Perhaps Rihanna's Super Bowl Halftime Show Isn’t the Feminist Unicorn You Wanted?

Nipplegate or Janetgate: these are the most commonly used shorthands for the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show. Significantly, the most controversial halftime show in modern memory bears either the name of a woman’s reproductive body part or the name of a woman who today could appear on a poster for the #MeToo movement. We may never have full details about how exactly the “wardrobe malfunction” with Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson occurred, but for Catholics who have any regard for human dignity—and for millennial Catholic feminists like myself especially—what happened to Janet Jackson during and in the immediate aftermath of that Super Bowl halftime show marks one of my first memories of the ways in which women’s bodies and whole selves are routinely commodified and discarded for public consumption.

There is perhaps no better exemplum for Pope Francis’s caution against throwaway culture than the errant liturgy undergirding that Super Bowl show: Justin Timberlake ripping off Janet Jackson’s bustier, singing he’s “gotta have you naked by the end of this song,” fireworks exploding on cue in the background and Jackson’s full breast lying exposed for all to see. Then—Jackson crying and being covered with a blanket backstage, and Timberlake smiling and giving charming interviews about his “fun” and “steamy” performance.

As readers likely know, Janet Jackson’s career tanked; she was banned from the Grammys that year (and has never returned), while Timberlake appeared not only at that year’s Grammys but has remained a staple of the awards show ever since. A movie role was quickly rescinded for Jackson post-Super Bowl, advertising related to her music was nixed, and her career spiraled because of industry blacklisting. Timberlake’s star continued to rise though; hit after hit, opportunity after opportunity fell into his lap. His “Teflon” public persona ascended further after he groped and capitalized off of a woman’s body for the entire world to see.

This narrative trope frames a well-known, repeated patriarchal pattern that women, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, know all too well: scandal of this ilk damages women while it emboldens and empowers men. For Christians, the story of Bathsheba, her silencing and rape, might spring to mind. In 2018, Timberlake reappeared at the Super Bowl, smiling and giving charming interviews once more, even performing “Rock Your Body” without Jackson in attendance. Following his appearance, album sales, streaming downloads, and website traffic—where he promoted his newly released album “Man of the Woods”—all skyrocketed.

The album image of Timberlake alone, in the American wilderness, is a little harrowing when one considers the Black woman artist he used to catapult his superstardom years earlier. There is no call for solidarity in the image Timberlake fashions for himself on the album, no “greater sense of responsibility,” no “strong sense of community.” Likewise, whereas the 2004 halftime show featured six artists, in 2018 Justin Timberlake headlined alone—his own capitalist enterprise.

The Super Bowl in general is of course a moneymaking operation through and through; commodification and capitalism are its ready bedfellows. The NFL makes “tens of millions of dollars” each year off this most-watched television spectacle in the United States. If at this point in this essay, I am losing readers who are football fans, note that I would not be writing this were I not an avid fan of the sport myself: bear with me, fellow fans, if you will.

Even if you paint your body in support of your team, take off your shirt in the most frigid climates, or have stormed the field as I have after a thrilling upset, perhaps you still can concede that the Super Bowl functions within a highly capitalist framework meant to generate money. Does not the fact that we look forward to Super Bowl commercials as a society speak for itself?[1]

Together, as fans—as Catholic fans—it is my hope that we can begin to untangle how, if as Nicole Lapin of Forbes Magazine analogizes, “the Super Bowl is to money as the Met Gala is to fashion,” we can be more thoughtful consumers of the event, particularly when we contemplate how the few women who have participated in it and who have taken center stage during halftime have been treated over the years. Likewise, it is my hope that even the most avid National Football League fans, nineteen years after the 2004 halftime show, might now be able to acknowledge that the way the NFL and Justin Timberlake collectively used Janet Jackson’s body for their own gain, to put it in the lightest possible terms, is on some level morally objectionable.

Exposing Janet Jackson’s breast for mass entertainment and profit, and then refusing to offer her any true form of communal support, does not meet the standards of social responsibility that we ought to have for each other as fellow humans.[2] If you are not convinced yet, consider that over 140 million people watched Janet Jackson have her breast uncovered in public—a moment she called embarrassing—yet that did not stop but rather piqued the desire of audiences who then watched and re-watched this moment time and time again.

