THE BLOG
02/10/2014 02:23 pm ET Updated Apr 12, 2014

Janet Jackson and Super Bowl Halftime Hypocrisy

During her 2004 Super Bowl Halftime performance a music legend exposed her right breast for less than a second, sparking great public protest, moral outcry, and fines issued by the Federal Communications Commission.

A decade later two music superstars exposed their breasts during the Super Bowl Halftime performance without generating any public outcry or FCC sanctions.

The mild reception of the more recent Super Bowl Halftime nipple spectacle is less indicative of a liberal cultural shift and more the result of a persistent double standard in which American society deems male bare-breasted representations as natural and inoffensive, while treating women's exposed breasts as threats against Western Civilization.

Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" morphed into one of the most controversial media incidents in pop-cultural history. Some saw Janet's exposed right breast as an attack against family values, an affront against the very moral fabric of American society. In contrast, the public is not primed to raise meaningful objections to the Red Hot Chili Peppers' shirtless male bodies that roamed the stage during the 2014 halftime performance.

So let me get this clear. Janet Jackson exposes one breast for half a second and her brand is vilified beyond repair, while a decade later lead singer Anthony Kiedis and bassist Flea expose their breasts for minutes, not seconds, and the American pubic deems it business as usual.

Something does not add up here.

This hypocrisy is just a microcosm of a greater phenomenon in which the public representation of male and female bodies follows different rules: male breasts are healthy and normal and women's breasts are offensive and dangerously seductive.

Topless male pugilists battle in the boxing ring in front of tens of thousands of people and shirtless MMA fighters wage combat in the octagon in front of large Pay-Per-View audiences without sparking any controversy. Similarly, WWE television shows display bare-chested men every week without eliciting any serious objections or FCC fines.

The Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps recently appeared in a Subway commercial clad in nothing but speedos. The commercial ends with Phelps's mother pushing her scantily clad son into a pool, generating no public protests from the viewing public. In fact, most people probably viewed it as a wholesome Subway commercial even though Phelps was practically naked while standing next to his mother.

To date there has been no moral panic, no public outcry, and no FCC sanctions against male boxers, MMA fighters, WWE wrestlers, Olympic divers, swimmers, marathon runners, and beach volleyball players for exposing their breasts to the American mass public on television. We even have a popular web image of President Barack Obama showing off a fit body in a shirtless photo op on the beach during his vacation in Hawaii, while no bare-breasted picture of any reputable female political figure has ever surfaced.

Men can walk freely through most American streets topless without causing a commotion but it is illegal for women to walk the streets topless in numerous cities. Standard American beach attire for men is shirtless, while topless women are quarantined to remote nude beaches.

Even The Brady Bunch, perhaps the most family oriented and nourishing sitcom in American history, features an episode with Mike and Greg Brady appearing shirtless on the beach in Hawaii, offering numerous close ups of Greg surfing the waves wearing nothing on top but his little brother Bobby's good luck charm. Can you imagine the uproar that would have surfaced if Carol and Marsha Brady exposed their breasts during the same episode?

But this should push us to ponder why we impute women's breasts with moral import while treating men's breasts as natural and harmless? In other words, what exactly makes Carol and Marsha Brady's breasts so threatening and Mike and Greg Brady's breasts so benign?

There are no definitive claims in sacred texts, no discoveries in medical research, and no established ethical theories explicating why women's breasts proffer greater potential for moral corruptibility than men's breasts. Both sexes have breasts of varying shapes and sizes and hence it is irrational to preclude one sex from exposing breasts while allowing the other sex unmitigated topless expression.

And if we pause to consider how this pervasive double standard makes nursing mothers endure the sanctimonious scowls of disapproving spectators, we will be all the more ready to eviscerate the pesky practice of punishing women for publicly exposing what men reveal freely without reprisal.

If male breasts are unobjectionable then women's breasts are equally harmless. For what's good for the goose is good for the gander.

The tenth anniversary of Janet Jackson's Super Bowl Halftime wardrobe malfunction is a good time to cleanse our consciences of this sexist inequity. And a good first step is to issue a symbolic apology to Janet for enduring an almost endless array of vituperative attacks for doing what rockers, rappers, and countless other male performers and athletes do all the time. Ten years ago Janet was caught in a vortex of repulsive national sanctimony and hence became our suffering servant. She was wounded for our transgressions and by her stripes we can be healed of this hideous hypocrisy.

Shayne Lee is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Houston and author of three books including Erotic Revolutionaries: Black Women, Sexuality, and Popular Culture.