Dear Male Privilege-Check Diary: I’m Super Confused About How I’m Supposed to Feel About Shakira and JLo

I’m super confused about the responses to Shakira and JLo. I know enough to understand the generational and 2nd/3rd wave feminism tension between rooting out internalized misogyny and celebrating empowered gender performance. I get it that there’s no answer to this. How do you own or reclaim a body through objectification? How can the unique subject shine through the cosplay and choreography?

I’m also aware that as a progressive cishet man I’m not really supposed to have an opinion. Like: which feminism should I get behind? It all seems strange, because the argument is playing out in relation to the privilege I was born into. I haven’t seen any men express opinions about the half-time show, and this feels weird, as if the spectacle and its controversy are supposed to play out before the silent male gaze, as per usual.

You know what’s really gross? Whatever side I take, I can feel virtuous. I can win. If I stand with 2nd-wavers I can feel protective of women as an oppressed class. Awesome! If I stand with 3rd-wavers, I can celebrate the autonomy of women to reclaim stereotypes. Yay me! I can be any kind of feminist that suits me, or that the women I’m around want me to be. I can be a feminist chameleon, because my own body doesn’t hang in the balance.

The thing is that men can be publicly conservative/2nd wave or progressive/3rd wave on the issue, while privately, as a class, they remain the near-totally-dominant consumers of porn, and sex work. That consumption might feel transgressive to the conservative and celebratory to the progressive, but the commodity remains the same.

Which gets me out of the abstraction of politics and into the feelings around consumption and objectification. So here’s what I feel when I watch the show.

1) As a man who was exposed to porn as a boy, the spectacle hits all of that old neurology and lights it right the hell up, prompting an old fuzzy split between pleasure and nausea. I’m personally not into being biohacked anymore. I basically want to turn away when I can feel it start to happen, like someone literally flipping a switch in the back of my brain. Yet I feel guilty at turning away, because these amazing performers do not deserve my historical or projected shame. At the same time, the whole mirage through which they are doing what they do is just too proximal to imagery that for years troubled my capacity to see women as complete people.

2) I was really glad that my seven year-old son went to bed when the first half ended. He had never seen a football game. He was astounded, a little thrilled, and a little scared at the outright violence. We talked about brain injuries and what courage meant on that field, and why so many men from poor families end up playing at that level. So it was already enough for him to metabolize that end of the essentialized gender binary and its political economy; it’s not like he would have benefited from the “balance” of the stripper pole and the twerking. If he hadn’t gone to bed I would have sat very awkwardly beside him, wondering what exact models of equality and empowerment were being etched into his brain, and what he might come to expect of women — and himself — in time. It would have been way more awkward than when watching the football players smash and strut: at least I’m somewhat confident that I can help him navigate toxic masculinity.

3) I’m remembering being four and the teacher asking us to paint paintings of our parents. I produced a large, well-executed rendition of a woman dressed like a server at Hooters, carrying a huge martini glass. To this day my mother busts out laughing as she tells the story of the looks she got from the teachers at parent-teacher night while standing in front of it trying to feel proud about the brush-strokes. Needless to say, my mother never dressed like that and was never a drinker. Where the hell did that come from, so early? How was I programmed at five years old to stereotype my mother?

4) I feel embarrassed for the women I know who feel literally tortured by essentialized beauty standards. I fantasize about having a giant remote control that could turn the show off throughout the world.

5) It’s great that JLo can be 50 and command that space and move like that, but there’s also something tragic about it. How far can her 400M net worth push it? 60? 70? How will she be allowed to age or get sick? Will that shitgibbon A-Rod care for her when she does? What’s the unseen cost of that power? Nobody is truly in love with the cult of youth. That’s a stand-in for loving a person. A person is a passage of time.

6) I also feel sad that I can’t just enjoy the movement and skill and exuberance, because they really are incredible performers and life is very short. But I resent that I’m supposed to look at them, in fact I’m forced into looking through the hardwiring and chemistry of the addiction of gender construction, and by a lifetime of social programming that won’t get me an inch closer to knowing who those women are, or who I am for that matter.

7) I could have cried over the Puerto Rican flag, but it was over in a flash. And JLo’s daughter climbing out of that cage to sing. I could have talked about that with my son, if he’d been able to see it. My white son, who is unlikely to ever fear being caged.

8) I feel sad that I can’t lighten up, because lightening up is so necessary. But I wish that relief could be provided by people who seem truly liberated by performance, like any of the men-women on Drag Race.

9) So my vote for next half-time show is for JINKX MONSOON to be the lead, serving up joyful campy football-tights, helmet hair, 80s shoulder-pad realness, really showing it’s a SHOW, proving that gender is only liberating when it is fluid. I love Jinkx so much I’m going to talk with my therapist about it. I just want to be thrilled by people who perform life, not gender, who test my perception of myself and the world, people who weren’t trained from toddlerhood to conform and perform, people who don’t double down on the neurology that formed around stereotypes they’ll waste their middle age on maintaining, if they even have the money to do it.

