I’m Sounding the Alarm Now About Media’s Response to Rihanna’s Super Bowl Halftime Show

Rihanna at the Black Panther 2: Wakanda Forever premiere on Oct. 26, 2022 in Hollywood. The singer is performing at Super Bowl LVII on Feb. 12, 2023, in Arizona’s State Farm Stadium. (Axelle / Bauer-Griffin / FilmMagic)

The Super Bowl halftime show is a time-honored but impossible set-up, with organizers using the performance as a way to appeal to wider audiences—never mind the existing population already tuning in for football alone. The potential clash of audiences ensures some level of criticism.

Women have experienced especially harsh post-show takes. Existing double standards are blown up and magnified under the stadium lights, as well as the glare of a much-hyped national tradition and broadcast. As witnesses, we are forced to confront and digest the resulting messages—messages about women’s sexuality (in the case of Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl performance), age (in the case of Madonna’s), appearance (in the case of Lady Gaga’s) and general worth (in the case of Jennifer Lopez’s). I can only assume it will be more of the same for Rihanna, ahead of her taking the stage next month at the Super Bowl.

(Jeff Kravitz / FilmMagic)

In 2004, no one could avoid the aftermath of Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl nipple reveal as a confusing narrative emerged. She had supposedly done this on purpose. The level of punishment was all the more appalling when compared to the repercussions for Justin Timberlake, who actually made the mistake. While Timberlake’s career trajectory would remain on the ascent, Jackson’s would never fully recover. 

Author Treva Lindsey offered an explanation in Bitch Media:

“When we look back at the moment, considering how much more explicit television is in 2020 than it was then, it was a very knee-jerk reaction to the problem of Black women’s bodies that the nation has always had.” 

We wouldn’t see another woman fronting the halftime show until 2012. Even eight years after “Nipplegate,” at a Super Bowl news conference, a man asked headliner Madonna, “How can you guarantee against a wardrobe malfunction, given your history?” 

Still, critics found other reasons to complain. Chief among them: Madonna was “too old,” even though Juliet Jeske refuted that claim with an age comparison. While Madonna was then 53, when Bruce Springsteen performed in 2009, he was 59; Tom Petty in 2008 was 58; and Paul McCartney in 2005 was 62. But, of course, it’s different for women, as evidenced by the continued attention regarding Madonna’s public presentation in light of her age.

When Lady Gaga took the Super Bowl stage in 2017, ageism wasn’t the issue. Instead, it was her appearance, which has been a notorious focus in the criticism of female celebrities, to the detriment of any musical work. On Feb. 7, Gaga responded on Instagram, “I heard my body is a topic of conversation so I wanted to say, I’m proud of my body and you should be proud of yours too.” 

More recently, it was Jennifer Lopez experiencing censure. In her 2022 Netflix documentary Halftime, she complained about having to share the 2020 show. That moment was treated as somehow an insult to Shakira, her co-headliner. But, as Lopez says in the documentary, there is normally a single star fronting that show. She saw the change, in her case, as an indictment of society’s values: Because she was a woman and Latina, apparently show organizers felt she wasn’t enough. 

Women in music already navigate an impossible system defined by gendered language and double standards. Men simply don’t experience the same level of abuse. The biased halftime reactions fit this general pattern. Indeed, “crazy” has been a word of condemnation for women, like Britney Spears, but it has been a sign of genius for musical men.

While Mariah Carey has been called the ultimate diva, with rumors of wild backstage demands, like a supply of blue M&M’s, Van Halen actually admits to a similar demand—for M&Ms with all the brown ones removed. But, according to Insider, there’s a good reason in Van Halen’s case: The group just wants to make sure concert promoters are carefully reading their concert rider. These examples transmit related messages, especially when the nation is collectively paying attention, as it does to the Super Bowl. 

So what will it be in Rihanna’s case? There’s a tremendous amount of pressure on her performance post-baby, her first live appearance since 2018. And I’ve already seen criticism connected to her past shunning of the NFL in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick and supposed late arrival to rehearsals. Frankly, I’m dreading what comes next. The gendered expectations and sexist labeling of women in music vary by individual, and racism has a significant impact in certain cases. But this abuse in all cases works to enforce norms of behavior expected of women.

With a celebrity platform and the power of the Super Bowl, the labels punish women but also all of us. Perhaps if we recognize the cycle, we might better tune out the toxic takes to come. Then, maybe, we can discount the dangerous lessons about a woman’s worth before those lessons discount us.

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Lily Hirsch is a musicologist and author of Can't Stop the Grrrls: Confronting Sexist Labels in Music from Ariana Grande to Yoko Ono.