It might be helpful here to bring in Laura Mulvey’s foundational work in feminist film criticism in which she writes,

In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness. Women displayed as sexual object is the leit-motiff of sexual object: from pin-ups to striptease, from Ziegfeld to Busby Berkeley, she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire . . . The presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a storyline, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation.[3]

Though not a film, the Super Bowl is high narrative performance art in the United States, perhaps the highest narrative performance art the country collectively participates in. Two rival teams, usually from different geographical areas, compete to see which is the strongest, the bravest, the most skilled. As a nation, we bring together our best athletes, watch them prepare, and become invested in their stories. Their stories become our stories. Which part of the country will reign supreme? Who will prove victorious? Will it be us? In 2023, 74% of men in the United States acknowledged that they were likely or very likely to tune into the Super Bowl, their gazes locked on this narrative spectacle that told part of their stories.

Return now to Mulvey’s feminist analysis of film: “the presence of woman” in a halftime show does not continue the narrative of the Super Bowl—but I suggest that it “plays to and signifies male desire.” It freezes the flow of action. Janet Jackson’s 2004 Nipplegate provided the ultimate in “erotic contemplation,” not developing the Super Bowl storyline but adding to the pleasure of the viewing experience because it provided that woman-as-object eroticization to the grand-scale storyline that the male populace had tuned in to watch.

In this schema, Janet Jackson loses her personhood; she becomes a commodity to enhance the viewing pleasure of the male gaze invested in a story where she acts as sexual diversion. Even inviting Justin Timberlake back to headline the Super Bowl in 2018 hearkened nostalgically back to the Nipplegate moment: that show was a continuance of a storyline that the male viewer remembered and lusted over once more. Jackson as nipple; Jackson as shame. Viewers, and Justine Timberlake alike, never had to look her in the eye to derive pleasure from that moment once again.

We could, however, look at her body whenever we wanted. This was an entirely different world than that of fourteen years earlier. By 2018, men (and women) could look up the 2004 halftime show while watching the 2018 show. Jackson was generating money for Justin Timberlake and the NFL without being present at the Super Bowl at all. Significantly, she was also making money for other men. In 2004, Jawed Karim missed the Super Bowl halftime show and could not find it online. As a result, he and two male friends had the idea for a website called YouTube, a service that would allow a performance like this to be shared.

As soon as YouTube was launched in 2005, its success was due in large part to other viewers like themselves looking up the Jackson show. Thus, in 2018, Jackson’s physical, social, and spiritual reality, her whole personhood, did not matter in the least. As aforementioned, her most demeaning moment in 2004 was pointedly referenced onstage at the 2018 show when Timberlake sang “Rock Your Body” again. He stopped right before the song’s most infamous line, grinned mischievously for the camera, and essentially invited viewers to remember what had happened years prior. We can only imagine what was happening on YouTube at that exact moment.

In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis cautions that new forms of media allow us new paths toward solidarity that can work toward the common good, but it contains the danger of isolating us from truly considering others as whole persons. He writes,

Today’s media do enable us to communicate and to share our knowledge and affections. Yet at times they also shield us from direct contact with the pain, the fears and the joys of others and the complexity of their personal experiences. For this reason, we should be concerned that, alongside the exciting possibilities offered by these media, a deep and melancholic dissatisfaction with interpersonal relations, or a harmful sense of isolation, can also arise (§47).

YouTube was created to share content between friends distanced from each other by time and location—but that concept was born from one man’s desire to see Janet Jackson’s nipple. This does not mean that such a platform cannot contribute to the common good. Importantly, we ought to consider how far we are removed from the pain of the other when we create groups, or are in groups, that are formed with an original intent that does not align with our better purposes. The dangers of isolating people and using them for pleasure, and profit, are intentionally built into today’s media platforms. They are built into the media we watch together like the Super Bowl and the commercial-laden videos we consume on YouTube. Perhaps a sense of isolation is even naturally a configuration of our souls when put in contact with this type of media.

This brings me to the 2023 halftime show when we had another woman onstage, Rihanna. I, like many other Catholic women and feminists in my newsfeed and social media platforms, originally felt elated at the performance. Rihanna’s halftime show did not seem anything like Janet Jackson’s. In fact, it was the opposite. It is impossible to convey what it felt like as the mother of two young children to watch a pregnant woman onstage in the middle of the largest television event of the year. In a profession like academia—for which I was repeatedly told to abstain from having children until after getting a job, until after obtaining tenure, and to space my children so they could arrive at times that would not disrupt the academic calendar—seeing a woman onstage, pregnant, doing her job and doing it well, frankly, I wanted to scream for joy.

