“What is more obscene, sex or war?” Woody Harrelson, playing the pornographer Larry Flynt, asks in the movie “The People vs. Larry Flynt.” Sunday night’s Super Bow halftime show posed a more complicated version of this question: What’s more obscene, sex or sexism?

The show, starring Shakira and Jennifer Lopez, was intended to accomplish a number of things: to boost the National Football League’s lagging Latino viewership, to nod to Miami’s Latino cultural traditions and to provide a spectacle more engaging than last year’s wholly generic performance by Maroon 5. The two Latina headliners sparked conversations about everything from the role of zaghrouta in Arabic cultures to Puerto Rico’s essential Americanness.

But one debate overshadowed the rest: whether Shakira and Lopez had dominated the stage — or been demeaned by a show that was undeniably sexy.

Shakira and Jennifer Lopez made history on Feb. 2 when they became the first Latina singers to perform together at a Super Bowl halftime show. (The Washington Post)

The Super Bowl is one of the manliest cultural displays on earth, a celebration of huge men doing lightly regulated violence unto themselves and each other presented as a tribute to the U.S. military. So it’s easy to miss that Super Bowl LIV’s halftime show and the response to it offered a concise statement of the challenges and contradictory imperatives that women, even ones without Vegas contracts and multi-continent careers, face today.

J-Lo entered the stage on a stripper pole, wearing leather chaps that gave way to a bedazzled, barely there bodysuit, while Shakira’s already tiny outfit shrank as the night went on. But the singers had to navigate more than quick costume changes and shifting sets: They were performing their way through a thorny set of norms.

Both women looked astonishingly good for their respective ages, which are 50 and 43. More importantly, they both have to look the way they do if they want to keep making a living in the same way. The unholy union between sexism and capitalism means that women in the entertainment business are expected to maintain and display their bodies to a truly preposterous degree.

Few men — those who play increasingly ripped and depilated superheroes excepted — are expected to rise to the same level. Reggaeton stars J Balvin and Bad Bunny, who accompanied J-Lo and Shakira onstage, certainly didn’t. Underneath their baggy track pants and trench coats, they might have been cut, chubby or anything in between.

One of Shakira and J-Lo’s shared gifts as performers is the ability to come across as commanding up on that enormous stage. But you only get to present yourself as that free in front of an audience that big if you’ve already reshaped yourself to become what the audience wants to consume. And that appearance of liberation is constantly at risk. The ghost of Janet Jackson, whose 2004 “wardrobe malfunction” at the hands of Justin Timberlake effectively made her a pariah in the music business, haunts every female performer at a Super Bowl show.

Shakira’s and J-Lo’s costumes stayed firmly in place. But Fox seemed determine to remove all mystery anyway, aiming cameras at their crotches so frequently that I actually lost count. The network’s fixation seemed to take inspiration from Bruce Springsteen’s fly-first slide at the camera during the Super Bowl halftime show in 2009. Then, Springsteen’s sudden genital takeover of America’s television screens felt like a boyish act of exuberance. This time, Fox’s crotch fixation brought on a case of mild moral panic.

Given this thicket of seemingly incompatible truths, the easy way out is to complain that the halftime show was obscene, the opposite of family-friendly, proof of the corruption of American mass culture. If you can condemn the entire enterprise, you’re not obligated to work your way through the mess at the heart of it, much less to accept that you’re going to have to live with certain hypocrisies.

But sometimes the only way — and the more fun way — out of a mess is through it. If you’re inevitably going to be valued based on your body, might as well make a whole lot of money off the one you’ve got. If you’re inevitably going to be characterized as a whore or a Madonna, why not insist on the best of both, as J-Lo did when she alternated between working a stripper pole and delivering a moving duet with her daughter? If beauty standards aren’t going to be dismantled in a day, might as well enjoy the women whose discipline at maintaining their physiques ­­­makes the men look like slackers by comparison.

Women like Shakira and J-Lo have found a way to survive these double standards and turn the competing imperatives to their own advantage. But that doesn’t mean that the deal is good. It just means women are resilient — too resilient to give in to the sexism of a system that demands women make a living off their bodies and then blames them for giving the market what it demands.

Twitter: @AlyssaRosenberg

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