Rihanna’s Super Bowl performance put the power of pregnancy center stage
Our God is one of surprises, greeting us with glad tidings in the midst of lo cotidiano, our ordinary lives. Super Bowl halftime shows are known for their surprises, too. Whether it is a dramatic entrance, an unanticipated guest performer, a mid-performance costume change or a dancing shark who hasn’t memorized the choreography, the audience knows to expect the unexpected. When Rihanna, who headlined the show for Super Bowl LVII, was asked by an interviewer in the days leading up to the performance whether there would be any surprises she smiled coyly and responded, “I’m thinking about bringing someone.”
Taking the halftime show reveal to new heights, the pop star used the occasion to show the world her joyful news: She is pregnant with her second child. Dressed in a red bodysuit and oversized puffy jacket, she tenderly touched her “baby bump” as she stood on a platform descending toward the 50-yard line. Dozens of backup dancers clad in puffy white jackets joined her on a stage backlit by lights of red, magenta, pink and violet. Now that is a dramatic entrance!
Rihanna’s performance fascinated me. I am also a woman who has been pregnant and who experienced my pregnancy “on stage,” so to speak—though with a slightly smaller “audience.” As a university professor, I spent both of my pregnancies in front of classes of students. It was an experience that was at times challenging but also allowed me to form deeper connections with my children, and even with my students.
I spent the first 13 weeks of one pregnancy attempting to disguise my nausea during class. I lectured about maternal-fetal ethics to undergraduate bioethics students with a visible “baby bump,” keenly aware of the summersaults and gentle nudges as I taught the class. During my second pregnancy, I cried during a graduate seminar in which I was the instructor. Daily anxiety about the well-being of my baby (this was a “high risk” pregnancy with a series of complications) made the work of being in front of audiences, even ones in which I had professorial authority, particularly stressful for me.
At the same time, I gave some of the most cogent, powerful lectures of my career while I was pregnant. Moments of radiant confidence and pure joy translated into a renewed energy for my teaching vocation even as I felt constantly on display as my body changed in response to the little life cradled inside me. I felt both hyper visible and invisible, both vulnerable and powerful, both energized and exhausted. And almost always hungry.
As St. John Paul II put it, “You have sheltered human beings within yourselves in a unique experience of joy and travail.”
Performing her set on the world’s biggest stage while visibly pregnant, Rihanna illuminated some of the tensions experienced by pregnant women in the public eye. To be sure, everything around Rihanna radiated energy—the backup dancers, the lights, the set, the crowd. And she did her fair share of dancing and moving. But she seemed to be letting her backup crew handle some of the more intense physical activity. During the performance of her hit song “Work,” she stood in front of a chorus of dancers posed in hip bridges as she gave them direction from behind her bejeweled microphone. Nine and a half minutes into the set, she took a swig of water from a bright red water bottle before handing it off to one of the backup dancers. And there were a couple of moments where she was just a bit breathless—a familiar feeling for anyone who knows how it feels for one’s internal organs to be compressed by an adorable, squishy baby. Some critics panned her “low energy” performance. This is unfair criticism to level against a performer growing a human. At the same time, pregnancy transforms one’s body to make room for another person. It can take anyone’s breath away.
Her performance manifested the energy and power that can accompany the experience of pregnancy.
Despite this criticism, her performance manifested the energy and power that can accompany the experience of pregnancy. She was radiant as she danced to her hit song, “We Found Love.” Her lyrics took on new meaning as she sang them with her little dance partner: We found love in a hopeless place. More provocatively, Rihanna’s lyrics and choreography explored the oft-ignored landscape of pregnant sexuality. Her suggestive dancing contained a message about human sexuality that society could afford to hear: That pregnant people are, in fact, sexual people.
But Rihanna’s most powerful messages about pregnancy were not about power or sexuality. They were about the intimate bonds formed between mother and child during pregnancy. Rihanna’s 2012 hit song “Diamond” served as the finale for the set. Draped in a red cloak, she hovered above the field on a suspended platform. And with seemingly every eye in the world upon her, she managed to share a quiet moment with the tiny person cradled inside her. Shine bright like a diamond, she sang. At the end of a dynamic performance, the lyrics felt like a lullaby. Rihanna used her moment in the Super Bowl spotlight to offer a glimpse into the largely unseen joys and trials of pregnancy. The eyes of the world may be upon you. But it’s just you and me, kid. We’re beautiful like diamonds in the sky.