N*pplegate: Janet Jackson’s Halftime Show Wardrobe Malfunction And Its Impact 10 Years Later
Next month will mark the 10th anniversary of the n*pple attack that occurred on Feb. 1, 2004, which shook the moral compass of a nation and changed our perception of what is safe and what is too much in the modern world. Lest we forget.
Okay, I mock the incident, but there is no denying the impact that Janet Jackson’s single exposed studded and appliquéd boob had on the country. During the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show, Justin Timberlake snatched a panel of fabric off of Jackson’s costume, revealing to the mostly at-home viewing audience a split second of Jackson’s right breast. What should have been a moment of fleeting debauchery (and one hard to claim as an unexpected “wardrobe malfunction” when the boob comes out at the very part of the track where Timberlake sings about having you naked by the end of the song) became a multi-year public battle over decency, race and gender politics, which many would argue was completely overblown.
And according to the The Grape Juice, it seems like Michael Powell, former FCC chairman (and son of former Secretary of State and retired four-star general, Colin), is one such person, who wasn’t feeling the hype around the incident, even as he played a major role in it. But as the website reports, Powell tells ESPN The Magazine, which has a feature story this month on the 10th anniversary of the controversial halftime show, that he now feels the outrage was unfair.
From Grape Juice.net:
“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. Part of it was surreal, right? Look, I think it 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?” Powell also said the treatment of Jackson and Timberlake – who were lambasted for causing ‘an outrageous stunt’ – was unfair. “I personally thought that was really unfair,” he said. “It all turned into being about her. In reality, if you slow the thing down, it’s Justin ripping off her breastplate.”
It was true that the protest was mostly led by religious and nanny-state decency groups like The Parents Television Council and the Traditional Values Coalition, however, there was no mistaking the gender and racial component to the outrage as well. America has long held a double standard over the boob: While it is cool to make it erotic for advertising beer and selling the machismo of male television characters, the act of women showing their breasts outside on their own volition, including innocuous acts like breastfeeding a child, becomes a matter of hysteria. Adding to the moral outrage was the fact that Jackson’s cohort managed to to skirt away from the controversy unscathed by claiming ignorance to the whole setup. Media outlets often framed the incident in such a way, which made it seem as if Jackson the temptress had lured innocent Timberlake, who was still transitioning from his boy-band days, into lewd and unconscionable acts. However, as Jamilah King recently wrote in her analysis of Timberlake and his history of misappropriation for ColorLines:
But when sh*t hit the fan after the 2004 Super Bowl when he exposed Janet Jackson’s nipple on live television, he was able — after making a public apology on CBS — to easily revert back in the public’s imagination to the wholesome white boy who made pop songs for teenage girls. And that’s what becomes tricky with Justin, that his whiteness acts as both an entryway into a popular culture and a buffer against its criticisms. Janet’s career, on the other hand, stagnated. (Black comedy legend Paul Mooney famously dubbed the scandal her “n*a wakeup call.” And Chris Rock blamed her exposed “40-year-old breast” for creeping censorship in American television.)
A few years later, Jackson would speak on the incident to Oprah Winfrey, saying in an interview that while she still considers Timberlake a friend, she also felt that he failed to stick up for her after the incident. A few years after the debacle, Timberlake reportedly admitted that he could have been more supportive of Jackson, although he wasn’t sorry for apologizing to the general public, who was offended by their collective actions.
It should be noted that during the time of the incident, 500 US soldiers had died in the war in Iraq (along with untold amounts of civilians) and government officials were preparing the general public for the potential of a longer stay than what was only supposed to be a short regime change. Therefore, N*pplegate, as it would later be termed, would act as a welcome distraction from the growing public outcry to end the war. It would also become a rallying call for more stifled free speech. The FCC brought back the five-second delay for live events as well as other censoring measures. Congress would pass and George W. Bush would sign into law The Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act, which increased fines for indecorous acts from $32,500 to $325,000. As a result of the measure, CBS, the network that broadcast the halftime show, would be hit with a $550,000 fine. Those fines would later be dropped after an eight year legal battle, which found its way in the hollow chambers of the Supreme Court. That’s right, Janet Jackson’s n*pple was at the center of a Supreme Court case.
The “Rhythm Nation” singer’s boob would also help revolutionize how we viewed video content. Not only had Jackson’s boob become the most replayed moment in TiVo history, but it also brought in the on-demand company around 350,000 new subscribers. Jawed Karim, one of the three co-founders of the user-generated and video-sharing site, reportedly said the idea for YouTube was sparked after realizing the difficulty he had finding videos online of her semi-naked boob. Matter of fact, online video searches for Jackson’s boob would later be the reason behind her induction into the 2007 Guinness World Records as both “Most Searched in Internet History” and the “Most Searched for News Item” respectively.
It’s hard to say how the future will frame this incident. In retrospect, the reaction was very heavy-handed. However, there is no denying that the halftime incident has a round and firm place in history. I would even go as far as to say that it would be appropriate to honor her right breast as a black history fact.