In a time when increasing attention is being paid to the violence on the football field, it might seem odd that one of the more violent acts at Super Bowl XXXVIII happened during the halftime show. You’ve probably heard about it, and most of us saw it in a room full of people. Some of us may have even signed up for TiVo to take advantage of the opportunity to see it over and over again. Now that the ten-year anniversary of the infamous “Nipplegate” controversy involving Justin Timberlake, Janet Jackson, and MTV has occurred, quite a number of articles have come out discussing Jackson’s nudity, the cultural impact, and even whether or not we can understand how it happened. (Links may be NSFW.)
That discussion is good and necessary but I think we’re missing the point. That halftime show was more than just the nation seeing a topless woman. I’d argue that we were outraged at the wrong thing, and it wasn’t “the now-infamous Janet Jackson striptease” as the Parents Television Council called it.
Understandably, most people have focused on Jackson’s bare breast. But there’s more going on. In an article published ten days after Super Bowl XXXVIII, Maggie Thurs asked the question that I’m still asking: “Have we come to a time in America where sexual violence, particularly against women, is so mainstream, so unimportant, so entertaining that exposing a single breast is more shocking than assault?”
The Scene of the Crime
When Janet Jackson played SuperBowl XXXVIII’s halftime show, I was at the stereotypical Sunday School Super Bowl Party. Until that year, I never really thought about the Super Bowl halftime show. I really didn’t care all that much. But I knew Janet (Miss Jackson if you’re nasty) was going to perform, and I was hoping to hear “Rhythm Nation” live.
I think I’m one of the few people who actually go to Super Bowl parties to watch the game. (Not the commercials. Not the halftime show. The Game.) This time, I filled a plate with tortilla chips and sausage and cheese dip, and I sat down and caught the one sight that no one in the room seemed to see.
Not Janet Jackson’s exposed breast, though that was part of “the show” at halftime. No, I saw Justin Timberlake reach over and tear off part of Janet Jackson’s bustier. Timberlake, in effect, had pantomimed a sexual assault. Sure, it was a performance, but the show portrayed a frightening scene punctuated by the lyric, “I’m gonna have you naked by the end of this song.”
It was one of those moments when you feel like you’re alone in a room, like you just got away with something no one noticed.
So, being the person I am, I asked, “Did anyone just see that?”
Everyone stopped, mid-chew, to stare at me like a cow looking at a new gate. After a number of questions, I then had to explain that I just saw Justin Timberlake tear off Janet Jackson’s top.
“You saw her, uh, chest?” one person asked.
A Nation’s reaction
“You saw her chest?”
That question occupied the attention of the American public and the American government for the next eight years. In response to the uproar, a bipartisan Congress raised the maximum fine for indecency from $32,500 to $325,000. In the aftermath of Super Bowl XXXVIII, CBS was fined $550,000. (The appeal of that fine finally reached the Supreme Court in 2012.)
You might have forgotten about Janet and Justin’s performance, but the United States Supreme Court didn’t. When the Court finally decided that CBS didn’t need to pay a fine for a fleeting image of nudity, Justice Roberts made it clear that what happened was serious: “As every schoolchild knows, a picture is worth a thousand words, and CBS broadcast this particular picture to millions of impressionable children.”
Justice Roberts is right: a picture is powerful, and it can have a culture-defining effect. As a culture, though, we were outraged about the wrong part of that picture. As a response to a halftime show that displayed overt sexuality and a theatrical assault, Christians in particular seem to have glossed over the show’s sexual assault aspect in favor of shaking our heads over a less-than-a-second view of Janet Jackson’s chest.
In a country where instances of sexual assault number in the millions, Christians should be front-and-center when it comes to recognizing it in order to fight it. We should be more vocal. We should be more active. Ten years ago, we missed the opportunity to refocus the attention away from Janet Jackson’s boob and onto a real epidemic that is common to America — inside the Church and out.
It’s odd that only ten years have passed since the term “wardrobe malfunction” entered our collective lexicon. It’s even more strange that we’re still focused on Jackson’s breast, and we’ve all but ignored the action that revealed it.