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Rihanna’s Controversial Super Bowl Halftime Performance: Society’s Unfair Expectations of Black Women

Bintou Diarra, A.B Candidate | Medical Anthropology, Brown University | February 20, 2023

The world seemed to roar once the Super Bowl Halftime Show settled on its main act. The announcement was quite simple—it came in the form of an Instagram post of a football nestled in Rihanna’s hand. Shortly after the September announcement came a slew of Instagram posts and tweets, many of which revealed expectations for not only Rihanna’s performance, but also her career. To many of Rihanna’s fans, her willingness to perform at the show was a herald—after an indefinite hiatus, she was finally going to make a return to the music industry. Aside from the occasional naysayer, the general reaction surrounding her performance was one of anticipation and excitement.

Whereas the collective sense of excitement seemed palpable before, the energy following Rihanna’s performance is anything but. Her performance, which included a pregnancy reveal, seems to be stoking up controversy among viewers. While some are generally satisfied with her performance, others deem the performance to be lackluster. On Twitter, many users use the word ‘underwhelming’ in their descriptions of the Super Bowl Halftime Show. Others emphasize the absence of a fixed concept. For some people, the dancing did not match the energy of the songs. Whether Rihanna’s Super Bowl performance was low-energy or spectacular is debatable. The fact of society’s unfair expectations of Black women is not.

In many cases, people acknowledge the vulnerability inherent in carrying a child. It is a major developmental change that drastically alters many spheres of one’s life. Actions like giving up a seat to a pregnant person, helping them carry an item, or holding a door open for them, all speak to the collective understanding that it is among the times where care is of utmost importance. 

Unfortunately, this obligation is not at the forefront of our minds when the pregnant person is a Black entertainer. Rather than celebrate the accomplishment of performing on the stage of the Halftime Show while doing the work of growing a baby, we denounce Rihanna for falling short. Rather than interrogate deep-seated notions regarding Black womanhood and performance, we take to our social media accounts to underscore the ways it could have been better. Our impulse to critique, rather than express care, speaks to something inherently backwards about our understanding of Black womanhood. It is an assertion. For America’s Black women, failure ultimately isn’t an option—even during a time period where the rigors of accepting embodied changes make performance difficult.

Some people are saying the quiet parts out loud. “Pregnancy is no excuse for low energy and bad lip syncing,” tweeted one user. For Black women, the ultimate excuse is no excuse at all, even when heightened rates of maternal mortality call for a pregnancy experience marked by rest and nourishment. 

This is bigger than too few wardrobe changes, or the lack of a central performance theme. It reflects societal phenomena that make thriving difficult for Black women everywhere. This is about the expectation of strength often imposed on Black women. It is too often that meeting these expectations comes at the cost of ourselves. The critiques of Rihanna’s performance are a glaring reminder that these demands are not self-imposed. The Black woman is a super woman, and she will be denigrated if she shows up as anyone else. 

And to spectators, her peers who acquiesce to their demands ultimately give these demands an air of legitimacy. Among the tweets about Rihanna’s performance are nods to Beyonce’s 2017 Grammy’s appearance as a paragon of excellence. Whether Black women exceed unrealistic expectations or fall short, one thing is quite evident. Notions of our unparalleled strength are a double-edged sword.

The future of Rihanna’s music career remains unknown. Between taking care of a 7-month old, working on her successful billion-dollar businesses, and growing another baby, it seems that Rihanna’s hands are full. We should not add carrying the burden of strength and perfection to the list.

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