Rihanna Super Bowl halftime show

A pregnant Rihanna playing by her own rules

“Superstars performing while pregnant for an event watched by millions, like Rihanna just did, may not seem like anything ground-breaking if you aren’t closely following the evolution of how women’s bodies are routinely perceived and scrutinized. But these moments matter.”

After a seven-year hiatus, Rihanna finally returned to the stage, suspended on a platform above a screaming crowd of tens of thousands of football fans at the Super Bowl halftime show on Sunday, and as over 100 million around the world watched, I was watching, too. 

When Riri came out, I initially thought she was just displaying her post-baby body. But her red jumpsuit was zipped down to her navel, purposefully displaying, not hiding, that bump. And when she rubbed her belly, I knew. The singer’s rep confirmed our suspicions soon after: Rihanna was pregnant with her second baby, becoming the first pregnant woman to headline a Super Bowl half-time show. 

I won’t spend too much time commenting on the time-honoured and frankly boring criticism of half-time shows by the usual armchair experts who “didn’t like the show,” thought she “wasn’t displaying adequate energy,” saw “too much lip-synching” or angrily insisted she should have passed on the performance because she was pregnant — as if they were cruelly robbed of an entertainment experience they personally paid for. Relax and enjoy the show, folks! It’s just some razzle-dazzle fun while the players take a much-needed break. No need to overthink it. 

I personally thought her performance was effortlessly cool, the way Rihanna has frankly always been. This woman is consistently comfortable in her own skin and has built a career and a billion-dollar makeup and lingerie empire all while living her life on her own unbothered terms. I respect how she vibes. 

Changing cultural norms one show at a time

I Love Lucy, 1953
I Love Lucy, 1953

I’m not here to critique a pop performance, but, rather, to analyze some of the disgruntled comments about her performing while pregnant and what they might signify.  Because we, as a society, often spend so much time critiquing entertainers that we don’t sometimes realize the impact they have in changing social perceptions. 

In the 1950s when I Love Lucy was on the air, the producers had to write in Lucille Ball’s real-life pregnancy. Even though she was pregnant by her real-life husband Desi Arnaz (who played her husband Ricky on the show), the producers were terrified the episode would be considered vulgar and the show would be cancelled. CBS executives were so scared that the viewing public would be scandalized that a priest and a rabbi were called on set to supervise and see if the script was offensive. 

At no point were the words pregnant or pregnancy uttered in the show. They, instead, used words like “blessed event” or “expecting.” TV shows at the time routinely showed married couples in separate beds because God forbid they were having S-E-X. For the longest time — and, still, for many people today, judging by the online comments — pregnancy was supposed to be a private affair. 

Social taboos justify discrimination

Demi Moore, 1991

All this may sound impossibly corny today, but taboos become problematic when they infringe on women’s rights and encourage and justify workplace discrimination. In the 1970s, it wasn’t uncommon for pregnant teachers to be let go of their positions because it was considered unseemly or a bad influence for women to be pregnant in the classroom. 

Senator Elizabeth Warren was one of those teachers who was forced out of her teaching position because she was visibly pregnant and openly discussed it while campaigning. After several teachers filed lawsuits against school districts, the U.S. Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1978, which prohibited workplace discrimination because of “pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions.” 

And while Canada also has a Pregnancy Discrimination Act, you might be surprised to learn that in 1979 a Supreme Court of Canada ruling found that discrimination on the basis of pregnancy was not a form of gender discrimination. It would take until 1989 for a court reversal to change the status quo. You’d think that 30+ years later we’d have gotten the message by now, but studies still show that 1 out of 3 women report being discriminated against by employers after announcing a pregnancy or becoming a mother. 

We sometimes think social mores move quickly, but when we look back, we realize how frustratingly slow and riddled with speedbumps progress can be. Bearing this in mind, anything that coaxes us to inch forward is always welcome.

