Censoring Women: On CBS, Beyoncé, and the Grammys

Last Sunday, Beyoncé brought us to tears when she took the Super Bowl stage. As a new mother and an icon for our generation, there she was, emanating confidence, beauty, power, earth-shattering vocals, and dare we say, womanly sex appeal.

Unfortunately, a double-standard persists: women are valued by their ability to be sexually appealing, while at the same time not allowed to express their sexual desires. Women, like Beyoncé, who publicly express their sexuality are often criticized for taking advantage of their sex appeal in order to gain social capital. This impossible framework negates the value of empowerment through sexual freedom and ownership of the female body. Growing up female-bodied, and attempting to come into our own individual sexualites, and do so in a way that is not defined by other people and their standards, has been incredibly challenging. When we watched  Beyoncé strut across the stage in a black lace and leather leotard and own it, we finally felt comfortable embodying that fearlessness. We felt that it was okay to have sexual desires without any implications, positive or negative. Here it was, female sexuality, live at the the American Super Bowl.

beyonce badass
Shortly after her performance, a memo was released to Grammy attendees reminding them of the dress code for the CBS public broadcast. Still riding high on Beyoncé’s performance, we were knocked back down to earth by CBS’s statement, which was made public by outraged performers. These new rules, established just last year, are incredibly oppressive and gendered in ways that it is hard to believe that are even acceptable today. The memo reads:

“Please be sure that buttocks and female breasts are adequately covered. Thong type costumes are problematic. Please avoid exposing bare fleshy under curves of the buttocks and buttock crack. Bare sides or under curvature of the breasts is also problematic. Please avoid sheer see-through clothing that could possibly expose female breast nipples. Please be sure the genital region is adequately covered so that there is no visible ‘puffy’ bare skin exposure. OBSCENITY OR PARTIALLY SEEN OBSCENITY ON WARDROBE IS UNACCEPTABLE FOR BROADCAST.”

First of all, we have some questions. What do they mean by “problematic” (mentioned twice in the statement)? What is problematic about the sideboob, the “bare sides or under curvature of the breasts”? Could someone please tell us where we could find the “‘puffy’ bare skin”, because we have no idea what that means? Our cheeks are a bit fleshy, and I am wondering if thats inappropriate. Does “please avoid” mean that celebrities who arrive in prohibited clothing will be denied publicity by CBS? Is anyone really going to tell J-Lo she can’t rock a low-cut, Versace, sheer, tropical print dress??

jlo badass
An important moment in pop culture

Defenders of this statement say that CBS is a public network, viewed by many families of all ages and comfort-levels, but this does not entirely explain their intentions. Left to speculation, we have come up with some possibilities.

In the rosiest of lights, they are trying to prevent women from being objectified. Unfortunately, by assuming that female nudity and choice of dress is inherently objectifying, CBS is a complicit actor in objectification. To reduce a multidimensional woman to her two-dimensional image neglects the complex decision-making process that goes into what we see on stage.  By labeling certain things (namely the female body) as inappropriate, we send clear messages about what is “respectable.” Namely, female empowerment and sexuality fall outside of what is deemed appropriate for public television.

In a less optimistic light, we could view this decision as an attempt to impose morals upon performers and viewers alike. This imposition pushes us toward an ever more conservative public narrative about sex. While women’s rights, reproductive justice, and gay marriage laws sweep the headlines daily, we are seeing conservative push-back against cultural merging of the public and private spheres. The Christian Post quoted Marcy Douglas, a right-wing Public Relations specialist, to have said:

“It is about time that we have some standards and show some class. Some artists take it too far. I know that fashion is subjective but some people take it too the far left. Television needs to bring back morals and place a few limitations.”

We wonder, what are they trying to protect viewers from exactly? Does CBS want to return to the days when women were seen and not heard? CBS seems to think it can be the moral arbiter that can deem what is reasonable and centrist for the rest of us. They have chosen to censor women’s sexuality as “problematic,” and deny women of validation and voice.

To take away the freedom of dress takes away freedom of expression and could arguably fringe upon First amendment rights. Another component of this dress code is that artists cannot wear anything that may be construed as political or promoting a cause. This decision further delineates an arbitrary boundary between our personal and political lives. This line continues to privatize political power. Keep in mind that these people are artists; they participate in cultural production and reflect the pressures, lifestyles, and discourses that surround them. As products of our culture, we might instead want to consider what their performances are intended to highlight and question the reasons for wanting to censor their expression.

The policing of our nation’s women is nothing new. The double standard argument has been happening since the Victorian era. In the late 1800s, women were wondering why it was that their husbands were allowed to abuse them, drink excessively and seek prostitutes, but it was the women who were being told to uphold the morality of society. When faced with rape culture, we are told that the women were at fault because they were  “asking for it.”  Time after time, the United States has attempted to reform society by restricting women financially and sexually. And somehow, the refrain lives on that it is women who are responsible to change their behaviors in order to elevate the moral upstanding of the county. We have created dress codes, made loop holes in rape law, legally-sanctioned pay discrimination, and fought each other for reproductive rights.

Last week, in recognition of the arcane nature of policing gendered presentation, the French government  took a step forward. The Minister for Women’s Rights lifted a two-century old law that banned women from wearing pants. Women have long been defying this law, but this was an important step for the French legal psyche. We hope that artists at this years Grammy’s feel similarly empowered to transgress. We hope that we as a society become more critical of the oppressive nature of censoring specific groups.

The serial silencing of women through regulations, censorship and pressures has prevented us from moving past gender. We hope that healthy sexual discussion and affirmation can become a part of acceptable ‘family’ values. As Beyoncé sang on that Super Bowl stage, we thought about Blue Ivy Carter–how she will grow up with a role model like that–and it gave us hope.

-Nicole Hasslinger and Chanelle Adams, Academics Editors

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