The Super Bowl LIV Halftime Show was one for the books. It had everything a bicultural 90s kid and cyberfeminist like me would want: medleys from two of my childhood icons (Shakira and JLo), performances by two of my current favorite Latino artists (Bad Bunny and J Balvin), stunning costume and production design, fabulous choreography, a 50-year-old mom of two twirling on a pole whilst delivering some vocals. I could truly go on. Those fourteen minutes of pure entertainment from two powerhouse Latina women was amazing. Unfortunately, I cannot fully embrace this performance as a positive historic milestone for Latinos without acknowledging its complexity and complicity with systemic oppression.
I’ll preface this critique by saying that my qualms with the performance have nothing to do with the conservative backlash at the pole dancing and outfits incorporated into the show. To be clear, Susan, the NFL cheerleaders practically perform in bikinis all season with very little backlash. So let’s take several seats and stop policing brown bodies and sensuality as art just because they sang in Spanish.
My critique has nothing to do with the art itself, or the overall act of elevating Latinx culture on such a mainstream platform. The little brown girl in me who used to belly dance in front of the TV while Shakira was on, or the one who memorized the breakdown choreography from ‘Get Right’ in elementary school- with the cane and everything- was LIVING. And that’s exactly why this stirs so much in me about how complex it is to discuss the concept of “Latinidad” in all its glory and flaws. I am not of Colombian nor Puerto Rican descent like the performers, yet the sense of connection to my culture through the language, music, rhythms, dances, and joy, allow me to feel connected to this historic performance. On the other hand, what often comes with Latinidad/Latinx pride is a lack of intersectionality, solidarity, and overall recognition that whiteness, even within minority groups, is equal to privilege.
Last year, Rihanna made headlines when she got real about why she declined the Halftime Show in a Vogue interview: “For what? Who gains from that? Not my people. I just couldn’t be a sellout. I couldn’t be an enabler. There’s things within that organization that I do not agree with at all, and I was not about to go and be of service to them in any way.” Another major artist, Cardi B, who is of Dominican descent, turned the Super Bowl down because of her convictions about the NFL’s handling of the Colin Kaepernick issue.
It is also true that boycotting and solidarity are individual choices, and that policing people’s decisions to enable systemic racism and oppression is moot. So, Jennifer Lopez’s decision, and later Shakira’s, to take a job is valid. But it also speaks to the privilege that both of these artists have.
From the issue of cultural appropriation, the Halftime Show was not exempt. Bad Bunny, a personal favorite modern reggaeton artist of mine and white Puerto Rican, was donning a shiny durag during his performance– and the irony or privilege was not lost on me. In 2001, the NFL banned players from wearing durags, in a move that stigmatized black expression. Shakira was praised for bringing her Lebanese heritage to the mainstream stage through Middle Eastern/Arab dancing. She also brought two typical Afro-Colombian dances, Champeta and Mapalé, which is great, and, Shakira has long been removed from racial tensions in Colombia, starting with her skin being white. To clarify, white people can enjoy and elevate Afro-Latinx/Black art. It does become questionable, though, when the white artists profit from this, while systemic oppression of and racial injustice towards Black players is still an issue. (See the NFL’s controversial attempt at saving face through a PR move with Jay-Z.)
Aside from the blatant anti-blackness, personally defined by me in this case as white silence and appropriation, my final wave of uneasiness during the performance came during the popularly praised imagery of children in neon cages on the stadium field. I felt sick. At first I thought it was because of the imagery evoked, and the nod toward an issue that has yet to be properly addressed. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I felt sick because those children were probably paid to sit on that field, those neon “cages” were purchased and built by a tech crew paid to build them, all for the sake of spectacle. I thought of the weird sense of commodification around a deeply traumatic and agonizing experience for migrants, particularly from Central America. Frances Lee wrote in a Medium article, “When the ability to feel the pain of marginalized people becomes an experiential checkbox, it can create the comforting sense of having done something to help, when you have actually done nothing.” And that was truly uncomfortable to watch, despite the well-intentioned efforts made by the show production team. Creative directors Tabitha and Napoleon Dumo explained some of the imagery they envisioned with JLo, saying “someone can put you in cages or you can put yourself in cages, so it’s a bigger statement to everyone to see your own potential and not feel limited in this life that we have that’s so special here in this country.” JLo herself has spoken out against the separation of families in the past, and took to social media to reinforce her messaging about using your voice in regards to the Halftime Show. Awareness is necessary in order to raise critical consciousness, especially on such far-reaching media platforms. But in this instance, the amount of spectacle and the abandonment of intersectional solidarity was not enough to create this. Those who already empathize with children in cages continue to empathize, and those who didn’t focused on JLo’s pole-dancing.
Latinx representation in mainstream media is one of my biggest personal ambitions. But my “Latinidad” comes from the beautiful infusion of Black and Indigenous art and culture in my heritage. Latinx representation that profits off of the black and brown bodies is hardly progressive. And this Super Bowl performance, as entertaining and exciting as it was, did not deliver fully as a form of political statement. Just a few years ago, civil rights leader Angela Davis said, ”Diversity is a corporate strategy. It’s a strategy designed to ensure that the institution functions in the same way that it functioned before, except now that you now have some black faces and brown faces. It’s a difference that doesn’t make a difference.”