The Legacy of Janet Jackson's Boob

Reading the scholarly literature on the 10th anniversary of Nipplegate
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Elise Amendola / AP

A decade ago this week, 90 million people glimpsed a teensy bit more of Janet Jackson than they were expecting. In some ways, America might have seen it coming: Jackson’s choreographer did warn there would be some shocking surprises, and Justin Timberlake did sing his hit lyrics “Better have you naked by the end of this song" moments before he did, in fact, get her a little naked.

But nobody, not even Jackson’s inner circle, could have predicted the magnitude of the performance’s aftermath. Jackson’s right breast was visible for a mere 9/16ths of a second, yet its cultural and political legacies span years.

The investigation into indecency by the Federal Communications Commission, which doled out a record-breaking $550,000 in fines, coincided with what New York Times columnist Frank Rich later called a “wave of self-censorship on American television unrivaled since the McCarthy era.” Jackson’s music was effectively blacklisted by various broadcasters. Pop stars’ performances at sporting events were altered if not canceled altogether. Daytime soap operas toned down steamier storylines as producers were replaced and FCC commissioners called for a reevaluation of their standards. Victoria’s Secret shut down its annual fashion show while 60 ABC affiliates refused to air Saving Private Ryan out of concern for its profanity. In his 2006 book inspired by the performance, The Decency Wars, Frederick S. Lane would argue the Super Bowl scandal was even responsible for the prominent discussions of “moral values” and “media decency” in the 2004 presidential election.

But Jackson and Timberlake also changed how the country experiences live television events like the Super Bowl itself. Famously, the incident motivated an estimated 35,000 people to sign up for TiVo, and a co-founder of YouTube would mention in interviews how the difficulty of finding the 2004 halftime show online helped inspire the creation of the video service.

If communication commissions, culture critics, columnists, and California tech stars paid this much attention to one nipple, it’s not surprising that scholars and researchers around the world do the same. Here are what academics have come up with for three of the lesser-known impacts of the most infamous exposure in pop-culture history.

It Taught Us New Words

The true legacies of scandals live on in our language, which has anointed controversies both political and cultural with their own -gate suffix ever since the original Watergate scandal in the early 1970s.

The Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show, or Nipplegate as many now know it, has been no exception. Loyola Marymount University professor Lawrence A. Wenner wrote in a 2004 article from the Journal of Sport Management that this particular Super Bowl wasn't just the first bowl game be a subject of federal indecency investigations and congressional hearings—it was also "the first to bring the words nipple shield into many a family discussion." But as entertaining as phrases like nipple shield, Nipplegate, boobgate, "Janet moment," and "Super Bowl 38D" are, they weren't the halftime show's most important gifts to American linguists. That honor goes to "wardrobe malfunction," coined by Justin Timberlake in his formal apology.

The American Dialect Society, which defines a wardrobe malfunction as “an unanticipated exposure of bodily parts," almost awarded wardrobe malfunction its Word of the Year designation in 2004, but ultimately chose, "red state, blue state, and purple state" instead. Wardrobe malfunction also competed that year for the ADS's "most euphemistic" word award, but it lost to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell's “badly sourced,” his euphemism for journalism he felt was untrue or fabricated. (Small world alert: Powell is also the father of then-FCC chairman Michael Powell, who presided over the Super Bowl aftermath and harshly criticized Jackson; in this month’s ESPN feature about the event, the younger Powell admitted he felt pressured to “put on his best version of outrage.”)

Since 2004, wardrobe malfunction has come to signify all sorts of fashion flubs and faux pas: As ADS vice president Grant Barrett explained to me over email, observed usage of the phrase has not only included references to accidental and intentional exposures, but also references to ugly outfits and unfashionable get-ups.

And for celebrities looking for relevance—as some argued Jackson's infamous nip slip was all about—having a wardrobe malfunction might be a means to a helpful career boost. A 2011 study from Germany's University of Würzburg analyzed 17 celebrities' wardrobe malfunctions between 2004 and 2009 to find out whether they were a successful strategies for building buzz. Looking at a range of malfunctions from televised events and musical festivals, the researchers found that each incident caused a significant spike in search traffic that, in some cases, lasted as long as three weeks. So “wardrobe malfunction” hasn’t just shaped the way that people talk about celebrities—it also plays a small role in determining which celebrities they even talk about in the first place.

It Made Super Bowl Ads More Boring

Advertisers weren't exactly thrilled about Jackson’s surprise exposure. For starters, uproar over the performance took the attention away from their ads, which usually have a second life in news outlets' next-day Super Bowl analysis. But they also didn't appreciate Super Bowl organizers’ subsequent scrutiny of their advertisements’ tastefulness—a scrutiny had noticeable chilling effect on the content of 2005 commercials, according to Wenner in a different study from 2008 for the journal Television & New Media.

The 55 commercials Fox ran during the next year’s broadcast still brought in millions of dollars in ad revenue, and they succeeded in placating concerned viewers: 52 percent of respondents in a Gallup and Robinson poll said the ads were in better taste than the 2004 ads, and the number of viewers who found them "uncomfortable to watch" declined by 18 percent.

But the ads also were pretty boring: A round-up of reviews cited in Wenner’s research called the 2005 Super Bowl ads, among other things, "'G-rated,' 'sanitized,' 'conservative, 'new Puritanism,' [and] 'play-it-safe.'" How exactly did advertisers play it safe? With lots and lots of animals. Careerbuilder.com had three spots featuring chimpanzees; Verizon had monkeys using bananas as cell phones; Budweiser featured kangaroo, a giraffe, a pig, and an ostrich all in one ad. "Ad strategies relied more on cuteness than pushing cultural bounds," Wenner writes.

