Katy Perry in an ad for her Super Bowl halftime performance.
Listen, I don’t expect much from Super Bowl halftime shows. It’s the National Football League after all—a male-dominated organization that has only recently paid lip service to women’s rights and domestic violence. Still, any time a female artist headlines, I can’t help but watch—I love to see a woman on the field doing something other than cheering for the male players.
This year’s show started off strong. Katy Perry came in singing her hit song “Roar” riding on the back of a lion. How often do you get to see that? I long for this type of pop-culture moment—when a woman gets to be bigger and more powerful than the sexy, subservient creature that dominant society allows for. She even intentionally changed some of the lyrics to show that she wasn’t lip-syncing—we were hearing her own voice, her own roar.
The moment of breaking down traditional gender roles was short lived and undercut, however, when Perry started singing “I Kissed a Girl.” The song, though it has its problems, could have been a nod to the queer community on the biggest platform television has to offer. Instead, the performance of “I Kissed a Girl” got morphed into a hetero fantasy as Lenny Kravitz joined Perry onstage for the song.
She immediately began a sex-kitten performance that involved rubbing up against Kravitz. At the end of the song, which felt like it lasted only about 30 seconds, she literally got down on her knees facing him while he stood over her playing the guitar not far from her face. The interaction undercut the lyrics of the song, which address a woman’s exploration of her sexuality with another woman. It also undermined her power on stage as a female solo artist since she ended up in a subservient position to a male (the fact that a woman gets to “choose” to be a “goddess on her knees” aside). The performance reiterated the heteronormative message that sexuality should only exist between a male and female, or, if two women do “experiment” with each other, it’s only to satisfy the male gaze. Perry has never been a consistent LGBT ally—though her song “Firework” raised money for the It Gets Better Project, she infuriated many people with her 2008 song “UR So Gay,” a rant about her boyfriend “acting gay.”
Aside from the gender play, the race politics of the performance were problematic as well. Missy Elliott also guest starred. As Maegan La Mala Ortiz commented on Facebook after the show, “So all the black artists are special guests of Katy Perry? Hmm.” And Amadi tweeted, “White privilege: when Missy Elliott and Lenny Kravitz have to be special guests of a woman who gleefully sings with foam sharks.”
Related Reading: Who’s to Say What Makes a Gay Anthem?
Images in this article are screengrabs from NBC’s broadcast.