What a risk for her, I thought. Rihanna gave birth in May 2022 to a son, and here she was back in February 2023, pregnant again, singing at the Super Bowl. She was making one of the most masculine realms in the world work around her, and so cater to her body and her needs. Reading Rihanna’s comments about her choice to perform confirmed my initial ecstatic feelings:

When you become a mom, there’s something that just happens where you feel like you could take on the world—you can do anything,” she added. “And the Super Bowl is one of the biggest stages in the world, so as scary as that was . . . there’s something exhilarating about the challenge of it all,” she said. “It’s important for my son to see that.”

Suffice it to say, I was so entranced by Rihanna’s pregnancy that I did not pay attention to much of the performance at all; my elation was centered squarely on the notion that perhaps we had moved forward as a culture. Here we were, finally embracing pregnant bodies in the public arena. Predictably, as with most Super Bowl halftime shows (and like Justin Timberlake’s), Rihanna immediately began to profit from her performance, and she plans to release a new album later this year. Good news all around, or so it seemed.

In preparation for writing this article, I re-watched Rihanna’s performance, and I began to wonder at my initial, single-note reaction to Rihanna’s performance. This is a challenging turn in this essay, and I want to be careful to reiterate that I continue to rejoice in Rihanna’s pregnancy and in her motherhood. I merely am second-guessing my initial reaction to take the entire show full-cloth as a holistic feminist good. That the United States populace finds Rihanna’s pregnant body almost as shocking in 2023 as a fully exposed breast was in 2004 is perhaps not the cause for elation I originally thought; rather, it foretells the apprehension we still all have about women’s pregnant bodies.

Do any readers readily know if 2021’s performer The Weekend has any children or if his wife or girlfriend were pregnant when he performed? Do any of us care, and did any of us think of it when he performed? (He doesn’t have children and isn’t married. I looked it up.) How many children does Justin Timberlake have? Does it affect his performance? I wondered if I would have been as in shock if any woman performer during a 2023 Super Bowl halftime show had revealed her breast onstage this year, or even if her breast had been revealed for her for that matter, as I was in shock—giddy even—to witness a pregnant woman onstage.

Was my particular Catholic, feminist gaze locked in on the pleasure of one narrative viewing experience only, so much so that it clouded everything else? Was I perhaps guilty of not seeing Rihanna as a whole person, but commodifying her body? Was I even narcissistically seeing myself? Mulvey relates that a reflective turn is part of the eroticization of the female body on screen: the woman is passive. We see ourselves reflected in her, and it feeds our “ego libido,”[4] as Freud would say. It is no longer about the woman on stage, or about her art, her personhood: it is about us. It is about our egos, our agendas.

When rewatching the performance, I thought that Rihanna’s song choices were fine; some performances and songs I enjoyed quite a bit (“We Found Love”) and others I found lackluster. “B**ch Better Have My Money” is a particularly capitalist number, and I did not enjoy the choreography on that one at all. Throughout the performance, Rihanna rubbed her pregnant belly, and her crotch. Her pregnant belly, like the rest of her sexualized body, was commodified in dance. Her entire body provided an erotic spectacle, a marker of the usual Super Bowl performance anytime women are involved. My gaze as a mother, like the heterosexual men in the room I was in, had been locked onto Rihanna, but we were all gazing for different reasons. Empowered motherhood. Sexual titillation. Rihanna’s concert offered something for all viewers.

I remind readers at this juncture that the Super Bowl is an economic juggernaut, one that uses narrative, and women’s bodies, to generate money, time and time again. Readers of this journal likely need no reminder that in June 2022 the Dobbs decision transformed our country, overturning Roe v. Wade and signaling a win for the Pro-Life movement. It has made pregnancy—and discussion of it—hotly debated and controversial. That Rihanna chose to reveal her pregnancy at the Super Bowl is perhaps brave—but it is also a smart economic strategy. Her performance is now the highest-ranked Super Bowl show in history, with over 118.7 million viewers. It garnered more attention and viewers than the game itself.

And soon after, her performance and her on-stage body was used to further others’ agendas and profit margins—much like Janet Jackson’s. Opinions were sought. Memes—snippets of Rihanna’s physical image—created and pushed. Donald Trump, Shaq, Abby Johnson, Adele, all were caught up in the maelstrom of the Rihanna halftime performance aftermath. Rapper Chris Brown even took it as a moment to rant on Instagram about how he’s “tired” of being reminded about assaulting Rihanna when they dated. The conversation that women’s performances, and bodies, generate, and the reductionism we can all be debased to for the sake of profit margins, agendas, egoism, and entertainment is frankly disturbing.

