Faint Lines in the Sand: Sex, Art, and Beyonce

Everyone loves Beyonce. I mean, there’s a reason that one-third of all Americans tuned in to watch her perform last Sunday.  Time Magazine also happened to notice Beyonce’s cultural power: she was more important than the Superbowl on twitter.

Look at her, you can understand why:

I was sitting in a very small room filled with 30 people (can you feel my introverted angst?) when the football players finally sat down and let Queen B take the stage. Every woman in that very tiny room hushed the room and all eyes were glued to the screen.

I thought it was marvelous.  She is the diva–and I mean that in the best possible sense–of our generation.

But a question has arisen from that performance: where is that oh-so-indistinct indistinct line between sexy and crude?

Every person sees the line differently. Some–myself included–had a gut reaction akin to: “Heck, yes, an empowered, talented, beautiful, and admirable woman doing her thing.”  On the other hand some, like Katherine Jean Lopez, whom I also admire greatly, responded “Why can’t we have a national entertainment moment that does not include a mother gyrating in a black teddy?”

The next day, I watched Facebook and the twitter-verse explode with reactions.  Some of them, like the following, attacked her with blatant sexism:

This “slut-shaming”–attempting to shame Beyonce and her fans by telling them that she is unattractive–is the opposite of dialogue or logic.  Stupidity shouldn’t be given a voice.

However, others began to respectfully question whether Beyonce had pushed the envelope too far for decent christian men and women. As Elizabeth Duffy over at Patheos wrote: “Performing a strip-tease for an international audience that includes millions of people is not wrong because the gal doing it might be deemed “unattractive,” but because it violates a host of other virtues.”

So, we encounter the heart of the issue: was Beyonce’s performance too sexual? Ashley McGuire and Emily Esfahani Smith over at Accultured.com both wrote excellent pieces answering the charge.

Ashley pointed to Beyonce’s positive cultural influence.  Beyonce is a feminist in some of the best senses: she is pro-family, pro-child, and pro-woman.  She married the man she loved (she may have even saved herself for him).  They had their first child–the adorable Blue Ivyafterwards. In addition to anthems like Independent WomenBeyonce is dedicated to providing young girls examples of strong women.  Just look at her Superbowl support cast: an entirely female cast.

First Ashley and then Emily tackled the sticky issue of Beyonce’s sex appeal. Yes, Beyonce is considered one of the most beautiful women in the world. She has thighs, breasts, and a butt.  And she uses them all at various points. Beyond the skin that Beyonce might show, she is a powerful–and sexual–dancer. As her foot stomped the stage, she didn’t shy away from a few hip thrusts. Ashley pointed out that Beyonce 1) is a dancer and 2) displayed limited skin: her thighs instead of her breasts.

So, yes, she was sexy.  Emily’s piece answered the comments that posed the contrast between Beyonce’s  positive cultural influence and her sexiness.  Is it possible to be sexy and traditional?

Firstly, it is important to understand that women are sexy. We are. It’s how we were made.  And art–whether it be painted, sculpted, or danced–generally includes that aspect of femininity.  There is a reason that Botticelli’s Birth of Venus is both sexual and one of the world’s most celebrated pieces of art:

However, Emily brought up the distinction between sexy and trashy.  For instance, there is a difference between the low-cut shirt and the low-back dress. Also, it is not the sole responsibility of women to save men from lust–the reasoning behind the Islamic burqa.

The question then is, where is the line? The extremes are easy to see: Islamic burqa vs. Hugh Hefner’s playboy bunny. One considers women’s natural–beautiful–form to be sinful and places the burden of respect for that form entirely on the woman.  The other extreme doesn’t even acknowledge the sin of lust.  It turns the beautiful form into an object. As JP II said:

“The problem with pornography isn’t that it shows too much, it’s that it shows too little.”

But what about in-between? Is Beyonce okay, but Victoria’s Secret show not? Must Beyonce wear pants–or a skirt past her knees–to be decent?  What then should ballet dancers wear to divert the male eye? Where does the line between art and pornographic imagery diverge? Should we place the burden of chastity wholly on men while women strut the streets in whatever they please?

