NFL Sends Mixed Messages About Gender Violence With Super Bowl Halftime Lineup

The Super Bowl LVI Halftime Show will feature performances from Mary J. Blige, Kendrick Lamar, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Eminem. The latter three men are notable for deep misogyny and homophobia in their lyrics and, in some cases, their personal lives. (Pepsi)

This Sunday’s National Football League Super Bowl game is expected to be seen by 117 million people, many of whom will be tuning in especially to watch the halftime show. Among the musical acts scheduled for the halftime extravaganza are the rappers Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Eminem—all of whom have had long and celebrated careers but are nonetheless notable for the deep misogyny and homophobia in their lyrics, and in some cases their personal behavior.  

Ms. contributor Jackson Katz engaged in a wide-ranging conversation with his long-time colleague and friend Byron Hurt—the documentary filmmaker and anti-racist, anti-sexist activist—about some of the gender and racial politics of this year’s halftime show.

Jackson Katz: You are a former college football player who still loves the game. But like me—another former football player who pays close attention to the racial and gender politics of football—you are a committed anti-racist and anti-sexist activist. I know we both believe strongly that, as the late, great bell hooks said on numerous occasions, men have a primary role to play in “exposing, confronting, opposing and transforming the sexism of their male peers.”

In light of your background and commitments, what was your first thought when you heard the announcement last fall that this year’s Super Bowl halftime show would feature (among others) Dr. Dre, Eminem and Snoop Dogg?

Byron Hurt: My first reaction was, “Wow, Mary J is performing during the Super Bowl—and Kendrick Lamar?! I want to see that!” I was far less excited about Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Eminem sharing the stage with them.  Obviously, I recognize those guys as iconic figures in hip-hop culture. But as both a hip-hop fan and an anti-sexist man, I just can’t reconcile their larger-than-life place in popular culture with their misogyny.

I know that Dre and Snoop are enormously successful Black men, and that they both made their way from very humble beginnings to reach the heights of professional accomplishment and fame. Eminem has his own compelling back story. Still, I thought, “Okay, the NFL is pedestalizing these three men on one of the biggest platforms one could imagine, while overlooking and in a sense excusing their history of deeply problematic lyrics about girls, women and the queer community. This is hella problematic.”

Katz: To put it charitably, the NFL is sending mixed messages about how seriously they take their stated commitment to working to end domestic and sexual violence. This goes much deeper than how they handle various incidents and involves questions about workplace culture; a recent front page article in The New York Times provided a detailed look at the challenges faced by many women who work for the league. In Behind the Shield, a forthcoming documentary about the NFL produced by the Media Education Foundation, the sportswriter Dave Zirin pointed out that cheerleaders have repeatedly charged that minimal pay, groping and sexual harassment are “part of the job,” that they are “underpaid, sometimes making less than minimum wage, routinely expected to work long hours and gigs without compensation, and heavily policed by their bosses.”

Hurt: It’s widely understood that the NFL has long had a race and gender problem. It has only transformed when its star athletes, activists and fanbase have challenged them to do better.

The cheerleaders of the Houston Texans in 2010. Super Bowl cheerleaders are frequently forced to work long hours for no benefits and illegally low wages, while experiencing sexist discrimination. (AJ Guel / Flickr)

Katz: Agreed. After the 2014 domestic violence assault by former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice against his then-fiancee (later wife) Janay Palmer that was caught on tape and watched by tens of millions of people, the NFL—under serious cultural scrutiny and pressure—did take a number of concrete steps to address the enormous societal and global problem of men’s violence against women. They partnered with and pledged significant financial resources to women’s organizations, and participated in the powerful No More Public Service Announcement campaign.

Prominent NFL figures made strong statements about the league’s leadership platform, like Curtis Martin, the New York Jets Hall of Fame running back, who said “The NFL has the influence to somewhat shape our culture, and with that comes a responsibility.” And Ron Rivera, who is now head coach of the Washington Commanders, said, “We are the most watched sport in the United States, and because of that we generate so much income and so much revenue, and we’ve got major corporate sponsors behind us…We carry ourselves a certain way because everybody’s looking at us to see how we handle situations…we set the tone. That’s just the way it is.”

