nation to applaud heartily and even claim that she has inherited Michael Jackson’s crown. Alas, her unrepentant ladyness means that we can’t leave it at that. Nope: Beyoncé’s performance must be hyper-analyzed for evidence that she was failing all of humanity with her singing, dancing, and general fierceness (otherwise known as her gyrating mating call). Complaints rang out from both the right and the left, all from people who seem to think that simply being sexy in and of itself is objectifying and naughty and not compatible with feminism/motherhood/respectable pop-culture stardom.
The problem with that complaint is that it fundamentally misunderstands the concept of “sexual objectification,” as Maya Dusenbery at Feministing explains. Objectification is reducing someone to an object, but unfortunately it’s all too often used to mean “crossing some invisible line from being attractive to being too sexy,” whatever that means. The irony is that often, the same people who accuse women of objectifying themselves by being sexy are themselves engaging in objectification of women. Maya explains this dynamic very well:
[O]bjectification is not about presenting yourself as a sexual being—or even as an object of sexual desire. After all, that is a normal and fairly universal human urge—who doesn’t like to feel attractive sometimes? Objectification is about being dehumanized by being reduced solely to a sex object.
In this way, objectification and slut-shaming are intimately connected and mutually reinforcing—as we can clearly see in this case. Step #1 involves looking at a woman and instead of seeing a full, complex, and multifaceted human being, all you see is ALL TEH SEXXX. Say, for example, by watching Beyoncé’s show—where she demonstrated enormous professional skill by singing live, with an awesome all-women band I might add, while dancing her ass off in front of millions of people—and not being able to see anything besides her sexy outfit. Step #2 is deciding that women who display their sexuality in any way (and remember, you were the one who in Step #1 reduced them to their sexuality) are not worthy of admiration for all the other aspects of who they are.
You see this mistake of conflating “finding someone sexy” or even “presenting oneself as sexy” with “being objectified” all the time—it isn’t limited to hand-wringing over Beyoncé’s performance. And by making objectification synonymous with sexuality, we miss all the other ways women are objectified in society. We don’t often talk about how anti-choice ideology reduces women to breeding objects or the way that gender roles are just generally reductive. (It’s even questionable to say that someone can “objectify” herself—as in, “Beyoncé is so talented. Why would she wear such a skimpy outfit and objectify herself like that?”—since the process requires looking at a person and seeing only an object for use. Even the most image-controlling pop star of our time must, in some quiet moments, see herself as a human being.)
What was actually remarkable about Beyoncé’s performance (and her overall career) is her ability to resist the audience’s urges to objectify her, i.e. reduce her to an object. Even critics like Kathryn Jean Lopez have to admit that she’s got skills. For Lopez and others like her, who do want to reduce women to objects—who want to believe that if a woman shows interest in sex, then a hole for men to relieve themselves in is all she can ever be—Beyoncé’s talent must be unnerving, or at the very least confusing. For the rest of us, it’s inspiring.