Nipplegate and the national disgrace, ten years later

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Janet Jackson and Justin TimberlakeTen years ago this Friday, Janet Jackson’s right nipple was exposed on national television. That this happened for a fraction of a second, not in closeup, with the nipple covered by a piece of jewelry, at a time when televisions were both much smaller and lower definition than they are today, when there was no YouTube and virtually no DVR, was of little consequence. For about a year after, our culture went completely nuts.

I remember that day well. My buddy and I watching the game at my apartment. We watched the halftime show, I asked, “hey, did he just tear off her shirt?,” and then I completely forgot about it until after the game, when it was the only thing that anyone wanted to talk about. And it stayed that way for about six months, even though there were two wars going on at the time.

ESPN the Magazine and reporter Marin Cogan have produced a longform feature about The Wardrobe Malfunction, as history has seen fit to label the incident, and it’s certainly worth your time, if not to reflect on what Cogan calls “one of the worst cases of mass hysteria in America since the Salem witch trials.”

The incident led to a whole lot of stuff that’s embarrassing in retrospect: Ridiculous government fines for aberrant f-bombs dropped on awards shows, as well as Howard Stern’s eventual exile to satellite radio (the “FCC fines of The Howard Stern Show” Wikipedia entry, by the way, is nearly 5000 words, with 75 end-notes.)

Among other disgraces, the incident exposed various sexist double standards, in that it effectively marked the end of Janet Jackson’s career as a viable pop star, while Timberlake has done nothing but skyrocket to the stratosphere since. And the next six Super Bowl halftime shows were performed by white male acts of the boomer generation. Because if anything is synonymous with wholesome, harmless fun, it’s the Rolling Stones. 

The episode also showcased the unfortunate historical tendency for the FCC, during Republican presidential administrations, to assume the posture of an official censor. There’s plenty to quibble about with the Obama-era FCC, but at least they’re not trying to take Scandal off the air.

Probably the biggest piece of news from the ESPN piece concerned Michael Powell, the FCC chairman during George W. Bush’s first term and the son of the then-Secretary of State Colin Powell. Michael Powell, who spouted off regularly in public at the time about the shocking indecency of the nipple reveal, now admits that he was just faking it: 

“I think we’ve been removed from this long enough for me to tell you that I had to put my best version of outrage on that I could put on,” he says, shrugging his shoulders and rolling his eyes. “Part of it was surreal, right? Look, I think it was dumb to happen, and they knew the rules and were flirting with them, and my job is to enforce the rules, but, you know, really? This is what we’re gonna do?”

Then again, Michael Powell’s father likely has much, much deeper regrets about his actions during that particular time period than his son does.

Looking back I see Nipplegate as one final grasp at straws for the cultural right, a few years after the failure of the Clinton impeachment, to impose modesty and punish sexuality, especially in a way that smacks down women. Those same people are the ones who now make frequent public comments in which they should they have no idea how birth control works. 

Much of the garbage in those days, though, emanated from the Parents Television Council (PTC) and its head, L. Brent Bozell, who has spent every television appearance of his career in a sputtering, incoherent rage that someone, somewhere, might be having fun. I once ran into Bozell in Penn Station in New York and sorely tempted to run over to one of the newsstands, buy an issue of Hustler, and slip it into his luggage when he wasn’t looking.

At any rate, no media or content organization should ever have any response to the PTC other than an extended middle finger.

Of course, now it’s ten years later. The government no longer acts as an official censor. Porn is everywhere, and you can say “shit” on TV after 10 p.m. Oh, and there’s same-sex marriage all over the place. Brent Bozell, you lost.

However, the person I feel worst about in all of this is Janet Jackson, who has had a long, multi-faceted and often brilliant career, and there’s a very good chance that when she passes away, the Wardrobe Malfunction will be mentioned in the first paragraph of her obituary. That probably won’t happen when Timberlake does.

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  • Kirk Hiner

    I’m praying we don’t get an equivalent “wardrobe malfunction” from Flea.