Hurt: Ok, but their goal is to entertain their fans and make huge profits, not to genuinely advance social justice. The class-action lawsuit by former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, who claims racial discrimination in the NFL’s hiring process, and the six former women employees of the newly-named Washington Commanders who recently testified before Congress about the culture of sexual harassment within the organization, prove that the NFL clearly has a lot more work to do on both the racial and gender front.

Their goal is to entertain their fans and make huge profits, not to genuinely advance social justice. The NFL clearly has a lot more work to do on both the racial and gender front.

Byron Hurt

Katz: Your first major film, Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, was a groundbreaking examination of misogyny, homophobia and hypermasculinity in rap music.

This Super Bowl half-time lineup, brokered by rapper and mogul Jay Z and his partnership with the NFL, in some ways represents a triumph for rap itself. But aside from Kendrick Lamar, the rappers featured on the biggest stage in the world are known not only for their great talent, wealth and power, but for their misogynous attitudes—and in some cases abusive behavior—toward women, and some of the most gratuitously anti-woman lyrics ever.

Hurt: When I began the research phase for Beyond Beats and Rhymes, I studied the lyrics of dozens of artists, including Dre, Eminem and Snoop Dogg. The amount of misogyny in their discographies is off the charts. It’s staggering and deeply disturbing.

Sadly, they’re not alone, either in hip-hop culture or in the larger world of music and entertainment. But Dre, Snoop and Em have reached such an elevated status that it’s important to take a step back and think about their body of work. Read or recite their lyrics out loud and you will hear just how anti-woman their music has been over the past 20 years—and not just their music.

Katz: Yeah, Dre has a long history of abuse toward women in his personal life. In 1991, Dre assaulted television host Dee Barnes after an episode taping, “slamming her face and the right side of her body repeatedly against a wall near the stairway,” according to Barnes’s $22.7 million lawsuit. In 2015, the R&B singer Michel’le, the mother of one of Dre’s children, said that he was often physically abusive, hitting her with a closed fist and leaving “black eyes, a cracked rib and scars.” She said she never spoke up until she learned through social media that “there were other women like me, (which) gave me the power to speak up.” Lisa Johnson, the mother of three of Dre’s children, alleged Dre “hit me in the mouth and bust my lip.” (She never filed criminal charges against him, but was granted a restraining order.) Dre recently concluded a divorce settlement with Nicole Young, his wife of 24 years. She maintained that he held a gun to her head, punched her in the face and slammed her against a wall, lifting her off her feet by her neck. (Dre denies these allegations.)  

Dre did address his long history of violence against women in a public statement in 2015 when the movie Straight Outta Compton was released, a biopic based on his group NWA that grossed over $200 million at the box office. His statement read: “I apologize to the women I’ve hurt. I deeply regret what I did and know that it has forever impacted all of our lives.”

Hurt: It’s also worth noting that Black and Brown women have been the targets of his abuse, which speaks to the level of misogynoir that has existed in hip-hop for decades, really since its inception.

Remember, Snoop infamously appeared on the red carpet with Black women wearing dog collars and chains at the 2003 MTV Music Awards. More recently, in 2020 Snoop threatened the respected TV journalist and African-American woman Gayle King, calling her “a dog-haired bitch” after an interview in which she gently asked former WNBA star Lisa Leslie about Kobe Bryant’s rape case in the wake of the former NBA star’s tragic death. Snoop later apologized, but only after a large backlash on social media. That was just two years ago. Now he is performing alongside his fellow misogynists during the Super Bowl halftime show.

Black and Brown women have been the targets of abuse, which speaks to the level of misogynoir that has existed in hip-hop for decades, really since its inception.

Byron Hurt

Katz: And of course Eminem is a notoriously troubled and brilliant lyricist who unleashed some of the most sexually degrading, misogynous and homophobic lyrics ever heard from a “mainstream” musical artist, under the guise of his alter-ego, “Slim Shady,” and yet outside of some minor protests earlier in his career, he’s largely evaded any sort of critical or commercial accountability.

Hurt:  You’ve written a lot about him, especially how he’s skillfully navigated the racial politics of being a white rapper in a Black genre while at the same time joining Dre and others in a cross-racial misogynous brotherhood. Dr. Dre’s gangsta persona and Black manhood certified Eminem in the larger hip-hop community, providing cover and a kind of stamp of approval for his misogynistic and homophobic lyrics.  

Katz: That’s right. Let’s face it, in all his complexities, Eminem is who he is. But the NFL didn’t have to put him on its biggest stage.

