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

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
. 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
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

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

Kurt Sutter, the creator of FX’s Sons of Anarchy, told the L.A.
, “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
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
, 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

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
, 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
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

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
, “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

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

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
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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