Superstars performing while pregnant for an event watched by millions, like Rihanna just did, or posing in all their nude pregnant splendour on the front of Vanity Fair, like Demi Moore did in 1991, may not seem like anything ground-breaking if you aren’t closely following the evolution of how women’s bodies are routinely perceived and scrutinized. But these moments matter. 

While once upon a time women did everything possible to hide their pregnancy bumps in unseemly, oversized muumuus, women today are proudly displaying them and celebrating this important moment in their lives and all that life-giving power that comes with it.

Women’s bodies are forever scandalous

Lizzo & co.

There are incredible taboos about women’s bodies when they veer from acceptable norms of presentation. If you’re too overweight, too old, too pregnant, too busy breastfeeding, you shouldn’t be prancing around too comfortably, displaying skin for all to see. You should be demure, private, covered up, dignified. The same adjectives apply for all. Lizzo annoys the fat-phobic because this talented, gorgeous woman doesn’t care about their opinions. Madonna annoys the critics because she’s just going about her business making choices that she’s happy with, refusing to fit into a neat tiny box. Apparently, a pregnant Rihanna is guilty of not providing a performance that was sexy or ‘high-energy’ enough for the chicken-wing and chili-eating crowd downing their fourth beer by halftime and should have taken a rain check and refused to perform. Say what? And refuse the opportunity to go up there and perform an impressive catalogue of her hit songs while announcing baby #2 is on the way, all while giving her successful makeup line Fenty an added boost in sales? She wouldn’t be the billionaire that she is if she squandered that marketing opportunity. 

Also, women can’t win. Remember the high-energy halftime show J-Lo and Shakira gave us in 2020? How dare women that age, of all things, two mothers, shake their asses like that? “Two talentless whores writhing around dressed as strippers,” were some of the lovely comments I documented for prosperity on Twitter that year. I wrote about the public’s reactions then because I’m endlessly fascinated by this world we live in, in which women are always too much and yet unsurprisingly never enough. 

Public discussions move the needle

Carrie, 1976

Super Bowl halftime shows may not seem like part of the pop culture zeitgeist that has an impact on social norms, but I think people underestimate how stars and music culture influence society and what’s deemed acceptable and normalized. And while much of what entertainers do and share is nothing but mindless entertainment, many of their performance choices affect society, minimizing taboos and normalizing the different.

There continue to be enormous taboos surrounding women’s bodies and our life-giving bodily functions. Our periods, our pregnancies, our labours and childbirths, our post-baby recoveries, our breastfeeding, our abortions, our miscarriages, our bleeding, our hot flashes, our menopause, our peri-and post-menopausal symptoms — they’re all swept under the rug and discussed in hushed tones, as if these things are dirty, unbecoming and unseemly, rather than just everyday, normal biological moments in many women’s lives. 

Up until a few years ago, menstruation products were taboo, and commercials had us convinced period blood was blue. Women on their period are still considered unclean and dirty in many cultures and religions, and women are still having to fight scandalized passersby who think breastfeeding is a sexual act and not just feeding your kid. 

Normalizing the female experience

Beyoncé pregnant Rihanna
Beyoncé at the VMAs, 2011

Meghan Markle writing about her miscarriage, Chrissy Tiegan describing her life-saving abortion and sharing heartbreaking photos of her late son Jack, Beyoncé at the 2011 MTV Music Awards dropping her mic and joyfully unbuttoning her jacket to rub her stomach to reveal she’s pregnant with her first child, or Rihanna coyly not saying a word and breaking Twitter as we all rushed to ask the question — they may seem like the unnecessary public flaunting of moments some believe should be deeply private, but they’re much more. 

By bringing into the spotlight and normalizing all these very natural, very human, very real experiences women around the world experience (and often suffer in silence and isolation), they give permission to millions of average non-celebrity women around the world to talk about them, too. They make it okay to discuss the pain of their miscarriage, the conviction and certainty of their abortion or celebrate and bask in the pure, unabashed joy of a pregnancy announcement. 

It might seem insignificant to some, but it’s far from it. ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.