In his Theology of the Body audiences, St. John Paul II discusses nakedness of the body depicted in art. In three of these audiences, he focuses on the “Ethos of the Body in Art and Media.” I strongly recommend prayerfully reading John Paul II’s Theology of the Body to explore the depth of this series on human nature, human dignity, relationships, sin, and the redemption of the body. I believe that every Catholic has a responsibility to study these texts, especially in a time when we have platforms for sharing our opinions.As Catholics, we ought to tether our opinions to theology, philosophy, and Church teachings — and not strictly to an American narrative.
St. John Paul II identifies two categories that are part of the ethos of the body in art and media: the “ethos of the image” (the responsibility of the artist) and the “ethos of seeing” (the responsibility of the audience). Additionally, he discusses “the creation of a climate” of chastity, where these two ethoses work together:
“The creation of the climate favorable to education in chastity contains these two components: it concerns, so to speak, a reciprocal circuit that takes place between the image and the act of seeing, between the ethos of the image and the ethos of seeing. Just as the creation of the image, in the wide and differentiated sense of the term, imposes on the author, artist, or reproducer obligations not only of an aesthetic, but also of an ethical nature, so also ‘looking’, understood in the same broad analogy, imposes obligations on the recipients of the the work” (Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body 307).
In conversations about the latest Super Bowl halftime show, I see two different conversations combined into one: the ethics of the artists and the ethics of the audience.
I will not present an argument about the ethics of the artists, because I do not know them. I am also not convinced that either artist had profound conversations about the ethics of the human body, inspired by Catholic teaching, in their performance. The ethics of the artist is a topic worthy of discussion, but it is not the one that most concerns me today. (Though Pia de Solenni addressed it well in her “Open Letter to Jennifer Lopez and Shakira.”)
I would like to discuss the ethics of the audience, but there is a historical narrative here, one that rose to the surface for many Latinas and one that warrants both explanation and exploration into its roots.
First, let me tell you another story so I can better explain where I am coming from.
My ex-mother-in-law used to cut off the ends of her Easter ham to cook it. One Easter, I asked her why she did this, because I was curious to know how cutting off the ends would make the ham better. She said she did not really know but that her mother did it, so it was just what she did. I went and asked her mother, too, and I got the same answer: “I do not know, but my mother did it, so I do it.” Then, I went to the oldest mother in this line of women and asked her. And she had the answer! She cut the ends off the Easter ham because the pan she used to bake it in was too small. So, for generations in this family, the women had been cutting off the ends of their hams, thinking it was part of the recipe when really it was because one mother had a small pan.
This is the case with implicit racism. It isn’t the KKK type of racism where someone thinks people of other races are less than human or that they do not want to share a diner counter or a bus seat with a black or brown person, but it is the “cutting the ends off the ham” type racism: the ideas and stories passed down through generations that stick.
One of these stories is how women of color have been viewed as sexual deviants or told that we have high sex drives or that men’s objectifying us is our own fault. It is through this lens that many saw the halftime show of this year’s Super Bowl. The women who are in black and brown bodies have lived with the historical narrative that their bodies are evil, that they are sex fiends, and that any man who violates their bodies does so because they asked for it.
Women of color have been viewed as sexual deviants or told that we have high sex drives or that men’s objectifying us is our own fault.
Then, there are the women who have the historical narrative that they are white and pure and virginal, who have been told not to act “like those women.” There are other narratives that showed up in these conversations, but I will not get into them here. I want to focus on the narrative I know personally — that of the woman in a brown body who has been told that I brought the violation of that body on myself.
There is a lot to unpack here, so I won’t be able to go into too much depth, but I will provide links at the end, so anyone who cares can look into this topic further.
Slaves who were brought to the Americas and the Islands danced as a form of relaxing after work and as a way to keep their African heritage in their community. Eventually, dance was also used as a form of protest against white supremacy.
In regards to Latino dance, the reason it is sensual is simple: Sex is not seen as anything other than the sacred act that creates new life. Are there issues with promiscuity in the Latino community? Yes, and I am not denying that. But there is also a foundation that celebrates new life and women’s bodies as the vessel of humanity. The Virgin Mary is often portrayed as pregnant in Latino culture. When my family says the rosary in Spanish, there’s reverence at the word “womb” in every Hail Mary.
Are there issues with promiscuity in the Latino community? Yes, and I am not denying that. But there is also a foundation that celebrates new life and women’s bodies as the vessel of humanity.
There is a historical narrative that Latinos “breed like rabbits” and are irresponsible in having “so many kids.” Those terms are offensive to white Catholic mothers of large families, but they are rooted in racism. Black and brown women have heard them for generations — black women even more so, because during enslavement, it was their wombs that were violated the most in order for slave owners, their wives, and their families to make more money. And it was a family business. Every member of a slave-owning family was culpable, not only in the violation of those wombs but also in telling the narrative that the black women were, first of all, property and, second of all, sexually promiscuous — when the truth was that there is a difference between being promiscuous and being raped.
When it comes to brown women, our roots are in how the Spanish viewed indigenous people. Because they came with a religious agenda — converting native people to Catholicism — they saw indigenous people as “heathen savages” who needed conversion and to be civilized.
So, when we, as brown and black women, see two women of color on the biggest stage of American culture dancing to our kind of music, with our dances, in protest for our children, as mothers and as artists, we feel empowered, because what we see is a taking back of our dignity away from the oppression and violations of our bodies. We see freedom. We see the act of taking up our own space with our own culture and not apologizing for it.
When we see terms that drip in language used to dehumanize indigenous people and when we see people go so far as to call our culture demonic, we are reminded to our core of what our ancestors suffered. Trauma lives in our bodies and in our DNA, and seeing white people use historically oppressive language all over social media reminded us that we are not welcome.
When we see terms that drip in language used to dehumanize indigenous people and when we see people go so far as to call our culture demonic, we are reminded to our core of what our ancestors suffered.
It is the responsibility of the audience of visual art to know the historical narrative they are seeing and to root out anything that is tethered to the idea that black and brown bodies and cultures are somehow “uncivilized.” This responsibility is not only important for the country’s racial healing. For Catholics, it is also about the dignity of the human person. Black and brown women have been burdened for too long with taking responsibility for the sins of violations of our bodies. When you see us not accepting that anymore, it is because we feel empowered. That is what I mean when I say that show was an artistic resistance to racism and that I felt empowered by it. From the hundreds of messages I’ve received from other Latinas, I think it is safe to say that is what most of us felt.
Resources to Learn More:
“The Historical Roots of the Sexualization of Black Women and Girls”
“16th Century Spanish Religious Views of American Indians”
“History of Latin Dance”
“A History of Social Dance in America: Opposition”