The Troubled History Of Breasts On TV

Janet Jackson & Justin Timberlake
Photo: Frank Micelotta/Getty Images Entertainment.
It’s been 11 years since Janet Jackson’s right breast scandalized Americans during our national holiday of Super Bowl Sunday, but network television still remains in a panic state when it comes to showing a full female breast. With #FreetheNipple raging on social media, will its female empowerment message ever translate to the areola’s acceptance on broadcast airwaves?

Twenty years ago this month, Drew Barrymore gave David Letterman the surprise of his life when she got up on his desk to perform a hypnotic birthday dance that ended with her flashing him. A few weeks later, Barrymore returned to The Late Show to talk about the general reaction to the moment. “All positive!” the actress told Letterman. “It’s not about exhibitionism, it’s a complete freedom...There’s something that feels so good about being natural.”  

She also noted, “That was a perfect angle, though, it couldn’t have worked out better.” While the viewing audience had been treated to a healthy portion of Barrymore’s sideboob, only Letterman saw her nipples. Barrymore’s act of exposure was chalked up to her free-spirited, wild-child ethos, and Late Show viewers had been spared the sight of a full female breast.  

In the case of Janet Jackson’s exposure on national network TV, however, the singer wasn’t so lucky. Her accidental (or not — more on that later) breast-baring during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show became the boob seen 'round the world, a.k.a. Nipplegate.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) famously fined Viacom and CBS  $550,000 for the broadcast of a bare breast — with its nipple covered by a sunburst shield — that lasted only a fraction of a second. That infinitesimal amount of time, however, set off a butterfly effect of indecency hysteria that felt downright puritanical in 2004.

Television takes over
In order to fully understand the nipple’s complicated past on broadcast affiliates, you have to start at the very beginning of television. The proliferation of TV into American homes after World War II happened at an unprecedented rate — even electricity had been slower to catch on in the United States. As much as Americans welcomed this new leisure activity, no one knew exactly how to react to it. 

“Never, in the history of the world, were moving electronic pictures and sound beamed directly into people’s homes. No one knew quite what to expect,” Bob Pondillo, author of America's First Network TV Censor: The Work of NBC's Stockton Helffrich, says, speaking with Refinery29. As with any new technology available to the public at large, there were immediate concerns over the content to which viewers would be subjected. "TV took its cue from radio, so censoring content was sort of an automatic, expected thing," he adds.

The government was able to police radio because stations need a license to collect revenue on broadcasts. These licenses also ensure that no one media conglomeration has a monopoly on the transmission spectrum. The Radio Act of 1927 helped tame the airwaves by regulating licenses, and it was broadened to the Communications Act of 1934 — which officially launched the FCC — when TV came into the picture.  

It’s all well and good to pass legislation aimed at “promoting competition, innovation, and investment” and “supporting the nation’s economy,” per the FCC’s website. Capitalism and enterprise are cornerstones of our country’s foundation. But, these governing bodies of communications and the stations they first became responsible for licensing also had to heed social and cultural mores, which is where things got sticky.

Let’s talk about sex, baby…actually, let’s not
The U.S. touts the separation of church and state as a defining principal. Nevertheless, we're still a nation founded by religious people with a strong belief that maintaining certain moral, ethical, and decency standards is what separates us from animals and freewheeling European socialists. From television’s inception, it was in networks and their affiliates’ best interests to police themselves when it came to showing salacious content. Not only because "indecent" material could compel advertisers to pull their money from programs, but also because public values were shifting after the Second World War.

Social historian Alan Ehrenhalt wrote that during the 1950s, “Most people believed…that choice and privacy were restricted commodities, and that authority existed, in large part, to manage the job of restricting them.” Basically, “People expected censorship. They wanted it,” Pondillo elaborates.  

This was also the time when Alfred Kinsey first published his reports on male and female sexuality, and Christine Jorgenson was the first widely publicized trans woman to undergo sex reassignment surgery. “How do you handle that if you’re NBC?” Pondillo asks. Do you discuss it? 

