With Super Bowl Complaint, Graham Misunderstands Exploitation

Because I defend the principles of copyright, I write a lot about the value of creative expression and the author’s right to choose how that expression is used.  In this context, then, I think it is within the editorial nature of this blog to respond to Franklin Graham’s public complaints about last week’s Super Bowl halftime performances by Jennifer Lopez and Shakira, to wit:

I don’t expect the world to act like the church, but our country has had a sense of moral decency on prime time television in order to protect children. We see that disappearing before our eyes. It was demonstrated tonight in the Pepsi Super Bowl Halftime Show—with millions of children watching. This exhibition was Pepsi showing young girls that sexual exploitation of women is okay. With the exploitation of women on the rise worldwide, instead of lowering the standard, we as a society should be raising it. I’m disappointed in Pepsi and the NFL.” [Emphasis added]

I get that being a sanctimonious prig is part of the Graham brand, but he is dead wrong to conflate his prim sensitivities with the concept of exploitation.  This is an insult to Lopez and Shakira as well as actual victims of exploitation, many who have only recently begun to come forward en masse to talk about those experiences.  In fact, the trend generally called the #MeToo movement, much of which is centered in the entertainment industry, is exactly why the correct word to describe the performances by two middle-aged moms (who can still move like that!) is empowerment.

Perhaps because the religious right suffers from a fundamental disconnect on the subject of human agency in free societies, Graham fails to understand that consent is generally the dividing line between expression and exploitation.  For a simple object lesson in this distinction, think back to 2014, when nude images of several female stars were hacked, leaked online, and then hosted for far too long on platforms like Reddit. One of those stars, Jennifer Lawrence, posed for a series of artfully done nudes for Vanity Fair in order to reclaim her right to consent.  “The line between objectification and empowerment is a notoriously thin one, particularly for women,” wrote Megan Garber for The Atlantic about the Lawrence photo shoot.

Likewise, with regard to last week’s halftime show, unless some story emerges to the contrary, we can assume that mega-stars JLo and Shakira are not about to do anything they do not want to do.  Graham, therefore, has no business associating his prissy response with the broader narrative of exploitation.  What he really means is that he and his flock found the choreography too sexual for the American church that is football—and one could unpack that psychology for quite some time—but here’s a news flash:  dance is sexual.  And it’s almost quaint that Graham is blushing in 2020.  Eleven years ago, Pepsi produced a Super Bowl spot featuring Republican Senator Bob Dole (age 86) and his dog implicitly getting a bit randy while watching Britney Spears (age 28) shake her thing.  I mean…c’mon.

In a post or two, I have opined that one of the coolest things about America (a true claim to greatness, if you will) is that the twin forces of the First Amendment and copyright law empower artists to express themselves without requiring permission by the State.  At the founding period, the constitutional protection of IP law was both a function of economic reality and ideological principle.  The new nation did not have the resources to establish any kind of national endowment for the development of art and culture; and at the same time, the Framers clearly expressed a wariness of nobility, nationalized religion, and patronage.  Moreover, the ancient mechanisms of pre-modern copyright law in England were codified as tools of religious censorship and royal prerogative; and by contrast, modern American copyright bore fruit the Framers could not even imagine.  Not only are we the beneficiaries of a diverse mosaic of creative expression, but copyright has given many artists the power to do exactly what they want on their own terms.  

So, if Graham et al are offended by what they see on television, they can choose not to watch, just as many will choose not to watch Graham because we find him offensive.  Hell, they can even complain (as Graham did) to the sponsors and the league that they consider the performance tasteless, if that’s how they really feel.  But let us not conflate personal taste in creative expression with exploitation.  Artists work very hard to avoid unwanted exploitation at every phase of their careers, and that goes double for women.  Jennifer Lopez and Shakira are prime examples of what it means to own their power—expressive, commercial, sexual, etc.—and only they have the right to say otherwise.  

Statue of Liberty photo by Andrea_Izzotti

© 2020, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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