With Justin Timberlake performing at the Super Bowl tomorrow, it feels like the world has officially moved on from the 2004 halftime show, which is understandably remembered as the year of Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction.” But some people are pretty annoyed that he’s performing there again, and it’s not just because they think that Pink was shafted by only getting to sing the national anthem at the beginning of the game instead of the much anticipated mid-game performance. (Although that really is pretty messed up.)
Back in 2004, the event that became known as “NippleGate” took over the news cycle for days, becoming instantly iconic, and this was years before Twitter was even invented, if you need any proof that people were definitely freaking out. There were, of course, many people who were scandalized for all the wrong reasons: a woman’s breast was exposed on national, live television for a split second. That kind of thing just…wasn’t supposed to happen. The FCC received over 500,000 complaints and ended up fining CBS, the network that airs the Super Bowl, $550,000. It was ultimately thrown out in an appeals court, but the case took an entire eight years to untangle in courts, according to the Daily Beast.
What we should remember is that the response in the wake of the event was totally sexist, and the fact that Timberlake is performing again — and that Jackson took the brunt of the shaming — is actually really messed up.
If the same thing happened again, it’s not impossible that it would play out in just the same way, with Jackson being shamed for what was, by most accounts, Timberlake’s mistake (and what was, most likely, a choreographed move that they were both onboard with). There would just be more memes and hashtags about it.
Here’s what happened: While performing “Rock Your Body” and dancing with Jackson, Timberlake sang the lyric, “I’ll have you naked, by the end of this song,” and tore the top of Jackson’s top off. She was wearing a red layer of fabric underneath, but when you watch the video, you see that he pulled too much off. Both of the stars look visibly shocked in the flash of her boob hanging out there, with a silver cover over her nipple.
Both stars and every single organization involved — CBS, the NFL, and MTV — made statements apologizing to people who were scandalized by the boob, but in almost every single one of them, Jackson took most of the heat. People assumed that she had “engineered” the whole thing, totally placing the blame on her. The language was coded, for sure, but the implication was that Jackson, who is always provocative and openly sexual, had “tricked” Timberlake into something.
Tom Freston, chief executive for MTV at the time said in a statement, “Janet Jackson engineered it.” The network released a statement saying that the costume tear was ” unrehearsed, unplanned, completely unintentional and was inconsistent with assurances we had about the content of the performance.” At the time, Timberlake apologized for the incident, too, 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 regrettable.”
Jackson, however, had to release a written statement in which she apologized for the unrehearsed dance move. The singer said that the decision “to have a costume reveal at the end of my halftime show performance was made after final rehearsals. MTV was completely unaware of it. It was not my intention that it go as far as it did. I apologize to anyone offended.” Note that she doesn’t say it was all her idea or that they were trying to reveal her breast.
She also released a video statement, which she later said was encouraged by her management team, apologizing yet again for the whole thing, shouldering the blame for something that happened involving two people. And it was her boob hanging out there for ever one to gawk at. The conversation went straight to shaming and protecting Timberlake, who was turned into the victim in the whole thing.
There was a lot of money at stake and forces moving to make up for the rogue boob.
Advertisers were threatening ask for a refund for their Super Bowl spots. McDonalds, which sponsored Timberlake at the time, released a statement saying that they would keep him on, but were very disappointed in the performance and didn’t stand by it. That year, the Grammys were a week after the big game and both singers were slated to perform. There were rumors all week that they would be uninvited — but only Jackson was absent the next Sunday.
Jackson was supposed to perform in a tribute to Luther Vandross but CBS retracted their invite. Timberlake’s performance went on as scheduled. Later, Jackson would tell Oprah Winfrey that she felt she was treated unfairly and that, despite Timberlake’s insistence that the two had made peace, felt betrayed by his response in the wake of the incident. And that, dear friends, is why we never, ever see Jackson perform in settings in which she totally should. She was a part of MTV’s tribute to her brother, Michael, at the 2009 VMAs and has performed at the BET Awards, but given the response to her 2004 Super Bowl performance, there hasn’t been a Grammy or network TV showing since.
Meanwhile, Timberlake is viewed by most people as a “family-friendly” star, writing singles for Trolls and goofing off with late-night talk show hosts. He’s never, “Justin Timberlake, the guy who ripped a woman’s costume a little too hard in the heat of the moment,” he’s the guy who was somehow “tricked” into being part of Jackson’s “sordid idea of entertainment.” Americans are scared of a powerful woman and we immediately sexualized what was essentially a nip slip and then blamed her for it. Someone could have doubled down on the fact that a woman’s covered nipple is not that big of a deal, or at least they were both involved in making the whole thing happen in the first place.
That’s messed up. Timberlake laughed off the reaction to his being tapped for this year’s game in October, saying, “It is what it is.” But it’s a perfectly polished example of his privilege. We don’t know what it’s like to have a PR machine orchestrating our every move, but there have been multiple instances where Timberlake could have owned up to his part in the whole “wardrobe malfunction” and maybe even added some context to the idea that he was told at the very last minute by Jackson to scandalize the country. In an interview, Timberlake later told MTV, according to Sports Illustrated, “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.”
We can’t turn back the clocks and make America less sexist or Timberlake courageous enough to take some ownership. But admitting the world is sexist, racist, and shrugging your shoulders at the injustice of it all is not enough. Women don’t need male heroes to rescue them, especially an icon like Janet Jackson. But until men step up and fight with women, nothing will change. It might as well still be 2004 in that regard.