The Subversive Brilliance of Rihanna's Super Bowl Halftime Show

Rihanna performs during the Super Bowl LVII Halftime Show
Rihanna performs during the Super Bowl LVII Halftime Show
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Rihanna performs during Apple Music Super Bowl LVII Halftime Show at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., on Feb. 12, 2023. Credit - Kevin Mazur—Roc Nation/Getty Images

Rihanna has not been on tour since 2016. She has not performed live since the 2018 Grammys. She had a baby in May 2022. Her mere presence at any live event would be enough to make news. So when she agreed to perform at the Super Bowl LVII halftime show, people could be forgiven for assuming she would show up, belt out some hits, announce a new album or a tour, and rest on her immaculately groomed laurels. Instead, from the moment she descended on what appeared to be a floating iPhone visibly pregnant, like a 21st century Venus on a half shell, her performance subverted expectations.

First, there was the baby bump. Women’s bodies, as even casual onlookers may have noticed, are highly contested ground. This is especially true of women’s pregnant bodies. One of the messages that has been more or less established is that speculation about whether a person is pregnant is to be discouraged. Yet for 13 minutes, Rihanna turned that speculation into a national guessing game.

While America has moved away from the days when Lucille Ball’s pregnancy nearly cost her career, through the era where women’s growing bellies were disguised as best as possible, and is well into the era where the default option is to flaunt them — an era ushered in by Demi Moore, and endorsed by BeyonceRihanna pushed it along, refusing to follow anyone’s playbook. Rather than reveal her news at the end of her performance, she made everyone wait, confirming her pregnancy through a rep only after she had been lifted, Elijah-like, into the sky for her moment of glory.

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The star certainly benefited from the marketing opportunities afforded to Super Bowl performers. (Right after her performance, several of her songs hit the charts again and her listeners on Apple Music tripled; she also touched up her makeup mid-show with a product from her beauty line.) But for someone with a monster of a lingerie brand, Savage X Fenty, and who has never been shy about nudity, Rihanna was pretty covered up—and so were her dancers. She was not in any way hiding her body; the one red object in a sea of white, like a splash of blood on a snow field, she dared people to take a closer look. But, the message seemed to be, a woman who is confident and self-possessed and happens to be pregnant can be just as spectacular and exciting as one who is naked. You expected her to shed the jumpsuit and reveal a bralette? Nuh-uh. She added a coat.

Rihanna performs during the Apple Music Super Bowl LVII Halftime Show at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., on Feb. 12, 2023.<span class="copyright">Kevin Sabitus—Getty Images</span>
Rihanna performs during the Apple Music Super Bowl LVII Halftime Show at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., on Feb. 12, 2023.Kevin Sabitus—Getty Images

Of course the road between sex kitten and mom winds through treacherous terrain and seems to go only one way. Hot women are generally considered to be those with high levels of availability, impulsivity, and self-confidence. Model maternal figures, on the other hand, have the opposite attributes—commitment, responsibility, and sacrifice. Rihanna declined to choose between the two. With her is-she-or-isn’t-she revelation, she embodied both, managing to be both a suggestive siren and celebratory of the upcoming arrival—yes, already!—of another child. (One wry observer suggested the show’s dancers were a tribute to her partner A$AP Rocky’s gametes.)

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As far as we know, Rihanna wasn’t pregnant when she decided to do the Super Bowl. In fact, she has said she had only just had her first child and was deep in postpartum exhaustion. She wouldn’t have been the first entertainer to leave a gig because she had conceived. And there are some studies—and a long list of people with uteruses—that suggest that singing (and dancing) while pregnant is harder to do. But she chose to go ahead, and her performance injected a mutinous amount of estrogen into one of the most testosterone-fueled events of the American calendar.

The ratings from Fox suggested that more people watched Rihanna’s concert (118 million) than the game itself (113 million). There, among the ads for cars, three different types of beer, and a movie about a running shoe, was a reminder of the thing none of the Y-chromosome bearers on the field could do, despite their obvious physical prowess. It’s genuinely impressive to be able to throw, catch, and run with such accuracy in the face of such intense physical opposition, but it’s not exactly like making a whole new human being. If you tuned in to the game for an epic display of toughness, you saw it, just perhaps in more ways than you expected.