The networks chose to go the route of self-censorship, both to reflect the culture at large’s desire for rules and as a self-preservational strategy. “By the time we get to television in the late '40s, early '50s, [the public] wouldn’t want to see somebody brushing their teeth; they called it filth. All television was live between about ’48 and ’54, and if a woman had too much cleavage showing, censors would rush out and put tulle over her breasts during a break so you couldn’t see it,” Pondillo explains.

There was something much more underhanded happening as well. TV was quickly becoming another means by which to regulate, structure, and control the masses through cultural media consumption. “It’s the classic ‘Third Person Effect.’ The theory says, ‘You and I get it…it’s okay for us to see the program or film because we have self-control and good taste.’ But they, the ‘other,’ the poor, the Black, the uneducated, the immigrant, they will be driven mad — and to sexual excess — if they were to hear or see anything that those who own and control the culture decide to be censored. Very elitist, no?” Pondillo says.  

It’s about control (and yup, the patriarchy)
Along with its ability to regulate communications for commercial purposes, the FCC also responds to indecency and obscenity complaints. Obscene speech, it should be noted, isn’t protected by the First Amendment, meaning that the FCC can levy fines over expletives. Indecent subject matter is, and therefore can’t be banned from the airwaves entirely; however, there are broadcast restrictions as to the time of day when it can be shown.

Why? To protect the children, the FCC claims. But also, the "fairer sex." According to Frederick S. Lane, author of The Decency Wars: The Campaign to Cleanse American Culture, “There’s always this sense of protecting women that underlies it. That we’re going to make sure the ‘weaker sex’ is not unduly influenced or overwhelmed by crazed thoughts of sexuality.”  

A “strong strand of paternalistic protectionism was motivating a lot of behavior” when it came to morality and decency standards in media, Lane told Refinery29. “What we’re trying to overcome is centuries of attitudes towards female sexuality. It gets back to this issue of power and control.”

“I think it’s body-shaming,” Pondillo agrees. “It comes out of this patriarchal religious belief…The Bible (both Old and New Testaments) were the first to do sex-shaming, and it continues to this very day.”

Women’s bodies and sexuality have been carefully contained on network television from the very beginning — sometimes even to ludicrous measures. “In 1958, for example, fearing many would find cartoon udders too explicit for home viewing, censors only permitted cows drawn wearing skirts," Pondillo says in America’s First Network Censor. And when you factor in the hoopla raised by the Janet Jackson episode, he adds, "it is clear that exposed milk-secreting glands of any kind — and apparently on any mammal — have been a real and continuing source of social anxiety for American television."
Flossie the Cow
Photo: Courtesy of Look.
Breast intentions
Nowhere is the decency war more fraught than when it comes to showing female breasts on TV. “If you look at network television, you can show the brutalization of women and violence up to literally blowing people’s brains out, but you can’t show a nipple. Cable, you can show it, but it’s still being treated as bad,” Lina Esco, who directed Free the Nipple, points out.

Kurt Sutter, the creator of FX’s Sons of Anarchy, told the L.A. Times, “I'm amazed sometimes at the level of violence we get away with on my show. Yeah, it's okay to watch a girl burn to death, but god forbid I show a piece of her nipple. The sex boundaries are much more delineated and adhered to than the violence." Though Sons of Anarchy is on a cable network, the FCC, it should be noted, “does not currently regulate the broadcast of violent programming” on broadcast affiliates, either.  

In a moment that illustrates Sutter’s point perfectly, the show placed a label over the nipple of a severed breast. That’s right, an act of extreme brutality that involved the severing of a body part was okay as long as the audience didn’t see the nipple. Even though the breast was no longer attached to a woman’s body, it still carried cultural and sexual implications that had to be contained.  

That’s why Esco focused her crusade on freeing the nipple. “I felt like the nipple was going to be the Trojan horse that would start revealing the real issues of inequality against women," she says. Even though television has gone through periods of more lax attitudes towards female sexuality (the "jiggle TV" era in the late '60s and early '70s came up many times while reporting this piece), the nipple remains the final frontier.