There isn’t a metric to answer this question.  There aren’t a number of inches a tutu must extend or fine distinctions between the provocations of a hip thrust and the sensual salsa. I would answer a few questions that should be answered:

1) Intent: was Beyonce’s intent to reduce the world to lust?  Na, I think she was portraying power. Feminine power to be sure, but power nonetheless.

2) Reaction: Despite intent, would men react to the display as temptation? After every confession, we Catholics renounce our sins and in that prayer, promise “to avoid the near occasion of sin.” Many of the men I know try hard to avoid temptation.  Do Beyonce-like shows encourage or detour that struggle?

As much I want to leap to my favorite Diva’s defense, I realize that I can’t answers these questions perfectly, either for Beyonce or her audience.  At the end of the day, no one’s perfect.  Maybe we should admire what’s awesome–this song–and not be afraid to say, “maybe a touch too far.”

10 thoughts on “Faint Lines in the Sand: Sex, Art, and Beyonce

  1. Whenever people critique Queen B, I too silence them by thrusting them in the light of her halo.

    I mean, is she oozing sexuality from every single pore? Absolutely yes. Would I let my daughter dress like her? Absolutely not.

    But after years of women like Brittany Spears or Jessica Simpson showing that acting like a sex symbol on stage also means being a total skunk the rest of the time, there is something almost affirming about Beyonce. She is power. She owns the stage. She reduces us all to tweeting/ bickering/ adoring masses. And then she gets on with her overall respectable life.

    So, is there a sort of empowered, confident, women role model that Beyonce is filling in a good way? Yes.

    • I like her, but I can also acknowledge that the things I like aren’t that important. I think her power is impressive and exciting…and I think she uses it in the wrong way. She’s married and didn’t have a child till she was married…but it’s widely-discussed that they have an open marriage. Basically, I think I’m letting myself off the hook when I say she’s “not that bad”. Too bad…because her hair is awesome.

      • I agree. I want to say everything she does is perfect. I completely get a hero complex when she walks on the stage.
        But–at the same time–she’s human.
        Oh, Divas.

      • You might be right…. but then I get blinded by the light of her halo and I forget all other logic.

        Also, Jay-z is an idiot… WHO ON EARTH WOULD SHARE BEYONCE?? Stupid open marriage.

  2. I cannot speak for the rest of the world but me as a Catholic Christian I go to 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 “Therefore, if food causes my brother to sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I may not cause my brother to sin.” which Paul said in reference to early Christians would buy meat sacrificed to idols: we know that “there is no idol in the world,” and that “there is no God but one.” However, there were new Christians who had formerly worshiped the false idols whose consciences were weak.

    1 Corinthians 8:7-13 “There are some who have been so used to idolatry up until now that, when they eat meat sacrificed to idols, their conscience, which is weak, is defiled. Now food will not bring us closer to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, nor are we better off if we do. But make sure that this liberty of yours in no way becomes a stumbling block to the weak. If someone sees you, with your knowledge, reclining at table in the temple of an idol, may not his conscience too, weak as it is, be “built up” to eat the meat sacrificed to idols? Thus through your knowledge, the weak person is brought to destruction, the brother for whom Christ died. When you sin in this way against your brothers and wound their consciences, weak as they are, you are sinning against Christ. Therefore, if food causes my brother to sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I may not cause my brother to sin.”

    We also as Christians out of love for our brothers and sisters not cause one of these to sin. So maybe a brother has had a problem with lust, we should help our brother and view those things which which help him be a better Christian and turn the channel for him.

  3. We are feeding souls a meal that can’t satisfy in the long run. We adore at the wrong altar. It is sad that this is what is considered “strong” for the feminine. I find internal natural feminine instincts far more praise-worthy than the ones encouraged by lustful 18 year-old men. It is very sad to me, and very scary. I hold up women like Mother Teresa, Susan B Anthony, Sandra Day O’Connor, the Austen sisters, the Brontes, etc.

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