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Knowing the Body

2004 Second Web Report

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The Hidden Hierarchy of Silences


On the night of February second, 2003, family members in thousands of U.S. households gathered together to participate in what is considered by many to be a great and important American tradition, the NFL Super Bowl. After kick-off, in most respects, everyone watched a game that had all the elements of a typical all American football game. Big muscled men threw a leather ball around, ran with it, and violently rammed into each other to the tune of a cheering audience. There were women on the sidelines wearing very tight, revealing clothing dancing for the crowd, and, after about two hours of all this, it was time for the traditional halftime performance of music and entertainment.

It was during this performance where many argue that things began to shift slightly from the norm. For the second year, the performance was going to be produced by MTV, and perhaps in an effort to get more female and younger viewers tuned in, MTV advertised its performance of Justin Timberlake which promised "to shock". Timberlake ended the performance with a singing and dancing collaboration with Janet Jackson, and faithful to MTV's reputation, there was not a lot of singing, but plenty of over the clothing crotch grabbing and groping of the singers themselves and each other. However, it was Justin's final movement after the words, "I'm gonna have you naked by the end of this song", where he ripped off part of Jackson's costume exposing her right breast, that triggered enraged viewers across the nation to cover their children's eyes, and call the FCC for justice.

Although an account of these calls is not available for public scrutiny, their sentiments are probably of a similar range to what newspaper and magazine articles today are commenting on the recent incident in an NFL skit. Before the Monday Night Football game on November 15, Terrell Owens sees Desperate Housewives costar Nicollette Sheridan in the locker room wearing only a towel, and says in so many words that he will stay and have sex with her instead of going to the game. This event is now the most talked about obscenity broadcasting controversy since the Justin/Jackson event, and many are suspicious that it's no coincidence that the common denominator of suggested interracial sexual relations - is hiding deep within the public fury.

Foucault, an expert on the societal obsessions with sex in the 18th century, takes note of what the different public discourses about sex can say about a society and their private views on sexual controversies. Foucault explains that one can discover just as much about the view of a society by examining at what is left out of public discourse for example, as looking at what is included. Foucault clarifies, "There are not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourses" (Foucault 27). Thus, in order to get a sense of what the private discourse is on the Terrell Owens issue, a good place to begin is what the public discourse is saying, but also what they are brushing over oh so delicately, and or what they are leaving out completely. I first looked at the NFL's website, and then the less directly involved, CNN and ESPN where I found a good range of public discourse on the controversial pre-game skit.

The NFL writers focused on Owen's uncanny ability to create controversy, "Anything I get involved with, I'm obviously a target," Owens explains, "I always make the front page." CNN focused on the "evils" of big business, centering on the FCC head Powell's , "we get a lot of broadcasting companies complaining about indecency enforcement, they seem to be willing to...keep it hot and steamy in order to get the financial gains..." ESPN reported a range of attitudes, from Donovan McNabb "saying that...people were overreacting", to Indianapolis Colts coach, Tony Dungy, finding it racially offensive, "To me that's the first thing I thought of as an African American...I don't think they would have had Bill Parcells or Andy Reid or one of the owners involved in that."

The varied discourses of each article lay out a different group behind the cause of the controversy, and the party who is getting most hurt by it. The ESPN article seems to get closer to the root of the issue. The NFL article linking the praise Owen gets for scoring touch downs with the negative controversy from the NFL sex skit, as though they are the same thing, doesn't add up. The CNN piece goes a little deeper, looking at the pressure placed on networks to use sex as a selling tool. However, the ESPN piece seems best in that it allows specific viewers related to the skit to speak about what exactly was or was not offensive to them. This type of article doesn't just act like the controversy was just about the inevitable excitement from the public about football or sex, rather it gives the African American viewpoint a voice, both from a playmate and friend of Terrell's, as well as an African American coach from another team.

