In the Garden of Eden with Shakira | Sojourners

In the Garden of Eden with Shakira

The prevailing stereotype of unpredictable and hyper-sexualized brown women’s bodies. 

This year’s highly anticipated NFL halftime show was headlined by Shakira and Jennifer Lopez. Both leading ladies, superstars of the entertainment industry in the United States and abroad, offered an explosive joint performance exhibiting their greatest bilingual hits and blending Puerto Rican, Colombian, and Afro-Caribbean cultural influences that have characterized their multi-decade careers.

The pan-Latin pride was in the air and across the digital sphere. Prior to the show, Lopez shared a photo in embrace with her co-performer saying: “Let’s show the world what two little Latin girls can do.” Shakira expressed her gratitude to her home country Colombia, “for giving me the mapalé, the champeta, the salsa and the Afro-Caribbean rhythms.” And while their performance was an ode to these traditions embedded and inherited through their patrias at home and in diaspora, outrage percolated in response to their ostentatious displays of body and soul.

Opinion pieces, editorials, and social media posts proliferated with claims that the show displayed obscene or explicit content. Despite the fact that the performers incorporated diverse cultural styles ranging from Middle Eastern belly dancing — Shakira is half Lebanese — to salsa dancing and did not intimate sexual dances with men, commentators fixated on the moral depravity of the outfits, props, and suggestive body movements. A Christian Post headline labeled the performance “softcore porn” while Franklin Graham tweeted in response to the show, “our country has had a sense of moral decency on prime time TV in order to protect children. We see that disappearing before our eyes.”

The moral panic of evangelical leaders and their followers over the halftime show exhibit strange and dissonant logics in our current moment. Have any of these critics, especially those who support President Trump, expressed concern about protecting children in cages at the border? What moral decency is there in deporting students on visas back to countries embroiled in civil conflict? If women’s body movements are so threatening to social order, why are cheerleaders or other types of female entertainers at athletic events deemed not as threating?

But of course, it’s not just about the movements of women’s bodies. The concern is not so much about bodies in motion but the prevailing stereotype of unpredictable and hyper-sexualized brown women’s bodies. For centuries, the efforts of Euro-American Christian missionaries and their imperial patrons sought to discipline and “civilize” women across the global south by enforcing Western modes of domesticity and erasing the perceived “moral degeneracy” of local cultures. The claims from evangelical writers and commentators about Shakira’s and Jennifer Lopez’s performance are a contemporary reincarnation of a very old imperial narrative.

And yet, these accusations of “worldliness” and “moral decency” fail to recognize how Shakira’s music in particular engages with moral questions and religious ideas.

When I rediscovered Shakira’s early music during my teenage years, the spiritual and biblical symbolism in her lyrics resonated with me. Shakira’s 1995 debut album in Spanish Piez Descalzos (Bare Feet) appeared to embody a love-obsessed teen’s lifeworld, but the lyrical depth of the playlist suggested otherwise. The premise and subject of her featured single “Piez Descalzos, Suenos Blancos” (Bare Feet, White Dreams) is almost indiscernible without familiarity with Christian theology. She sings: “Fuiste polvo, polvo eres ... Tú mordiste la manzana y renunciaste al paraíso” (You were dust, dust you are ... You bit the apple and gave up paradise).

This explicit reference to the Christian creation story of humanity’s origin from the earth continues into her subsequent work. She writes in her 1998 single “Octavo Dia” (The Eighth Day) about an imagined eighth day following God’s creation of the world. In parallel with the Genesis account, God declares a day of rest following his determination that all was good. But when he returns, he finds his created world in entropy: “Quien se iba a imaginar que el mismo Dios al regresar, Iba a encontrarlo todo en un desorden infernal (Who would imagine that God himself when he returned, Would find it all in a hellish mess).”

These themes and motifs continued to emerge in her music during the early 2000s following her crossover to the English music market. The cover of her Oral Fixation album features a Garden of Eden scene with a not so-subtle reference to the biblical Eve as Shakira is dressed in leaves with an apple in hand. The opening song of that album beings with religious chanting as she recites parts of the Lord’s prayer and asks God a series of questions, including: “How many people die, And hurt in your name?"

Allusions and references to the Garden of Eden, knowledge, and temptation have historic associations with marginalization of women in Christianity, so perhaps it’s no accident that these concepts reoccur in Shakira’s work.

To be sure, the Super Bowl and the NFL should be open to legitimate critiques. Not least among them is the glorification of limitless consumption and the silencing of political dissent most recently seen through the case of Colin Kaepernick. But to denounce the celebration of Latinx heritage by reducing Shakira's and Jennifer Lopez's performance to moral degeneracy not only propagates racist tropes of Latina hypersexuality, it also propagates the centuries-long Christian bias of seeing women as the source for the fall of man.

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