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Why Janet Jackson's Nipple Still Matters

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JANET JACKSON JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE
KMazur via Getty Images

It's been 10 years since Janet Jackson's infamous "wardrobe malfunction" during the Super Bowl in front of millions of CBS viewers, yet anyone who owned a television in 2004 can remember the night that a nipple (half) shown on television for 9/16ths of a second made the United States go batsh*t crazy. Behold, the effect of the naked female body.

In case anyone needs a refresher, Jackson and Justin Timberlake were performing a set during the Super Bowl's halftime show. As Timberlake finished singing the words "better have you naked by the end of this song," he reached over and grabbed Jackson's leather and red-lace bustier cup, revealing her breast before she covered it with her hand.

Unfortunately for Janet Jackson, her jewelry-covered nipple would set off a wave of mass hysteria -- now known as "Nipplegate" -- that would taint her image, all-but ban her from the Grammys, permanently embed the term "wardrobe malfunction" into our lexicon and force CBS to pay a $550,000 fine to the FCC.

Ten years after the infamous performance, questions remain. Did anyone actually plan the nip-slip? (Probably.) If so, who? (Unclear.) And why did Jackson bear the brunt of the backlash from the American public and the network while Justin Timberlake was allowed to go on his merry breast-exposing way relatively unscathed in the media?

Marina Cogan's fantastic Jan. 28 feature for ESPN Magazine unpacks some of the mystery surrounding Nipplegate and how it set off such insanity. Some of the most interesting revelations included:
  • Jackson's nipple exposure coincided perfectly with the rise of the Parents Television Council (PTC), a conservative group founded nine years earlier, dedicated to campaigning against "indecency" on TV. Michael Powell, then chairman of the FCC told Cogan that "previously ... the FCC received only a handful of indecency complaints a year. It received 540,000 about Janet Jackson's breast."
  • The Super Bowl video clip, which went viral before we really knew what viral was, helped inspire YouTube, which launched a year later.
  • After the ensuing public outcry, the next six Super Bowl halftime shows exclusively featured middle-aged men. (Womp, womp.)

Despite the fact that anyone who re-watches the clip can tell that Justin Timberlake tugged off Jackson's breastplate, the "nip slip" effectively derailed Jackson's career, getting her blacklisted by Viacom while Timberlake performed at the Grammy Awards and took home two awards just days after the incident. Even Timberlake later admitted that he should have done more to support Jackson, and that sexism and racism likely played a part in the backlash being almost entirely directed at her. He told MTV in 2007:

In my honest opinion now ... I could've handled it better. I'm part of a community that consider themselves artists. And if there was something I could have done in her defense that was more than I realized then, I would have. But the other half of me was like, "Wow. We still haven't found the weapons of mass destruction and everybody cares about this!" ... I probably got 10 percent of the blame, and that says something about society. I think that America's harsher on women. And I think that America is, you know, unfairly harsh on ethnic people.

Jackson simply had the bad luck to be a black woman in possession of a nipple. Even today, we see the policing of women's bodies -- and their breasts in particular -- by media gatekeepers and organizations like the PTC. Women are consistently flagged on Facebook for posting photographs of themselves breastfeeding or portraits of their bodies post-mastectomy, and despite the fact that going topless is not criminalized in New York City, there have been instances where women who have chosen to walk around topless are subject to harassment and even arrest.

It's this cultural atmosphere that inspired filmmaker and activist Lina Esco to make the movie "Free The Nipple," scheduled to be released in June of this year. In a December 2013 blog post for The Huffington Post, she pointed out the double standard that exists when it comes to women who choose to expose their own bodies:

When I started my online campaign, Facebook and Instagram banned the photos of topless women that were taken on location, faster than we could put them up. Why can you show public beheadings from Saudi Arabia on Facebook, but not a nipple? Why can you sell guns on Instagram, but yet they will suspend your account for posting the most natural part of a woman's body?

This frustrating reality is one that's not lost on Powell, who feigned outrage over Janet Jackson's nipple for much of 2004. But a decade later, even he is tired of being angry about breasts. "I think we've been removed from this long enough for me to tell you that I had to put my best version of outrage on that I could put on," he told Cogan. "Look, I think [the wardrobe malfunction] was dumb to happen, and they knew the rules and were flirting with them, and my job is to enforce the rules, but, you know, really? This is what we're gonna do?"

Sadly, it seems that the answer to his hypothetical question is still "yes."