Would We React The Same Way To Janet Jackson’s Boob In 2018?

Photo: Frank Micelotta/Getty Images.
We use many euphemisms to describe the incident that took place on February 1, 2004, during the halftime show of the XXXVIII Super Bowl in Houston, Texas. Some call it a "wardrobe malfunction"; others, "Nipplegate."
But the truth of the matter is: 14 years ago, a woman bared her naked breast for less than a second on national television in front of 143.6 million viewers, and paid the price.
Janet Jackson won't be performing at this year's Super Bowl halftime show. But Justin Timberlake, her co-performer, and the man who actually pulled down her bustier to reveal the now-infamous boob, will stage his triumphant return, regaling us with hits as an interlude to watching grown men slamming into each other over a ball wrapped in a pig-skin sack.
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No offense to JT. It's just frustrating that, even as we live through this moment of self-reflection and public introspection about the extra costs that women still shoulder in our society, we've chosen to reward a man at the expense of his female peer. Because regardless of what you think actually happened that night — was it staged? was it really an accident? were the producers in on it? — the fact is that Janet Jackson's career has suffered from it, while Justin Timberlake's has thrived.
The public condemnation was swift. The Federal Communications Commissions (FCC) issued a $550,000 fine, which CBS fought up to the Supreme Court. (The fine was eventually voided in 2011 on appeal.) Jackson had to issue a written apology, and her single was pulled from broadcast radio. She was reportedly banned from the Grammys the following week, while Timberlake not only appeared, but picked up two awards (he addressed the incident in his acceptance speech). Jackson's reputation as a performer has been forever linked to this one incident.
What's more, the scandal wasn't detrimental to only Jackson's career. It took six years for a female performer to be invited back to perform during the halftime show: 2011's Fergie-led Black Eyed Peas mashup, with Usher and Slam.
2004 seems like a really long time ago, so just to put you back in the early aughts mood, let's take a trip down memory lane: The Apprentice had premiered on NBC just weeks before this all went down; Amy Winehouse and Franz Ferdinand were releasing their debut albums; MySpace was only a year old (!!!). I was 14 years old and watching the show with my parents. I remember being confused at what was going on. In my memory, it all happened very fast. So, let's take another look at the moment in question:
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I mean, sure — that is definitely a nipple barely concealed with a jeweled star. But Kim Kardashian now posts more revealing selfies to Instagram on a weekly basis.
Maybe I'm so unfazed because we've seen a lot more boobs on TV since then. The rise of prestige cable channels like HBO, and streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu has made nudity an afterthought. Game of Thrones has given us more full-frontal female nudity than we know what to do with, and added twincest on top of it. 2017 gave us more female masturbation scenes than ever before. I mean, American Gods gave us our first man-eating vagina! We don't register the boob itself anymore. Instead, we ask: what is being done with, or to the boob? Is it a good (feminist) boob, or a bad (objectifying) boob?
Twitter, in particular, could have been a game-changer if it existed at the time. First, because it gives celebrities a platform from which to express themselves directly to fans, rather than the lost in translation approach so common to celebrity gossip. And then, there's the fact that you have a ready-made fanbase armed and ready to defend their celebrity of choice at all costs. I mean, we made Left Shark a thing — think of what we could have done with Janet!
Perhaps this all means we've learned to object to gratuitous female nudity in media because it reinforces the trope that women's bodies are disposable, rather than for reasons of morality, or shame. Campaigns like 2012's Free The Nipple have fought to change the perception of female nipples as something to be embarrassed about. In 2016, the Instagram account @genderless_nipples highlighted the social media platform's discriminatory censorship policy by posting pictures of male and female nipples, all indistinguishable from each other.
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Still, when you turn on Game of Thrones, you know what to expect. I'm not sure that the general public reaction to an unplanned boob sighting on what, technically, is considered a family-friendly broadcast would be all that different today. In anticipation of Timberlake's Super Bowl reprise, the Parent's Television Council wrote him an open letter, begging the performer to keep it family-friendly. "While much has changed, much remains the same," the letter read. "The fallout of your performance during Super Bowl XXXVIII has left an indelible mark. You really threw us – and millions of parents who were watching with their kids. Our children are confronted with enough harmful and explicit content in today’s entertainment media."
That explicit content, in the eyes of the PTC, runs the gamut from Gossip Girl ("mindblowingly inappropriate") to fantasy shows like ABC's Once Upon a Time, and NBC's Grimm, which Christopher Gildemeister, head of research operations for the PTC, recently accused of coopting fairy tales and turning them into pits of sin and vice. (Side note: the PTC's list of approved family-friendly movies lists no film more recent than 2004. So, I guess Christmas died after The Polar Express?) Perhaps as a reaction to all the readily-available nudity on cable and streaming platforms, the standards for "wholesome" or family friendly programming seem to have become more conservative. The fact that the PTC felt the need to pen that letter, despite the five-second delay that broadcasters employ to nip such shenanigans in the bud since the Jackson/Timberlake incident, illustrates just how upset the majority of viewers might be if history were to be repeated.
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Asked about Timberlake's repeat performance, Salli Frattini, who produced the 2004 show for MTV, told USA Today: “I believe he kind of manned up and talked about it all and I’m not sure she really did, you know?’’ she said. “I’m glad his career has continued to flourish. I’m still a supporter and I have no regrets and disregard for Justin.’’
Her views on Jackson, however, were far less supportive. “I don’t believe she handled the situation as well as he did,’’ she said “I’m still not quite sure why anybody thought that (nudity) would be a good idea to do in the first place."
That didn't stop CBS from using the incident to promote this year's event, though. One video promo shows Mike Tirico asking Timberlake about the “wardrobe thing”. Laughing it off, JT promises, “That won’t happen this time.” Instead, Sunday night's show will be all about "unity."
Or, as Jackson already put it in 2004: "People of the world, unite!"
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