mia’s middle finger as cultural treatise? well, sorta

Recently, while I was whiling away the minutes before work with The Hollywood Reporter, I came across a curious piece on what would appear to be a rather straightforward legal proceeding. Superficially, the article is about how rapper MIA and the National Football League are still locking legal horns over the 2012 Super Bowl halftime show, in which MIA flipped the bird to the audience. In short, the NFL believes she owes them a lot of money for making them look bad.

(Writing the above forced me to consider for a full minute whether calling MIA a “rapper” makes me sound old. I invite you to write in with your opinion.)

The actual incident makes me think MIA has an eighth grader’s view of what constitutes meaningful resistance to the powers that be. However, the stance her lawyers are taking intrigues me. MIA’s legal defense reads like a cultural critique that might be summed up by saying, “The halftime show has made a habit of creating a hypersexualized spectacle, so me and my middlemost digit are not going to tarnish your image any more than it is already besmirched.”

THR quotes the legal papers:

The latest arbitration papers for MIA go into the ‘profane, bawdy, lascivious, demeaning and/or unacceptable behavior by its players, team owners, coaching and management personnel and by performers chosen and endorsed by NFL to perform in its halftime shows.’

I’m just going to focus on the halftime entertainment, since there’s enough to unpack there for a book’s worth of analysis, and MIA’s defense uses some concrete examples of how it believes the halftime show regularly violates good taste. As it happens, I’d love to agree with MIA’s argument, since I’m of the mind that too much of mainstream culture tends toward selling sex even as it moralizes at people. But in reviewing some of the halftime shows cited, I’m underwhelmed by the actual evidence.

One example given is Prince’s 2007 performance, where his silhouette was made to appear on a sheet while he danced around and touched the neck of his guitar, a move MIA’s papers claim resembled an “erect oversized phallus.” You can see it at around 9:40 in this video. The guitar’s shadow is, in passing, suggestive, but its similarity to you-know-what could just be inadvertent; it’s really hard to tell, even when you factor in the carnal quotient that Prince sprinkles on pretty much everything he touches.

MIA’s papers also mention the very performance she was a part of, and THR excerpts from the legalese a description of some wanton-looking ground-to-air pelvic thrusts. Watching the performance again (in the top-most video), I missed the aforementioned thrusts, maybe because a) I found the whole show entertaining, much to my surprise, or maybe because b) I was looking for something a lot more raunchy from Madonna. Instead, when dancers dressed as cheerleaders took their place as Madonna’s back-up, I was almost comforted by the way they didn’t evoke the CHEERLEADERS = NAUGHTY!!!!! motif that has long felt overused as a means of being sexually suggestive.

Finally, the article talks about MIA’s example of Michael Jackson’s 1993 halftime performance, the single strongest piece of evidence noted. Jackson’s signature crotch grab – really, really visible at around the 3-minute mark – is probably not appropriate for children, which makes it even more troubling when a mob of wee ones join Michael at the end of his performance to sing “Heal the World.”

Jackson himself is a nice embodiment of all the self-contradictory messages floating around in modern American culture, where the middle finger is verboten while crotch grabs are not. On the one hand, we believe in Hallmark-grade sentiments as espoused by “We Are the World,” but on the other, we’re okay with the same singer’s groin jumping around like it has a life of its own. (To be clear, I’m only saying maybe he shouldn’t be doing that around kids. Generally speaking, Jackson’s moves are unimpeachable, surely.)

In sum, I don’t know what to think. It occurs to me that, as a culture, we’re okay with transgression as long as we have some plausible deniability. We allow ourselves to enjoy transgression and sexuality via context and subtext (Madonna’s outfits, Prince’s whole demeanor) but not gestures whose meanings are unequivocal. There is a line, even if an artificial one. Hypocritical? Probably. But MIA isn’t exactly healing the world by giving us the finger, either.

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