10) Actually, strike all that because I’m not sure it’s exactly woke to want drag queens to replace women on stage. Sorry Jinkx! Okay, new idea: Please please PLEASE can we have the four Baroness Von Sketch women to do the next show, so they can punk the whole damn thing. I want to see Meredith MacNeill twist around that brass pole with sanitary wipes. I want to see the Red Wine Ladies get plastered at the 50 yard line and tackle the refs. I want them to make us laugh at all the anxious and tragic things we think we want, and that we think we want to be.

11) Who am I kidding? Jinkx and the Red Wine Ladies will never be hired by the NFL/Fox/Pepsi complex to do the show. We’re seeing what money wants us to see. We’re seeing who those guys want us to see, because their world is the world. Those guys who made it big with Roger Ailes. We’re seeing the perfect balance to the bloody scrimmage. We’re standing there on the sideline with A-Rod. He’s pumping his fist in the air, enjoying what his world can pay for. Do I want to like the world he likes? Do our children have a choice?

_________

Here’s Jinkx Monsoon:

And here’s Meredith MacNeill:

15 Comments

  • “I can celebrate the autonomy of women to reclaim stereotypes.”

    What does this mean?

    “I can be any kind of feminist that suits me”

    Maybe in your own mind? You don’t get to claim the label like an accessory; at most as a man you can be a feminist ally, but it’s for women to decide if you deserve that honorary.

    ” I can be a feminist chameleon, because my own body doesn’t hang in the balance.”

    Of you can just write a self-pitying article devoid of power analysis that stands for absolutely nothing; that sounds even easier.

      • I understand you are pointing out the absurdity of the low standards that surround you, but within that larger argument your language props up some strange ideas. If you meant to critique the notion men can self-appoint themselves feminists, that is not clear.

        “The thing is that men can be publicly conservative/2nd wave or progressive/3rd wave on the issue”

        Was this “ironic”? Can you name a conservative second wave feminist? And this isn’t a division between waves; there have been liberals and radicals in each feminist era.

        • Okay, perhaps the terminology is scrambled, and I apologize. I was attempting, albeit in compressed form, to show that while the spectacle has deep somatic impacts for women, men are able to sideline themselves, as if all that were at stake were abstract political identities

          I am hoping that the irony here about self-appointment is clear, but I’m open to more feedback.

          You know what’s really gross? Whatever side I take, I can feel virtuous. I can win. If I stand with 2nd-wavers I can feel protective of women as an oppressed class. Awesome! If I stand with 3rd-wavers, I can celebrate the autonomy of women to reclaim stereotypes. Yay me! I can be any kind of feminist that suits me, or that the women I’m around want me to be. I can be a feminist chameleon, because my own body doesn’t hang in the balance.

        • I actually do know some humans with conservative values/politics who call themselves second wave feminists. They are explicitly anti third wave.

  • Really. Not ever having seen a football “game” or halftime show, all I know is that my feed has been filled with women commenting — as you point out, Matthew — seemingly divided into those who found it sexist, misogynist and frustratingly stereotypical and those who found it empowering, progressive and critical. Not one male’s comment has popped up in my feed. Curious.

  • Aw, Matthew, in my estimation you are better informed about the variations among waves of feminism than are most women over about age 35 or 40. I find little with which to argue about. I feel similarly as a cis-gendered, middle-aged, somewhat progressive white woman. I didn’t watch (other plans) but I can imagine. Felt like that during Beyoncé’s doc on her Coachella performance.

  • Thanks for taking the time to write this. I struggle with much of the same internal experience and I don’t think a man’s experience translates well for women to understand how this puts us in a pickle.

  • This is a really interesting piece of writing. I appreciate you sharing your insights and reflections on these subjects – you’ve given me new angles on something I think about a lot. Thanks.

  • Thank you so much for writing this article. I too had to look up 2nd and 3rd wave feminism and I was a women’s studies major — you have done your homework and really articulated what I struggled with when watching it. My guess is that many women struggled with this mixed message – and that it is not helping anyone to move towards more authentic relationships and a real celebration of dance.

    It is also important to note that there was a statistic – haven’t looked lately – that more women suffer domestic violence and rape on Super Bowl Sunday than any other day of the year. So the mix of aggression and booze and even more sex from Shakira and JLo certainly didn’t empower everyone.

  • > As a man who was exposed to porn as a boy….

    You say that like it’s Thalidomide.

    So a woman’s naked body has something so powerful and so evil about it that she should protect your poor fragile neurology from the “spectacle” of it, eh?

    You understand what you’re saying here, right? You’re saying that women are somehow responsible for handling your (male) emotions by controlling their bodies for your sake.

