It’s been 15 years since Janet Jackson was blacklisted from music because of a wardrobe malfunction. Now we have evidence of how women’s bodies are so much more policed than men’s.
It only took a fraction of a second — 9/16ths of a second, in fact — to shock the world.
15 years ago almost to the day, Justin Timberlake moved towards Janet Jackson during their Super Bowl halftime performance and, as he sang his Rock Your Body lyric “better have you naked by the end of this song”, pulled down the fabric covering her right breast to expose her nipple.
It was only a fraction of a second, but the moment had wide-reaching repercussions. And largely for Jackson. Despite the fact that both performers insisted it was an accident and that, instead of exposing her nipple, Timberlake was supposed to expose her red bra, Jackson and her music were blacklisted by the major music television channels and all radio stations owned by Viacom, the parent company whose network CBS aired the Super Bowl.
More than half a million people wrote into the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to complain about the ‘indecency’ of the moment, and CBS was fined $550,000 (£421,009). MTV’s CEO Tom Freston gave an interview in which he claimed that the “stunt” was all Jackson’s fault.
When the Grammys aired a week later, again on CBS, Jackson wasn’t in the audience even though she had been invited and was slated to present. In the aftermath of Nipplegate, as it became known, Jackson found she wasn’t welcome at the awards ceremony anymore and was barred from attending. (Timberlake, however, not only attended the Grammys but won two awards on the night.)
The memory of that performance has loomed large over every Super Bowl since, no more so than this weekend. After a search for performers that was shrouded in controversy — both Rihanna and Cardi B reportedly turned down the offer to headline, in solidarity with football player Colin Kaepernick’s protest against the violent treatment of black people in America — Maroon 5 was announced as the entertainment.
Their routine was a largely lacklustre one, until, during a rendition of their song Moves Like Jagger, Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine ripped off his singlet to expose not one, but two nipples.
Two nipples! And Levine himself ripped off his own shirt, purposefully and full of intention, while Jackson had her shirt ripped from her by another (male) performer. If one of Jackson’s nipples invoked such pearl-clutching consternation, surely two nipples must have brought about the end of the world as we know it?
Except, of course, Adam Levine is a white man, and his nipples are white man’s nipples. Janet Jackson is a black woman, and as such her body and her nipples are deeply politicised. There was no FCC fine to CBS for airing Levine’s nipples — on display for a great deal longer than 9/16ths of a second, unfortunately — and no apology from Levine for his “wardrobe malfunction”.
The disparity in reaction to the two events, 15 years apart, exposes the dark double standard in how women’s bodies are policed by the media.
While male nipples are not only acceptable but welcome on social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook, the female nipple, unless in an image depicting breastfeeding, is not. The Free the Nipple movement continues to protest against the prescriptive regulations, but change is coming at what feels like a glacial pace.
Jackson, for her part, has always maintained that she was unfairly treated in the years after Nipplegate. For years, her music was blacklisted from the major networks and her name became an international laughing stock.
In an interview with Oprah in 2006, Jackson revealed that Timberlake hadn’t even officially apologised to her for the event. “I think they did put all the emphasis on me, as opposed to us,” Jackson said. While Timberlake managed to escape unscathed, even returning to the Super Bowl to perform in 2018, Jackson has never been welcomed back to the event.
It has taken 15 years for public opinion to swing back in favour of Jackson. In 2019 she will finally be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Former FCC Chairman Michael Powell has even admitted that the institution — which called Nipplegate “a classless, crass and deplorable stunt” in 2004 — acted unfairly towards Jackson.
“I personally thought that was really unfair,” Powell has said. “It all turned into being about her.”
Now, 15 years after Nipplegate, are we finally ready to have a conversation about the double standard between men and women when it comes to the way their bodies are policed by the media and society? It’s about time.