I was surprised to find that the race issue was not taboo, and that an article from ESPN had talked about it openly giving both sides of the argument. If one looks closer however, one notices that with the inclusion of race, came the exclusion of another group. McNabb is also noted as saying, "I'm not saying my wife would have let me do that", showing the morality and control of married players, and their respect for the women in their lives. However, it does not go deeper that this. It asks the minority African American viewpoint, but completely leaves out the minority female one. I want to know, what does McNabb's wife have to say, what does Nicollette Sheridan have to say about the controversy, what do any women involved in football either as spectators, journalists, cheerleaders, wives of the players have to say? Are they being asked, are they refusing to speak, or are they just not being heard? Perhaps one can begin to answer these questions by looking at where and in what context are women are allowed in football.

Let's return back to the football game. Sports and football especially, seem to be a place less segregated by race than almost any other context, right? All those burly toned men focused on the ball, and if you look through their masks, both black and white faces appear. They play as one, working together for the same goal through teamwork, and by showing the world that hyper, grunt, and run, and agile masculinity is so great. They might not all share the same skin tone, but these are men here, there are no girls...or wait, are there? Oh yes, the women on the sidelines in their own special uniforms. They are allowed on the sidelines in skimpy uniforms, and apparently are allowed in the locker room, not as reporters, but with the same uniform requirement as is required on the field. Michael Powell, chairman of the FCC, asked, "I wonder if Walt Disney would be proud", but he is again looking in the direction of an overly exposed opinion as Walt Disney would only be another male view. Harvey Araton from the New York Times was one of few reports in a widespread source, I saw that narrowed in on the woman's issue. He asks, "Is this the message the Walt Disney Company wishes to convey to those pig-tailed soccer girls who want to believe they can't have to be decorative objects of desire to get in the game?" He asked a woman, Donna Lopiano, executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation who commented, "what I really want to know is who actually decides to put this on. Is it a father, a father of a daughter?" She continues, "The problem is larger than sports. It's what children are shown from Day 1 in animated movies, women with two-inch waists and huge breasts."

Football is segregated, on the field and in everyone's minds as strong men having sexual objects on the sidelines. The hierarchical segregation of football is of men and women, not black and white. When I began writing this piece, I thought that I was going to find America's interracial fear exposed, and covered up through feminist outbursts, but instead I find the greater societal fear at least in the protected realm of football, seems to be a fear of letting women out of their role as sex object. The fact that other African Americans saw the skit as "classless", that Terrell Owens was slumming it with a slut in the locker room, and this was offensive to African American men who have morality and sexual control, and could have told the girl, "no thanks" is an offense to women. The fact that black men are more likely to sleep with slutty women than white men ignores the fact that sexually promiscuous women are still called sluts. I think the end of Harvey Araton's aricle sums it up best. It isn't that women don't want to be sexual, and even sexual objects, "it's not about the bra or the towel, but about a male-dominated media industry" focusing on male only-views. "An industry engaging in what one if Harvey's co-workers "calls, 'the same old-narrative' with obvious disgust, she added, 'Can't we try another one?'" Well, can't we?

From football players, to coaches, to FCC chairs, to Walt Disney himself, almost all the viewpoints I found on the recent controversy were asking men to comment on the incident. The skit itself and the reaction to the skit in both who was asked about it, and what comments were given show clearly that in an inside / outside scenario, exists in football. Women are on the outside, but are allowed on the inside only if they are "dressed appropriately." The politics of these articles is a demonstration that society allows racial tensions to subside only if the male dominancy of the gender relationship is kept in tact. It is still true that black-men are hyper-sexualized even more so than white football players, so they have a reason to be offended by the stereotype, but in defending himself, but Tony Dungy said nothing about the fact that a female was being objectified. He only clarified that her behavior was wrong, and that society was insulting black men in their association with her. Like Diana Fuss's description of homosexual politics in her piece Inside / Out , the sexual desiring woman, "rubs up against" the heterosexual male, "concentrates and codifies the very real possibility and ever-present threat of a collapse of boundaries, an effacing of limits, and a radical confusion of identities" (Fuss 237).

Works Cited:

Michel Foucault. "We 'Other Victorians'" and "The Repressive Hypothesis."The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction.Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage, 1980. 3-13, 17-49.

Diana Fuss. "Inside/Out." Critical Encounters: Reference and Responsibility in Deconstructive Writing. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1995. 233- 240.

Araton, Harvey. New York Times. November 21, 2004.

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