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Prizes and Consumables: The Super Bowl as a Theology of Women

The way we consume iconic national events like the Super Bowl better depicts what we really believe about women than does anything else. For in the invisibility of normality, there we find our idolatry.

Keep reading and you'll understand why sociologists aren't invited to many parties. I'm a sociologist—we're the ones who go to football games and watch the crowd. We're the ones who manage to make a living by complaining about pretty normal stuff. But, we're also the ones who point out that the so-called "normal" is sometimes pretty sinister. We take a certain delight in pointing out that our significant idols are frequently disguised by social forms that that render them opaque. A football game is never just a football game, the World Cup is always more than it appears, and the Olympics represent more than morally driven dedication. No, you don't want to invite us to parties. You don't want us…but you do need us, and we need the work! Pass the Doritos and read on.

I'm not a huge televised sports fan—something of an oddity in the social circles in which I run. During March Madness, the World Cup, or the World Series, my bandwidth usage at work doesn't increase much (although I must admit to checking the Tour de France statistics—who's winning, who's hurt, who's dosing—with more than disinterest). Nonetheless, teaching both Sociology of Religion and the Sociology of Sport, my attention is piqued when these two subjects intersect—when sport and religion combine in an almost seamless garment of praise. Putting on the full armour of Christ seems to include a helmet, shoulder pads, and a fierce sense of team loyalty during the early part of February—Super Bowl season. So, although I'm a fair-weather fan at best, I dutifully tune into that bastion of righteousness—network television—and prepare to live out the motto of the college where I work, "In all things Christ pre-eminent."

Except if I was with Jesus…I'd be more than a little embarrassed to be watching the Super Bowl—even if there were a little Tebowing in his honour.

My concern with the Super Bowl—where do I start?—derives from the depictions of women it offers. In the conservative Presbyterian denomination in which I serve as elder, there is ongoing concern about the "proper" roles of women, accompanied by a fear of encroaching liberalism perceived as enmeshed with feminist ideals, and so on. Presbytery meetings and General Assemblies host passionate debates devoted to the topic, and speakers at men's retreats implore us (speaking as a man here) to take back our households for God. My sociological instincts prime me to agree we should think carefully about the conceptualization and presentation of women's statuses and their related roles—I'm just not convinced that we've adequately framed the parameters of this debate. I have two daughters (eleven and seven years old) and am ever aware that their understanding of their worth as young women is structured more by our televised sports, mass entertainment, and the plastic surgery billboards placed at eye level on the way to their Christian elementary school (really!) than by much of what we try to teach in Church and Sunday school. And so, I watched the Super Bowl with an eye on the questions framed in the feminist chapter of my sociological theory text—"Where are the women in any situation being investigated? If they are not present, why? If they are present, what exactly are they doing? How do they experience the situation? What do they contribute to it? What does it mean to them?"—I also asked myself how the scriptures depict women, and how our arena sports influence my efforts to raise my daughters in ways critically illuminated by scriptural texts. I contend that the way we consume iconic national events like the Super Bowl better depicts what we really believe about women and their so-called roles than do our formal theological statements, denominational position papers, teachings about the spiritual disciplines, and admonitions toward modesty and fidelity. For in the invisibility of normality, there we find our idolatry. And in my experience, theology can't touch the Super Bowl. Churches near where I live cancel evening services for it, and some even project the festivities on sanctuary screens. We're a far cry from theological forbears like Calvin, who, according to author Shirl James Hoffman, made quite a stir after soberly reflecting on what sort of recreations one might participate in on Sunday, and indulged in a game resembling bowling in his after-worship time on the Lord's day. Getting turned on by a Kia Optima ad (or did you miss this commercial?) would likely not fit with his notion of doing all for the glory of God. Or, perhaps we can just ignore these contradictions to our faith. Why not? But, while you, my brothers and sisters in the faith, are watching the Super Bowl, what will you tell my daughters? And at least as important, what have your sons learned about my daughters? For until we suspend our mantra that all of life is a sacred calling unto the Lord, a game is never just a game. And so here are my ponderings about Super Bowl XLVI—with an eye on the women.