Take, for example, this NYPD Blue shower scene from 2003 featuring actress Charlotte Ross. The FCC fined ABC $1.4 million for the scene because of Ross’ bare bottom, but a federal court later overruled the penalty. Apparently, Ross’ breasts weren’t part of the problem, because of how her wrists (and most likely some strategic blurring) covered them. “The belief is if you don’t show the nipple, you’re not really showing the breast. So they pixelate, or black box, or put a pasty over the nipple. It’s a nod to censorship,” Bob Pondillo elaborates.

It’s also important to note the context in which a breast is bared. Jayne Mansfield and Faye Emerson both accidentally flashed audiences in the 1950s. When Roots premiered on ABC in 1977, “It was the first time that naked female breasts were intentionally shown on a network broadcast,” Frederick Lane notes in The Decency Wars. “If the FCC received any complaints, they didn’t do anything about it.”  

When NBC aired Schindler’s List in 1997, a conservative Congressperson was forced to issue an apology over his attempt to rebuke NBC affiliates for airing nudity. “It was a very important part of the storytelling because it helped communicate the way the Jews in concentration camps were stripped of their humanity. They were stripped of their dignity, and so contextually, it’s very important. The PTC would not criticize that,” Melissa Henson, director of grassroots education and activism for the Parents Television Council, notes.  

National Geographic and PBS have aired documentaries that contain nudity for decades, but Frederick Lane also points out, "You know, it’s okay to show a brown breast...but not a white breast. That’s a huge issue as well. Let’s not overlook racism on top of everything else."
Charlotte Ross in NYPD Blue
Photo: Courtesy of ABC.
Janet Jackson and Super Bowl XXXVIII
This brings us to network TV’s pivotal breast-baring moment, forevermore known as Nipplegate. It represents the boiling point of everything discussed up to this point, from sexism to moral panic to body-shaming and racism.                               

During the final seconds of the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, Justin Timberlake sang the lyrics, “Bet I’ll have you naked by the end of this song.” As he did so, he reached over and pulled a flap of material off of Janet Jackson’s bustier. In the process, her entire breast was revealed, though the nipple was covered with a metal shield. According to Rolling Stone, the entire incident lasted just 9/16ths of a second.

To this day, Timberlake and Jackson, who rarely speak about the incident, both maintain that it was a "wardrobe malfunction." That didn’t stop 540,000 viewers from complaining about Jackson’s exposed breast, forcing the FCC into action. It finally assessed a $550,000 fine on CBS, which Viacom immediately protested (and would later have thrown out).  

It really wasn’t about the fine, though, since $550K represented a mere drop in the bucket compared to the billions in advertising revenue the Super Bowl generated. Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake had set off a national shit storm of epic proportions.

It’s important to note that Timberlake had been the actor in the situation and the one who exposed Jackson’s breast. “I would emphasize the kind of innate sexism that underlies all of this stuff…Look at the implicitly very sexist attitude of the fact that is was her breast that was exposed,” Lane says. Even if her costume had unintentionally revealed too much, the action of a man divesting a woman of a layer of clothing was designed to titillate in a most sexist and objectifying way.

After the game ended, Timberlake at first remained cheeky, telling Access Hollywood, “We love giving you something to talk about.” He later issued a standard non-apology apology, saying, "I am sorry if anyone was offended by the wardrobe malfunction during the halftime performance at the Super Bowl. It was not intentional and is regrettable.”  

Jackson not only apologized, she bore the brunt of culpability. She said that she and Timberlake had planned the final reveal without producers’ knowledge. “She was perceived as the one who did the morally wrong thing,” Lane notes, also adding that racism may have played a role in the national outrage. “You have a white man and a Black woman, and that was really offensive to [some] people.”  

Timberlake would later tell MTV, “I probably got 10 percent of the blame. I think America's probably harsher on women, and I think America is, you know, unfairly harsh on ethnic people.”

