Why MIA Was Right to Give America the Finger at the Super Bowl
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And like Madonna, M.I.A. is notoriously self-motivated, anti-authoritarian and inherently subversive, albeit in a far more complicated way than the Material Girl. Her bird-flipping can be analyzed in two ways. First, the flip-off acted as a subconscious f-you to Madonna for relegating her and Nicki Minaj—the strong, important women of color—to understudy status. In addition to having them dress as cheerleaders in the “Give Me All Your Luvin” video, there is a scene in which they don her “Like a Virgin” era style—white lace dresses, boy toy belts, blonde Marilyn Monroe wigs—implying that they aspire to be like her when they grow up. In truth, each has her own distinct attitude that does not discernibly owe anything specific to the legacy of Madonna, unlike, say, Lady Gaga. Minaj’s “Harajuku Barbie” act is indebted to Japanese raver style, drag queens, and her background in drama, while M.I.A.’s persona is based on her experience as a Sri Lankan immigrant in London who went to art school as her rebel father fought for rebel groups back in the homeland. It is a clear facet of Madonna’s narcissism that this imagery showed up in the video with these specific people, and it makes us want to give up the middle finger, too.
But if the woman who once simulated masturbation on a world tour can’t understand the impetus for a provocative notion from a notoriously impetuous pop star, then it was clear the outside world was going to have a collective meltdown. And, of course, M.I.A. was effectively flipping off America, but not everyone in America—just what is perceived as America’s middlestream, the football-watching populace that traverses gender, race, class, age, and sexual orientation.
It’s telling that one of the main critiques of M.I.A.'s finger-flip this week had to do with the fact that she is “not even American,” as Republican Dana Perino groused, which is true (she holds British and Sri Lankan citizenship), but is also veiled code for “brown.” Let us not forget the role race played in Nipplegate, and how it corresponds—woman of color onstage with white pop star offends the country by will or by accident—and wonder if M.I.A. was white and gave the finger, how commentators would react. While we aren’t inclined to think a middle finger is all that interesting—we view it with something approaching boredom—it is somewhat subversive that a young brown woman rapping about her “uranium hits” did it.
And so, as the NBC and NFL play, and the FCC decides how much to charge, and who to charge it to (likely: around $50,000, and M.I.A.), this light controversy continues to rage, the country’s racial undercurrent runs through it. Meanwhile, M.I.A.’s got a new single to promote. It’s called "Bad Girlz," it samples Arabic pop, and the video features women wearing niqab and wielding A-Ks. Dana Perroni would love it.
Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.