Rihanna’s revelation that she was pregnant at the Super Bowl provided a litmus test for our country, and it is one where we all predictably fell into our camps. “Shut the F**k Up!”, says referee Shaq. We either loved the show or we hated it. We did not partake in nuance. In 2023, both Rihanna and the National Football League profited economically from all our immediate reactions, but it was Rihanna who had to sit through days of Madonna/Whore finger-pointing. This might be better than what happened to Janet Jackson. However, profit with emotional cost, or with a blind acceptance of the commodification of women’s bodies, ought not be our end goal as Catholics.

It is certainly not mine as a Catholic feminist. What did we say about Rihanna, about her pregnancy, about her show, both during and after it? Was what we said true, and, if so, was it fully true? Is it ever right to let any woman be used, even if she makes money—this time—from it? What if this behavior and discourse is simply part of our society? Is it ok then? When speaking again of the influx of new media and throwaway culture in Laudato Si’, Pope Francis reminds us:

Efforts need to be made to help these media become sources of new cultural progress for humanity and not a threat to our deepest riches. True wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons, is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data which eventually leads to overload and confusion, a sort of mental pollution (§47).

When we consume cultural events like the Super Bowl we can often enter the digital conversation quickly and offer our opinions to each other in real-time offhandedly. What did others think of this performance?

Then, the turn becomes: how ought we react as we gauge what others around us thought? Our moral compasses adjust to the humans next to us and those far away on social media. We risk becoming overloaded. Our souls and our minds perhaps become tainted—no longer attuned to the Holy Spirit but to the opinions of anyone who types the fastest or has the hottest take. This is not to say we should not enter into cultural conversations or have initial reactions. I invite us only to pause before we trust that our initial reaction to any matter of public accord is the right one. I invite us to be generous to each other with our opinions and always to be open to dialogue and reformulation. Perhaps most importantly, I invite us to remember that any encounter between humans is always a genuine and potentially transformative one—whether it is with a person on stage, with the person next to us, or with a person on social media—and thus ought always to be treated as such.

My husband, who was once a sports journalist, often quips, “Not everything is sports journalism,” meaning that our first reactions to a news story are rarely our best and usually ought not be our last. I will take his quip a step further for this article: not even everything in the Super Bowl ought to be sports journalism either. A recognition of human dignity should be retained in those stories too. They, too, require that we examine our consciences and reflect afterward. To decide perhaps that Rihanna’s performance was indeed exciting in that it showed a pregnant woman at the Super Bowl remains a possible position one could have.

Still, the 2023 halftime did not end with an ideal, singular agenda for anyone involved with it, much less Rihanna, whose body was publicly scrutinized and used for gain and profit by a variety of actors. Janet Jackson’s and Rihanna’s Super Bowl shows were both focused on their bodies. We ought to try to see and appreciate their whole selves, their whole performances, and the aftermath of them, for what they were. That will take time, dialogue, and self-reflection for each of us.

Earlier, I mentioned that a highlight of Rihanna’s performance was when she sang one of my favorite songs: “We Found Love in a Hopeless Place.” Perhaps I enjoyed this number so much because for me what it means to be a Catholic feminist in the twenty-first century reflects a similar message: finding love amid the many Internet hot takes—hot takes that can often feel as if they are floating in a hopeless place.

[1] This year I watched a countdown with my children of the best Super Bowl commercials of all time—with commercials in between the countdown of commercials. If this does not bespeak the Super Bowl’s vast capitalist breadth, I am not sure what does.

[2] Unless, that is, you are Tom Brady, who recently remarked that Janet Jackson’s humiliation “was probably a good thing for the NFL because everyone got to talk about it, and it was just more publicity and more publicity for halftime shows.”

[3] Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen, vol. 16, no. 3 (Autumn 1975): 6–18: 11.

[4] Ibid., 18.

Featured Image: Screen Capture from official Apple TV Super Bowl show YouTube video, FAIR USE.


LuElla D’Amico

LuElla D’Amico is Associate Professor of English and the Women’s and Gender Studies Coordinator at the University of the Incarnate Word. She is the editor of Girls’ Series Fiction and American Popular Culture and co-editor of Reading Transatlantic Girlhood in the Long Nineteenth Century.

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