Jackson’s career floundered after the Super Bowl. Viacom properties such as MTV and VH1 essentially blacklisted the singer, refusing to play her music videos. She had been scheduled to present at the Grammys, but CBS revoked her invitation. The album she released the following month barely registered. Justin Timberlake, on the other hand, not only performed at the 2004 Grammys, he won two awards.  

The incident also happened at exactly the right moment in the political cycle. Lane points out that "the 2004 Super Bowl occurred in the middle of the presidential primaries, and, almost overnight, ‘moral values’ became one of the driving issues of Bush’s reelection campaign. He needed to divert attention from some things that were not going well, such as the Iraq War…I firmly believe that somebody in the Bush White House woke FCC chairman Michael Powell up and basically said, 'This is outrageous, and we want you to do something about it.'"

Bush had help from groups like the Parents Television Council, which had been lobbying for the FCC to crack down on indecency and obscenity that "degrades the culture," Melissa Henson says, for years. The advocacy group had most recently demanded that the FCC fine NBC affiliates for airing Bono’s acceptance speech at the Golden Globes, during which he dropped an f-bomb. It was unsuccessful, so the PTC latched onto the moment when Jackson’s breast was bared with full force.

Michael Powell, who was the chairman of the FCC at the time, knew the commission had to launch an investigation in response to the 540,000 complaints it had received. Even though he made sure the inquiry would focus more on CBS and Viacom’s not having proper procedures (such as a time delay) in place, he still felt that the weight of the scandal ended up squarely on Jackson’s shoulders. In 2014, he told ESPN that he still regrets how it turned Janet Jackson into a scapegoat, saying the committee acted “unfairly” towards the singer following the incident.

That type of hindsight is also 20/20 for the PTC. “Justin Timberlake was fully clothed during the entire incident. There’s no grabbing at his crotch or trying to rip away his pants or anything like that. Women are objectified and sexualized in the media in a way that men are not…It communicates to girls that their only value comes from their sexuality. It communicates to boys that it’s okay to objectify women,” Melissa Henson says.

Again, this is a much more balanced and measured response to the halftime show, 11 years after the fact. In the immediate aftermath of Super Bowl 2004, no one was crying objectification on Janet Jackson’s behalf. Instead, she became a national lightning rod, her body’s exposure the subject of jokes. When Howard Stern, whose radio show was a frequent pain point for the FCC, was dropped from Clear Channel two months after the Super Bowl, he said, “Janet Jackson's breast got me in a lot of trouble.”

Who owns our bodies?
“What did your boyfriend think?” David Letterman asked Drew Barrymore when she returned to discuss her birthday flash. The question spoke directly to the inherent belief that Barrymore’s body wasn’t her own to show to whomever she pleased. Her body is a sexualized object, and it’s her boyfriend’s right to police its exposure.

That’s one reason the PTC says it campaigns against explicit content on network television. “It goes really to our concern about sexualized media content and the fact that young women and increasingly teenage girls are very much sexualized in the culture in a way that men are not, frankly,” Henson points out. “It limits what girls think they can do with their lives. It teaches them to be self-sexualizing and to not pursue educational roles or ones in STEM fields because they think those are unsexy, or that it’s not attractive to be smart or to do well academically. There are a lot of real-world consequences for these kinds of highly sexualized messages we see across the media.”

This strategy, along with the use of TV ratings and V-chips, is geared toward parents monitoring what their children watch. It's also why the PTC took up the cause of getting Sesame Street not to air a segment in which Katy Perry wears a cleavage-baring dress to sing with Elmo (a complaint that received some criticism). The clip was released on the program's YouTube channel, but was later taken down. For adults, however, the nipple issue on network television will often come down to a question of objectification versus ownership of our bodies.
Katy Perry on Sesame Street
Photo: Courtesy of PBS.
“Since the beginning of women’s presence on the screen, the female body has been sexualized, and the exposed naked parts of the female body have been used to increase programs’ viewing rates or in order to sell the products advertised on television,” Merill D. Smith wrote in the Cultural Encyclopedia of the Breast

“They’ve taken our sexuality from us, and they’re selling back to us in increments through advertising. Women need to reclaim their bodies,” Lina Esco of Free the Nipple says. 