First, women play minor roles in most parts of the Super Bowl, and when they are present and featured, they are usually eroticized. Their agency is not chiefly linked to their minds or the wholeness of their persons, but is unmistakably connected to their bodies. There are a few female reporters present, but the play-by-play commentary is wholly delivered by men. This is not unintentional. Well-known Sport sociologist Jay Coakley explains that most sports coverage prioritizes the interests and concerns of male athletes in ways that reaffirm traditional gender ideologies—ideologies glamourizing violence, dominance, aggression, and social distance from women, that we Christians should probably be careful about endorsing. Coakley cites Kelly White who writes, "Although women in the print media regularly cover men's sports, very few women have done regular commentary for men's sports in the electronic media apart from occasional 'sideline reporters' who often are expected to look cute and talk to the guys as if they were at a 'frat house' with no other women around." Coakley concludes, "Women are seldom seen except when portrayed in sexual terms, or as cheerleaders, spectators, and supportive spouses and mothers on the sidelines."

Second, women are depicted in the Super Bowl and other televised mega-sports in ways that proclaim, "This world is for men, about men, and because of men. You women may participate, but only in forms that are pleasing to men." In Sports and Contemporary Society; An Anthology, Michael Messner and colleagues write about the "televised sports manhood formula," explaining that women function as sexy props or prizes for men's successful sport performances or consumption choices. In a fairly recent content analysis of Super Bowl commercials published in the same book, Mike Messner and Jeffrey Montez de Oca explain that ads in mega sports media contain four dominant gender categories as follows:

  1. Losers: Men are portrayed as chumps or losers.
  2. Buddies: The precariousness of an individual man's masculine status is offset by the safety of the male group.
  3. Hotties: When women appear in these ads, it is usually as highly sexualized fantasy objects.
  4. Bitches: Wives, girlfriends, or other women to whom men are emotionally committed are mostly absent from these ads.

Go YouTube a few Super Bowl commercials and see if you recognize these "types."  This year's "winning" Super Bowl ad featured an unmarried couple locked in a stereotypical gender/relationship conflict. In this commercial, a "loser" man, in couch-potato posture and engrossed in televised sports, is unresponsive to a strikingly beautiful young woman's attempt to command his attention. In desperation she grabs his last bag of Doritos, heads into the bedroom, strips naked, and stretches out on the bed covered in nothing but the tantalizing orange chips. This tactic gained his attention for now she was the "whole package"—the complete consumable—and with this adjustment the relationship became worthwhile enough for the man to momentarily abandon the television. She had been transformed from "bitch" to "hottie." Yet when we reach for a bag of Doritos in the supermarket we do so with a sense of value-neutrality. In the same article, Messner and Montez de Oca write, "The Super Bowl and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue are arguably the biggest single electronic and print sports media events annually in the United States. Due to their centrality, size, and target audiences, we suggest that mega sports media events such as the Super Bowl and the swimsuit issue offer a magnified view of the dominant gender and sexual imagery emanating from the centre of the sports-media-commercial complex." In other words, if you want to know where we stand on gender and gender relations…examining our affiliation with these two events is a good place to start. And don't for a minute think that the swimsuit edition of SI contains more objectionable sexual content than the Super Bowl.

I'd be remiss if I didn't concede that redemptive qualities can be found tempering mega sporting events like the Super Bowl. In the midst of these secularized contests we do find coaches like Tony Dungy, and players who project a sense of understanding that what they do is done for God and before God. And these are good things. But perhaps we elevate their importance too much. And are they enough to override the other, more overt obstacles to faith? Perhaps having "a few good men" polishing our golden calf—our symbol of allegiance to empire and the things for which it stands—actually deters us from taking seriously the more sinister messages emanating from secular festivals like the Super Bowl. I would have even more admiration for a coach of Dungy's stature if—in the tradition of Eric Liddell, who on grounds of faith refused to compete on Sunday—he refused to participate in a Super Bowl (always on Sunday!) sponsored by companies promoting alcohol-infused voyeurism as a cultural virtue. One problem Shirl James Hoffman, author of the outstanding and sobering book, Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports, finds with practices like Tebowing (genuflecting after a successful play), sports evangelism, and prayer in the end-zone, is that they can help to make sacred some of the practices and postures with which we should take issue.

