Viewpoint: In Defense of M.I.A.'s Middle Finger at Halftime
Editor’s Note, Nov. 4, 2013: Twenty months after it happened, the NFL still seeks $1.5 million from M.I.A. (nee Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam) as a result of her middle-finger-flipping flap at the 2012 Super Bowl in Indianapolis.
If we’re going to pillory hip-hop sensation M.I.A.—and plenty of folks have done so since she flipped the bird while performing with Madonna Sunday night—we had better consider what that reaction implies. In a word: sexism. Plain and simple. Please hear me out before bringing on the bromides.
In the wake of Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake’s nipplegate incident a few years ago, it was refreshing that the NFL was all right by reintroducing female music performers to its halftime spectacle at this Super Bowl in Indianapolis, now the most-watched event in TV history. A subtle sexism seemed to be involved there: After that debacle, Jackson’s career went in the toilet, while that of Mr. Trousersnake—the aggressor in the display—relatively rocketed. Part of that was because his songs were far superior, sure, but it was maddening to watch the male singer’s career soar while the female singer’s own crashed.
Fast-forward to Feb. 5, 2012: Madonna brings a litany of guests—Cee Lo, LMFAO members, Nicki Minaj, and M.I.A., as well as Indy-area high school drum lines—on stage with her. Reprising their roles as cheerleaders in Madonna’s new music video, Minaj and M.I.A. rapped verses and frolicked with the star around the stage. And then M.I.A. performed a blink-and-miss-it gesture that looked to be pointing her middle finger at the TV audience.
The “flip slip” was hardly shocking, but two different crew members for the halftime show tell Super City that M.I.A. did not make the gesture in rehearsals. Both NBC and the NFL issued statements:
» NBC: “We apologize for the inappropriate gesture that aired during halftime. It was a spontaneous gesture that our delay system caught late.”
» NFL: “There was a failure in NBC’s delay system. The obscene gesture in the performance was completely inappropriate, very disappointing, and we apologize to our fans.”
» NBC, in response to that: “The NFL hired the talent and produced the halftime show. Our system was late to obscure the inappropriate gesture and we apologize to our viewers.”
So, yes, everyone’s trying to cover their own backside. Meanwhile, lest we forget, the likes of the great Man in Black, Johnny Cash, were always allowed to do the same. It heightened their tough-guy images. Such photos have been made into posters and sold for profit.
But, no—heavens, no—a woman can’t do the same. And yet the response reminded me of M.I.A.’s star turn at the 2009 Grammy Awards when, nine months pregnant at the time, she all but stole the stage from four of rap music’s biggest names.
Here’s the takeaway from the Super Bowl XLVI halftime “incident”: The outcry in response from family associations and the like just fuels the fire of the drama. It’s an overreaction, resulting in more press than it deserved or even desired. Calling it a “selfish” act by a performer “desperate” for attention reveals how these groups themselves simply want to capitalize and get their own names in the papers.
A fleeting gesture by a female performer that’s perceived as aggressive just doesn’t fly in Middle America. And, quite frankly, Nicki Minaj’s own motion—a swirling hand movement around her crotch at the 7:35 mark here—was more scandalous for the show that was billed as all-ages entertainment. WWMD: What Would Madonna Do? Oh, I do wonder what the Material Matron thinks about it.
She’s about the only one who hasn’t expressed an opinion in the last 24 hours. Parting shot: People just want to be outraged. You have to let them.
Photo of M.I.A. courtesy of Getty Images