The Legacy of Janet Jackson's Boob

Reading the scholarly literature on the 10th anniversary of Nipplegate
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.

Presented by

Nolan Feeney is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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