The first Q & A of the Heidelberg catechism asks and answers: "What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own, but belong body and soul to my faithful savior Jesus Christ." Accordingly, we are not free to think about or do with our own bodies and the bodies of others as we like. Perhaps we might more soberly contemplate the meaning of our cavalier approval of brutal body hits (Coakley's term) during the game, and passive consumption of hyper-sexualized images of women between plays. What do we think of these things, and what is their spiritual meaning? Does a theology of the body—if we even acknowledge one—make any difference when it comes to sports? Do the sports consumption choices we make as people of faith differ markedly from those made by secular sports fans? Hoffman cites John Stott who writes, "Nothing is more hurtful to the Christian than the words, 'But you are no different from anybody else.'" But when it comes to sports, our differences are well-concealed.

If you want to know who we are (and if we're any different), watch how we consume commercial sports. Sports tell a story about who we think we are, and what we think we were made for. With prophetic acuity Hoffman writes that "as human experiences, our sport spectacles seem unlikely places to find God 'softly and tenderly calling'; the calls of the stadium are from another land and another god." And this is our problem. This other god would consume us, which is why, perhaps, when women are depicted in the Super Bowl, they appear as consumables—just a bag of Doritos. For this is what the other god does. Early Christians feared consumption by lions in stadiums; ironically, stadiums still consume Christians.

And so we engage in cultural practices that might not serve our best interests—as humans, as image-bearers. So what? This is nothing new. Political sociologist Antonio Gramsci employs a term—hegemony—that helps explain how social systems gain compliance from their members. Where cultural elites, driven by material interests, once employed force and violence to control the populace, more subtle and effective means are characteristic of what we find in advanced modernity. In the words of Scott Applerouth and Laura Desfor Edles, "Indoctrinated into mistaking the ideology propagated by the ruling class for a common-sense or natural explanation for how the world works, the dominated classes consent to their own domination." In effect, control is exerted in much more pleasant forms that render people in agreement with those things that oppress and constrain them. Rather than feeling sadness, we laugh when a woman's body sells a car. Rather than outrage, we watch it again on YouTube. And in the end, without many scruples about the ties between demeaning ads and supermarket products, we buy their wares. I do this. You probably do too. But in the end, we have to ask ourselves whose interests are being served? If we fail to perceive these shrouded methods of hegemonic control—these means by which we, albeit unwittingly, reinforce those very things Christian theology has for centuries argued against—then, perhaps we are the ones who withhold real sustenance from our anorexic daughters. And if theology doesn't make a difference here, I'm not sure it makes much of a difference at all.

I conclude with a vision for where we might go from here, or at least how we might begin to think about our practices. In his compelling book Evangelism after Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness, theologian Bryan Stone explains that Christians are people who embody a story. Accordingly, the calling of the church is to counternarrate—at the level of imagination—the stories and practices of the dominant culture. Where their story is violent, ours is peaceful. Where theirs exploits girls and women, ours seeks out and protects the marginal. Where theirs demonstrates a hunger for self, ours seeks to pour out self for the sake of others. Where theirs is tawdry, ours is holy. Where theirs finds transcendence in the things of this world, ours looks past this world to a different God. And so, I wonder how we, as the people of God, might counternarrate the Super Bowl—this iconic event so disturbingly representative of what counts as sacred in our culture. In a way, our collective witness in the midst of this nation-defining event—the story we tell outside of church—is so much more important than the story we tell inside of church. For this outside story bears witness to our inside story. Will we imagine women in the way Doritos does? Will we pretend that we can simply mentally dismiss particular components of the Super Bowl "package" and in this way resist its hegemonic control? Or will we provide a compelling and alternative story about what it means to be image-bearers, in physical bodies, who live for a different sort of world. Perhaps we could suspend our practice of watching the Super Bowl, at least temporarily, as we work to construct an embodied counternarrative—an alternative to the dominant reality, a world that can be, and a world that must be. Maybe we could watch the Victoria's Secret and Doritos ads intently and with our children—really thinking about them, rather than skipping quickly over them as though they are of little consequence for what are watching and doing. Or, of course, we can just download the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit "app," plan our parties for Super Bowl XLVII, secret our ecclesial practices inside the church, and go on with life as normal. But what will we tell our daughters?

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Matthew Vos Matthew Vos
Matthew Vos is professor of Sociology at Covenant College located atop Lookout Mountain, Georgia. ... read more »
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