Rihanna Rubbed Her Belly And Broke A Million Brains
4:12 PM EST on February 15, 2023
On Sunday, along with 200 million others, I watched a pregnant Black billionaire perform on what is typically billed as the world’s highest-profile stage, the Super Bowl halftime show, dressed from head to toe (indeed, from neck to fingertip) in monochrome blood red.
As a thousand news websites have by now reported, Rihanna barely danced and wore an oversized red coat over a baggy red boiler suit, plus red gloves, a red body suit with red shiny breastplates, and—at one point—a gigantic red mantle on top of all of that. Crimsonly, powerfully, she simply sang, standing like radiant cervix above a sea of spasming spermatozoa: her 80 incredible back-up dancers in marshmallowy white space suits. I am gestating again, she might as well have said.
But Rihanna’s gestational status in 2023 was not yet public knowledge at 6:00 p.m. MST on Feb. 12, when she descended into the Arizona arena on a floating platform, magically hovering above the field. Thus, 200 million-odd viewers had to know: What did her startling appearance mean? Has an American woman’s degree of skinniness or chubbiness, of skin-showing or curve-concealing, ever been allowed to carry no particular “meaning”? Certainly there has been no escaping, in recent memory, the intense semiotic scrutiny of the Super Bowl halftime show—from Janet’s nipple in 2004, or Prince’s queer phallic shadow in 2007, to M.I.A.’s middle finger in 2012, or Shakira and J-Lo’s buttocks in 2020. It’s a yearly (im)morality play about the sexual state of the republic. Practically everyone manages to be angry about something or other in it, annually. At this point, the U.S. evangelical population’s review of the legendary act might as well automatically go to print, sight unseen: Gratuitously sexual, obscene, and unsuitable for children!!
Hence why 2023’s white and red ski suits threw a momentary spanner into the works of the usual many-pronged judgment-generating mechanism. When I checked to see what people were saying on social media, I found pretty much exactly what you would expect: a deluge of confused and largely half-hearted tweets using the word “interesting” and temporarily reserving judgment while at the same time trying to determine whether Rihanna’s un-naked self-presentation signified A) pregnancy or B) feminism. For many fans of the Barbadian pop star, it seemed, not only did there need to be an explanation for the outfit, but the answer to the riddle had to be either/or: If it was a baby bump, then it wasn’t really a defiant celebration of postpartum bodies. If it was a way of introducing a Baby No. 2 as the “special guest,” then it wasn’t also a badass power-move demonstrating that bellies are luscious and sexiness has nothing to do with the square footage of one’s bared flesh.
Too often, in other words, motherhood and erotic autonomy are treated as mutually exclusive signifiers. If the thing being telegraphed is “I’m pregnant,” then it becomes amazing and girl-bossy that Rihanna was performing at all—and shame on anyone sexualizing her (i.e., complaining about her body, clothes, or putative lack of energy in the performance)! But if not, then her flat shoes, extra pounds, and low-key vibe cease to require apology, and are allowed to be “hot” in and of themselves, inspiring plentiful tweets from straight women and gay men about “Rihanna making them question their sexuality.”
Meanwhile, for conservatives predisposed to dislike Rihanna, this interpretive dilemma is reversed. Wait a minute, you could almost hear the nation’s right-wing racists thinking when Rihanna beamed down from on high. Are we all poised, tongues venomously whetted, to slut-shame a married woman currently WITH CHILD? Or ... is Rihanna not, in fact, pregnant? In that case, instead of trotting out our usual charge of satanic whorishness, can we perhaps contrive to castigate her for phoning in her feminine duty to look inviting in favor of man-hating woke body-positivity?
Once the pregnancy was officially confirmed, all doubt about the “bump” was removed. But for a few hours, the world’s usual halftime hate-fest was muffled as millions of brains wrestled the false conundrum: female empowerment, or gestation? For the wiser commentators, the obvious truth was immediately “both.” The hypothesized presence of a fetus in Rihanna’s body did not negate, in other words, but rather enriched the powerful erotic pleasure this parent was taking in herself on-stage, grasping her own buttock, touching her crotch and sniffing her fingers afterward, wittily touching up her make-up in a compact (handed to her by a back-up dancer), and swaddling herself warmly, luxuriously, in labial waves of scarlet.