That being said, I think it’s only fair to acknowledge that many people who work for the NFL, either in the central office or for the individual teams, take pride in the league’s financial support for programs that serve survivors of domestic and sexual violence, and genuinely want the league to use its cultural clout to take a strong stand against men’s violence against women. We’ve both worked with many of them over the years.

But this halftime show arguably sets back those efforts and strengthens the case of those who think the league’s commitment is wafer-thin. Then again, do you think the average fan will see them featuring these particular musical artists as hypocritical? Will people even notice the dissonance?

Hurt: No, I do not think the average fan will see the NFL’s featuring of these artists as hypocritical, which is very troubling. Can you imagine if the NFL—during this racially-charged, post-George Floyd era when the country is still undergoing a racial reckoning and the league has committed itself to working against racism—announced that they had selected a group of white performers to appear during the Super Bowl halftime show who had a well-known history of singing songs with blatantly racist lyrics, and have been on the record making racially insensitive comments about Black and Brown people?

Racial justice advocates and football fans of color would be outraged and would quickly point out the NFL’s hypocrisy. And yet, in the wake of #MeToo, and after the NFL has publicly proclaimed its support for victims and survivors of domestic and sexual violence—even donating millions of dollars to advocacy organizations—they prop up three of hip-hop’s most consistent promoters of misogyny and violence toward girls and women. And they’ve been met with very little criticism or resistance.

Eminem unleashed some of the most sexually degrading, misogynous and homophobic lyrics ever heard from a “mainstream” musical artist, under the guise of his alter-ego, “Slim Shady.”

Jackson Katz

Katz: How do you respond to people who say that nothing critical anyone says about these artists matters, that most of the deep misogyny and homophobia came from earlier in their careers, and that in any case they are larger-than-life figures whose legacies are already well-established, people know all about those things yet still love watching them perform, buying their records, etc. Even after #MeToo and the cultural reckoning (of sorts) that it catalyzed in the entertainment industry, none of them ever faced any serious professional repercussions.

Is it futile at this point to criticize them, or to fault the NFL for showcasing them? What do you see as the value in speaking out about any of this?

Hurt: I understand why people feel this way. We have a former president who incited a riot in the U.S. Capitol, who continues to promote the “Big Lie” and deny the results of the 2020 election, and it’s still possible that he could run for office again and win. Americans, Black Americans in particular, often see men and women in law enforcement kill unarmed Black and Brown citizens and then not get indicted—let alone go to prison. It took decades for R&B singer R. Kelly to be held accountable for his rape and sexual assaults against underaged girls and adult women.

Men with power and fame are seldom held accountable for their sexist behavior. I get it. People from marginalized groups are very cynical when it comes to accountability in this country. But just because it seems like the vast majority of voices are jaded and silent doesn’t mean those of us who are eternal optimists should silence ourselves.

We have to speak up. All movements to advance social justice have brave, loud voices that call attention to injustice and systems that are unfair, inequitable and oppressive. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., famously said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

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About and

Jackson Katz, Ph.D., is internationally renowned for his pioneering scholarship and activism on issues of gender, race and violence. He is the creator and co-producer of the documentary The Man Card: White Male Identity Politics from Nixon to Trump, which is streaming free through the end of December 2022. Katz has long been a major figure and thought leader in the growing global movement of men working to promote gender equality and prevent gender violence. He is co-founder of Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP), one of the longest-running and most widely influential gender violence prevention programs in North America and beyond. He is the author of two acclaimed books and creator of the award-winning Tough Guise educational documentary series. His TEDx talk, "Violence Against Women Is a Men's Issue," has over 5 million total views.
Byron Hurt is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, writer, activist and adjunct professor at Columbia University. Hurt is the former host of the Emmy-nominated series, Reel Works with Byron Hurt. He also directed the critically acclaimed PBS films, Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes and Soul Food Junkies. Both films aired on the PBS Emmy Award-winning series, Independent Lens. His upcoming film Hazing will broadcast on PBS in late 2022. Hurt is a former Northeastern University football quarterback, and also a long-time gender violence prevention activist. He is a founding member of the Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) program, one of the longest-running gender violence prevention programs in North America, and the first large-scale initiative in both the college and professional sports culture and the U.S. military. Learn more at Follow him on social media @byronhurt.