A Decade Later: A Superbowl Story

This Weekend in History

The world of broadcasting changed forever.  

Did you know that this weekend’s Superbowl (Superbowl XLVIII pitting the Seattle Seahawks against the Denver Broncos - and if you know me at all you know I had to look that up because I do not do sports) marks a decade since Nipplegate?

“What is Nipplegate?” you ask?  Nipplegate is the ‘scandal’ that shut MTV out of the Superbowl and made all of America clutch their collective pearls in horror.  Once upon a time MTV used to be about music and as part of that musical emphasis they started producing lavish half-time shows for the Superbowl.  Ten years ago that show featured Janet Jackson.  A surprise cameo appearance by Justin Timberlake - then fresh out of NSync and promoting his first solo album, 'Justified' - closed Janet’s performance with the song from Justin’s album that she loaned vocals to.  The song, ‘Rock Your Body’, ends with the lyrics “gotta have you naked by the end of this song” and during the Superbowl version Justin reached across Janet on that line and ripped half her bustier off to reveal, for the briefest of moments, her mostly-naked breast on live television.  I say “mostly-naked” because she was wearing a sunburst nipple shield under the bustier.  Her hand quickly covered her breast - all told it was visible for less than a second - and fireworks shot off the field and the show ended.  But the outward-ripple effect of the ‘scandal’, quickly dubbed “Nipplegate”, would take years to finish.

In the aftermath the following things happened:
The FCC received 540,000 indecency complaints about Janet Jackson’s breast.
A governmental investigation was launched.
Twenty Viacom-owned broadcast stations were fined as a result of the FCC investigation.
Live broadcasts all began utilizing a video delay instead of just an audio delay - starting with that year’s Grammys which employed a costly five-minute audio and video delay.
A year after Nipplegate, YouTube was created and featured footage of the wardrobe malfunction.
“Janet Jackson” became one of the more popular internet image searches.
The phrases “Nipplegate” and “wardrobe malfunction” officially became part of our lexicon.

Ten years on from the incident it seems insane to think what a furor it caused and yet it’s still being talked about.  Search “Janet Jackson Superbowl” and you’ll see a wall of images of Justin looking like a dopey frat boy next to a leather-clad breast-revealing Janet.  You can watch clips to your heart’s content online.  But ten years ago you had to have been watching the Superbowl and/or had TiVo to see that moment.  YouTube wasn’t yet a thing, remember?  It was birthed after Nipplegate.  So ten years ago things that happened on live broadcasts purportedly had more resonance because those were things we were theoretically all watching and couldn’t just relive on YouTube or its ilk the next day.  That was when we were still on the cusp of losing control over what is broadcast into our homes via the internet and still imagined we had some say because TV could be regulated so losing our minds over seeing an exposed breast in prime time could change things for the more conservative.  The uproar was immediate, long-lasting, and completely out of proportion.

What really happened at that Superbowl?  Nobody will ever know.  Much like the grassy knoll, all we have are conspiracy theories, half-truths, and a lot of fuss and fury.  Did the producers know in advance about the breast reveal?  Did MTV?  Did Janet and Justin?  Nobody will say for sure.  It remains an 'X-Files' level mystery.  It does seem unlikely that it was entirely a spontaneous of-the-moment event being that the bustier breast cup tore so cleanly and easily away to so perfectly reveal just one breast.  And of course she was wearing the nipple shield.  MTV washed their hands of any knowledge that such a reveal was going to happen.  Both Janet and Justin issued formal apologies but there were marked differences between them.  Janet’s apology backed the stance taken by producers: that they had no foreknowledge of the reveal.  She claimed she had decided on the reveal after the final rehearsal but also claimed only the outer breast cup was meant to be removed - there had been a red lacy undergarment that was intended to stay on underneath but that it too had torn off in Justin’s hand.  Justin’s apology offered no explanation or version of events and merely included the phrase “wardrobe malfunction”.  MTV was banned from the Superbowl and Superbowl producers saw fit to have middle-aged white men entertain at half-time for five of the next six years.  Janet was pressured out of attending and performing at the Grammys that year while Justin not only performed but took home two awards.

Ten years ago I remember feeling a sense of injustice as the dogpile of blame landed squarely on Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake skated by relatively unscathed.  The overwhelming unspoken attitude seemed to be one of “that poor boy, associated with that hussy” towards Justin while Janet was forced to wear a scarlet A and endure the wrath of hand-wringing Americans everywhere for scandalizing their children.  Ten years on and those feelings of injustice haven’t subsided.  There are a lot of questions raised by the entire idiotic scenario, none of which have ever been satisfactorily addressed.

Why did Janet have to grovel and apologize for a fractional second glimpse of her breast when TV shows then and now show dizzying violence to no protest at all?  I could cite any number of shows from my own beloved 'CSI' autopsies to the lavish cannibal feasts and gruesome murder scenes of 'Hannibal'.  'American Horror Story' and its nipple lamps is exempt from apology but a brief flash of a beautiful living breast is cause for national alarm?  It goes to show how weirdly prudish about sex America is.  Something they’re obsessed with but can’t bear to see.

Why did Janet, the one whose bodice was ripped, bear the brunt of the criticism while Justin, the one who did the bodice ripping, emerge more or less untouched?  It is a very vivid example of the troubling narrative we still employ when explaining the actions of boys and men with the “boys will be boys” head shake while at the same time vilifying victims and slut-shaming girls.  This is indicative of a larger problem that still needs addressing.

Why does America - why do we - have such a problem with female sexuality full stop?  Why can’t Janet let herself be naked at the end of the song if she wants to?  And does the backlash that immediately found her have anything to do with the fact that it wasn’t just female sexuality on display but black female sexuality?  Why can’t that question be asked?  It’s valid.

And most importantly, why all the fuss over a glimpse of a breast at all?  Good god, America.  You push your pop stars to be sexy and gorgeous and provocative but the second they go even a fraction “too far” you recoil in horror as though bitten by a poisonous snake.  It was a breast!  Hardly any areola was even visible beneath the nipple shield.  If Justin had ripped his shirt off nobody would have batted an eye.  But he has nipples too!  GET OVER YOURSELVES!  Janet has lovely breasts, just enjoy the fact that she shared one with you and let go of your pearls.

This Superbowl weekend we’re a decade out from Nipplegate but how much have we really grown?

- Corinne Simpson