Are we too far gone as a patriarchal, male-gaze-oriented society in which 18-49-year-old men are still the prized demographic to do it? Thankfully no, and a lot of that has to do with the rise of streaming services, Internet programming, and cable.

The future is streaming
As shows increasingly come from out-of-the-box services such as Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, and Crackle, viewers have more ways than ever to skip programming on traditional broadcast networks in favor of compelling, engrossing, and titillating (hey, women want to see sex, too) shows that appeal to their specific interests.

“To compete, the broadcast channels must cable-ize!” Pondillo asserts. “They must become more like cable programs with stronger language and more potent images…and they will. As networks become just another content source with their audiences sliced thinner and thinner, you’ll start to see stuff that was once quite verboten on TV. This doesn’t just apply to nudity. Stories about suicide, transsexuals, incest, atheism, etc., which were heavily censored in the past, will be seen as pretty standard adult fare to future TV. It’s already happening.”

Shows like Outlander and Girls are among those breaking the mold and showing females owning their naked bodies in ways that feel natural and authentic. There’s a rallying cry building against shows with painfully gratuitous female nudity. The Daily Beast recently called out Game of Thrones’ “peen problem.” “This series has always, and will always, favor full-frontal shots of beautiful, immaculately waxed women over men,” author Melissa Leon wrote.

In the social-media era, it’s harder than ever for GoT creators and HBO execs to pretend they don’t hear our complaints. It’s not just a matter of naked equality; as Lane notes, “there’s an artificiality to hiding parts that gets in the way of drama." It removes viewers from the scene when two characters lounging naked after an intimate moment resort to awkward, constraining measures to conceal themselves. Fingers crossed that Anna Kendrick gets her wish to see Daario Naharis' penis someday soon, because, "it allows for more well-rounded, provocative, and engaging scenes," Lane says.

While network television may never reach Game of Thrones levels of nudity, terrestrial broadcast stations’ panic over breast exposure seems to have waned in the 11 years since Nipplegate. A 2012 study conducted by the PTC determined that instances of full-frontal nudity on network TV were up 6,300% from the previous year. But, before we all whip off our tops and cry “equality!” from a mountaintop, let it be noted that 6,300% actually reflects 64 instances of nudity on network television from 2011-2012, versus one instance from 2010-2011.  

That statistic also doesn’t mean the nipple can finally update its status with broadcast affiliates from “it’s complicated” to “in a relationship.” “I compare censorship to herpes simplex or something that lies dormant in your body, and then there’s a stress in the culture, and it flares up,” Pondillo warns. Meaning, we could be just one nipple on Scandal (shown in a sexual context) away from more FCC fines and areola alarm.

The good news is that the power to push for authenticity over censorship is now in our hands. “People will go where the programming they want to see is. Eventually, I think television as we know it will probably fade,” Pondillo continues.

Plus, Internet culture has helped lessen society’s gut-check response to blame and shame women in instances like the Super Bowl halftime show and coverage of Monica Lewinsky’s affair with Bill Clinton. For all the anonymity the web has provided haters and castigators, our culture seems to have emerged lately as more receptive to listening to all sides of a story and defending someone being unfairly judged. “It’s a time for women to help one another and not be stepping on each other. That’s the whole point here,” Esco says.  

What will be the next frontier for nipple freedom? Advertising. After all, it’s corporate sponsorship that network affiliates rely on for revenue first and foremost. “In France, you have body wash commercials with women that are topless, and there’s no sexualization or objectification," Esco observes. "They just see it as empowering and owning their bodies and showing that there’s nothing shameful about it."

Whether or not it's that simple, just imagine if programs with non-gratuitous nudity — both male and female — that made sense in context were interspersed with commercials showing similar images? What a hang-up free, body-accepting world (we hope) that would be.

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