Super Bowl LI is here and people are excited. It’s the second time in the franchise history that the Atlanta Falcons have played at this level and the first time since 1999. It’s Lady Gaga’s first major performance of 2017 and we’re wondering if she’s going to get political. Most importantly, though, it’s the first time the annual “big game” will take place in Houston since 2004. Last time, controversy overshadowed the game when halftime headliner Janet Jackson’s breast was ripped out of her corset and lace bra by guest performer and teen heartthrob, Justin Timberlake, at the end of their performance of “Rock Your Body”.
In addition to making Janet Jackson the most searched person in 2004 and sparking the creation of YouTube, the incident so affectionately dubbed “Nipplegate” affected all parties involved. The producers, MTV, were banned from ever working on the Super Bowl and the broadcasting network, CBS, was fined. Though Janet apologized for the incident immediately (while Timberlake bragged that they were “giving [us] something to talk about“), she was totally blamed. The Grammy Awards were the following week on the same network (CBS) and she was advised not to attend even though she was slated to be a presenter. Timberlake, though, was present and even performed. And while accepting one of his two awards, gave a half-assed “i’m sorry you were offended” apology and was met with warm smiles and laughter. Technically the incident was his fault so why wasn’t he being shunned like Janet was? Why didn’t he defend her?
Justin Timberlake may have looked like a black passing teen with a bad perm but he was white and a man, and his privilege was showing. When asked about the clearly unbalanced distribution of blame, he said:
I probably got 10 percent of the blame and that says something about society. I think America’s harsher on women, and I think America’s… unfairly harsh on ethnic people.
While he acknowledged his privilege, he failed to take responsibility for something that was ultimately his fault and instead blamed society for how Janet was being treated. This was just a broken episode of the blame game. Five years later, Timberlake expressed discontent with his past self, saying he wished he had been more supportive of Jackson. Well, there’s no use crying over spilt milk – or spilt boob, rather – the damage was already done. Janet Jackson was banned from TV networks and radio shows while Justin Timberlake had many appearances and even launched a (mediocre) acting career. Justin’s solo albums were multiple platinum while Janet, who was the highest paid musical act in the ’90s, turned into a repeat flop. Prior to the incident, Janet could release seven back to back single off of one album and all would be Top 5 on Billboard Hot 100 and now her albums are peaking at a third of what they used to.
Many of her critics called the Super Bowl incident a publicity stunt by Jackson whose Damita Jo album was set to be released two months later and subsequently tanked. In response to the claims, our hero Justin once again deflected blame and neglected to defend Janet at all. He claimed he had no need for a publicity stunt seeing as he was having “a good year”. You know who was not having one? Miss Jackson.
Along with the steep decline of her musical career and silent distancing from Hollywood’s elite, Janet was also being routinely publicly bashed. Then Chairman of the FCC and son of supervillain Colin Powell, Michael Powell, called the incident a “classless, crass and deplorable stunt” and launched an investigation on the show and Jackson. Tom Freston, Chairman and CEO of MTV Networks claimed they were “ripped off… and punk’d by Janet Jackson”. And Tony Kornheir of The Washington Post expressed that “what Janet Jackson did was bizarre, deliberately flopping out of her costume like that.” It’s worth noting that actual culprit, Justin Timberlake, is conveniently forgotten.
It was ironic that grown, straight white men and probably frequent consumers of pornography, were most offended by Janet’s nipple being exposed. Wasn’t she just showing them what they wanted to see? It was evident that the issue wasn’t with the nipple, it was with the color and the person attached. Black women are often chastised for being overly sexual even when they are not trying to be because obviously everything a woman does is for the male gaze. Janet called the backlash hypocritical because the commercials being aired for that very same Super Bowl were mostly sexual and violence based. And she wasn’t wrong. Most of the commercials aired during the big game, or any sporting event for that matter, are geared towards straight men and include violence, scantily clad women doing things for male attention, and explosions.
While Janet received the brunt of the backlash, she wasn’t the only one punished. Many TV episodes were changed to remove any female semi-nudity or sexually suggestive story-lines, the prestigious Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show was not shown and commercials were more censored. Also, a woman would not headline the Super Bowl Halftime Show until 2011 where Fergie was the featured performer.
Even as she made recent headlines when she had to cancel her Unbreakable World Tour due to pregnancy, Janet seems happier. She is now married to a billionaire and a new mother. Though she is still blacklisted and treated as a social pariah some places for something that wasn’t her fault at all. It was clear from the moment Justin Timberlake laid his hand on her breast that no matter the outcome of the game that day, Janet Jackson was going to be the real loser.