A handful of ads were outright banned from airing. A commercial featuring a shot of Mickey Rooney's bare behind as he dropped a towel in a sauna didn't make the cut. Ford Lincoln Mercury withdrew its ad in which a priest lusts over someone else's car in a manner that some interpreted the clip as implying misconduct by the priest.

The most interesting banned ads, however, weren't the ones of questionable taste following Nipplegate, but the ones that directly acknowledged or alluded to the previous year's scandal—and were punished for it. One rejected Bud Light ad featured a halftime show stage-hand using Jackson's outfit to pop the cap of a beer bottle, accidentally ripping the outfit and causing the malfunction. 

Another, for domain registrar GoDaddy.com, did make it to air once, but was yanked before its subsequent airing following complaints from Super Bowl organizers. The commercial featured a mock broadcast hearing in Salem, Massachusetts—the home of the country’s most notorious witch hunts—where a young model almost experiences her own wardrobe malfunction as she testifies before a flustered committee about the provocative GoDaddy.com Super Bowl ad she plans to film. After the ad ran, unhappy NFL executives complained to Fox executives, who voluntarily pulled the spot for being a disrespectful reminder of their previous year’s embarrassment.

"The offense was not a public offense,” Wenner writes, “but rather an offense to the corporate players, the NFL, and Fox network."

It Spread Harmful Stereotypes

Though she no longer speaks publicly on the topic, Jackson had always insisted the reveal was an accident: She said she and Timberlake planned an unapproved, last-minute addition to the routine that would feature him, in the spirit of his "Rock Your Body" lyrics, ripping off part of her outfit to reveal a red bra. The actual offense—the missing, malfunctioning bra—was everyone’s surprise.

The FCC never found evidence that the incident was anything but unintentional, though there are reasons why skeptics doubt Jackson's explanation: the nipple shield seemed suspiciously prepped for exposure; photographs of Timberlake holding his fistful of Jackson’s outfit suggests there was never much of a bra underneath to begin with.

But while some viewers still peg Jackson as a publicity-stunt mastermind, Shannon L. Holland of Clemson University has argued that pop culture unfairly and bigotedly absolved Timberlake of his involvement.

In a 2009 study for the journal Women's Studies in Communication, Holland argues that the disparity in the media's treatment of Jackson and Timberlake reinforced long-standing stereotypes about black female sexuality. She suggests the vilification of Jackson in the media followed the tradition of "the jezebel" stereotype, a characterization of black women as voluptuous and sexually insatiable that was historically used by white slave owners to justify abuse of female slaves.

Holland analyzed 200 news article about the Super Bowl controversy and found that more than half of the stories only mentioned Timberlake's involvement in passing, while a third of them didn't even mention Timberlake's role in the reveal at all. The stories instead emphasized the nakedness of Jackson's breast and relied on passive language to describe the exposure, as if Jackson herself pulled her top off, or as if her breast had a mind of its own. One notable example came from The Washington Post, where Tony Kornheiser wrote, "What Janet Jackson did was bizarre, deliberately flopping out of her costume like that."

While more than two-thirds of the articles referenced the incident as a publicity stunt for Jackson, few articles acknowledged what motivations Timberlake might have had for taking part in it, too—mainly, that he was still trying to shed his boy-band image following his solo-artist debut. Associating with Jackson was one way to try and achieve that, and not just at the Super Bowl: Timberlake and his team had been deliberately coy about the dating rumors between the two performers when they collaborated for his 2002 album, Justified. Yet one quarter of the analyzed articles characterized Timberlake as an innocent pawn in Jackson’s lewd stunt.

Holland’s study acknowledges that the contrast between Timberlake's relatively plain clothes (which were barely mentioned) and Jackson's get-up, (which was described in more than three-quarters of the articles, and drew comparisons to S&M bondage outfits and The Matrix costumes), may have been one reason Jackson received a disproportionate share of the blame. But as Holland also asserts, that argument, especially in the context of Timberlake’s active role in the reveal, is pretty much another way to say “she was asking for it.”

Analyzing the wording of newspaper articles as Holland does may strike some as nitpicky, but a 2010 study from Stanford University suggests that subtle linguistic cues about action and agency do affect perceptions of blame and appropriate punishment. Using the infamous wardrobe malfunction as an example, the study provided about half of its 589 participants with an "agentive" account of the show’s events, or a version of the news that described Timberlake as more of active player in the reveal, while roughly half were given a “non-agentive” account that downplayed his involvement as many newspapers did. (Some participants were also shown the video, either before or after reading the written account.) The participants were then asked to allocate blame (adding up to 100 percentage points) and mock fines (adding up to $550,000) to Jackson, Timberlake, and CBS. Those who read the more agentive account not only assigned Timberlake more blame for the malfunction, they also assigned Timberlake 53 percent more fines—the equivalent of $30,000—than those who read the other report.

Of course, such scholarly analysis of the halftime show might seem as overblown as the nation’s subsequent campaign for decency. But is it really so strange? After all, the researchers and professors behind the studies are doing what so many Super Bowl fans did 10 years ago: pausing, rewinding, and trying to figure out whatever the hell just happened.

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Nolan Feeney is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Entertainment channel. 

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