A Super Bowl for the People

Somehow Madonna pulled off an amazing feat during the Super Bowl: bringing gay culture and aggressive female sexuality into the heart of masculinity’s holiest of days without anyone seeming to care. While the cheerleading segment was embarrassingly silly, I otherwise have to disagree with Tom Carson’s assessment that the Super Bowl’s narrative was Clint Eastwood versus Madonna, with Clint winning. I’m more in the camp of Tom’s friend who said, “It was Clint AND Madonna.”

Madonna was hauled onto the field by an army of half-naked men in gladiator costumes and then sang  “Vogue,” a song about a dance style invented and nourished in gay nightclubs. Madonna even rolled out “Like A Prayer”, a number that used to bait conservatives with its provocative blend of sexual and religious themes. Yet, the only offended response from the guardians of moral purity the Monday after the show was half-hearted complaining that hip-hop performer M.I.A., who joined Madonna and rapper Nicky Minaj onstage, threw the finger at the camera, which network censors blurred out anyway. This year’s Super Bowl narrative is one of big strides made toward less sexism and more inclusion. That strikes me as a big change, and one worth celebrating.

The Super Bowl occupies a surprisingly ambiguous cultural space in our society. On the one hand, it’s the culmination of the football season, a beer-and-wings climax of months of traditional American hyper-masculinity. On the other hand, it’s supposed to be a fun-for-the-whole family event where folks—including those who otherwise don’t watch football—set aside their differences, pick a team to root for, and, if they can’t enjoy the game, at least enjoy the snacks. The elaborate halftime show and obsession over the game’s commercials speak to the huge portion of the audience that has no relationship to everyday football culture and tunes in purely for the spectacle.

This year, both in the presentation of the game and in the advertising around it, the “boys club” attitude waned while the spirit of inclusivity waxed. Sure, there were some sexist ads and the inevitable Monday morning online feminist critiques of them. This response is important because it holds advertisers accountable to audiences. One of the major offenders, Go Daddy, escalated its condescending cheesecake gag with a dream world featuring Danica Patrick, an athlete who has succeeded in a male-dominated sport, frolicking on a cloud. One ad for the Fiat Abarth featured a sexy woman dressing down a nerdy man and seducing him before the camera revealed that the entire episode was just a fantasy provoked by a beautiful car. It was hard to be angry about it, though, because the ad was partly a critique of its own tactic to market products by objectifying women and men.  

When it came to the maxim that sex sells, marketers seemed to realize that they had a huge portion of the audience that likes to look at men, too. A sexy ad for H&M showing David Beckham in his skivvies certainly caused everyone in my living room to pause, if only to make jokes about whether conservative football fans would be angrier about Beckham’s nakedness or the fact that he became famous for playing that other football.

But that was about it for overt sexual messages. The general strategy of advertisers was to cast the widest net possible, using gender-neutral techniques such as silly humor or nostalgia. Compare the strategies to the infamous slate of sexist commercials in 2010. That year, Budweiser relied on shrill wives/loutish husband jokes; this year the company went with narrative ads that spoke to a shared American history. The 2010 ad for the Dodge Charger, which is manufactured by Chrysler, was the stand-out in a field of sexist commercials that year—titled “Man’s Last Stand,” the ad argued that men live shadowy lives oppressed by women. This year, Chrysler went with an uplifting commercial celebrating the survival of Detroit that could, as Jamelle Bouie argued, double as an Obama ad. Dog jokes and Betty White filled in the rest of the dance card for Super Bowl 2012.

The whole event made the lyrics to “Music,” the second song Madonna performed during her halftime show, sound downright prescient: “Music makes the people/come together.” Except that the glue holding 111.3 million viewers together wasn’t well-produced club music but the Super Bowl itself. Let’s hope this new spirit of football for everyone sticks around; in a country torn apart by attacks from culture warriors lashing out at everyone from gays to empowered women, it was a nice break from all the hatred.

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