    The bit about “as a boy” doesn’t matter. It’s a multiple generation old rite of passage for boys to steal their father’s Playboys and start jacking off to them, or to otherwise start jacking off to fantasies of naked women. Most boys *want* to see naked women, and to fantasize about them. It’s the social/religious environment you were raised in that’s turned naked women and sexual desire into objects of shame, that oh-so-popular Christian boogeyman of “porn.”

    See your own #4. You’re part of the problem. Leave women alone and deal with your own emotions and sexual neurosis. Women can help themselves.

    >>>
    > I’m personally not into being biohacked anymore.

    > … I’m forced into looking through the hardwiring and chemistry of the addiction of gender construction, and by a lifetime of social programming that won’t get me an inch closer to knowing who those women are …
    <<<

    Sorry, but if you were born in America, your “hardwired chemistry” and biology were “biohacked” as an infant, and it’s not “gender construction” that’s your problem. It’s neurological damage from an act of torture and the resulting sensory deprivation.

    Even if you weren’t yourself circumcised, you’ve grown up in a culture where 80% of men were, and their neuroses have become “normal.” We’re all soaked in it.

    Consider Rabbi Moses Maimonides own words in the 12th century: “The Sages, may their memory be blessed, have explicitly stated: It is hard for a woman with whom an uncircumcised man has had sexual intercourse to separate from him. In my opinion this is the strongest of the reasons for circumcision.”

    http://www.cirp.org/library/cultural/maimonides/

    He knew it even then: The purpose of sex is to create the bonds of emotional intimacy required for the stressful process of child rearing, and that emotional intimacy with a woman requires specialized organs – the frenulum and especially the ridged band – which are excised in circumcision, explicitly to break the bonds of intimacy (“knowing who those women are”) between men and women.

    Moreover, in the absence of anyone willing to publish peer-reviewed research (simple MRI scans is all it would take), we can surmise that the torturous act causes neurological damage, as all torture does, and that the removal of ~60,000 specialized nerve endings (or whatever it might be) and some specialized sensory organs, leaves the brain in a state of sensory deprivation.

    We’re all Hungry Ghosts. We’re all chasing something that we’re physically incapable of experiencing — normal sex and emotional intimacy. What should be a healthy desire, has been turned into an obsessive need, that can never be sated. That’s also why being “exposed to porn as a boy” was apparently so traumatic for you – your brain was already damaged, and your need so strong that even a hint of its craving was overwhelming for you.

    So stop blaming women and whatever sexual displays they may or may not want to make, for your “biohacked” neurosis, and recognize that the problem is *you*, and the Christian psychiatrist — John Harvey Kellogg — who had you circumcised, and turned America into sex-Hungry Ghost nation, not to mention St. Augustine who brought the story of Adam and Eve to the forefront of Christianity.

    • I debated for a few days about approving this, and have decided to go ahead to show my readership what a presumptive (to the point of abusive) response looks like.

      First of all: you’ve written an awful lot about my penis here. And my sex life. Do I know you?

      Secondly: being exposed to pornography as a boy is a form of abuse.

      Don’t bother responding. You’re banned.

    • Intactivist; I find your rage troubling; it hurts my heart. Savaging people is not helpful. I wonder if you even realise how angry you are, and whether you understand that attempting to shame people into silence is the opposite of healthy social discourse. Perhaps if it offends you, you should leave this page to those of us who enjoy nuanced discourse about such delicate matters.

      I reiterate my thanks to Matthew, for offering a different perspective from my own (female) one. Thank you for being part of my own healing.

  • Thank you for this devastating piece of writing Matthew. I enjoyed the subjective viewpoint you wove into it. I find writing that is done from a purely theoretical/critical perspective boring and irrelevant, unless you are an academic, whose career is dependent on laboring over such pieces of writing (actually, even in that context it still seems seems boring and irrelevant, but necessary to thrive in the intellectual power structures of that environment, but I digress).

    I love that you waded into this fraught space, where ‘progressives’ want to control the dialogue by responding with venomous rebuke and unhealed rage, rather than the open-hearted inquiry and deep listening that our culture so needs in order to heal and grow healthier.

    I resonated with the way you described the sheer uncomfortability of watching the ’empowered’ performance, and also learned a little of what it’s like to be programmed as male. Thank you for humanising that aspect for me.

    I find it sad that female empowerment and ‘choice’ that the current language of female empowerment does look remarkably like a traditional male fantasy, whether it is intended as such or not. I am also saddened by the effect that the pressure to look like a porn star has on my own daughter’s mental health. I note that empowered men do not sexualise themselves in this way, and so it seems to me that this ’empowerment’ is totally culturally conditioned; business as usual; beauty and desirability as marketplace currency, and through that lens it looks less like empowerment, and more like brainwashing.

    Deepest gratitude Matthew, for your honest, thought provoking writing.

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