February 3, 2004

Timberlake makes a boob of himself during Super Bowl halftime show performance

"I am sorry that anyone was offended by the wardrobe malfunction during the halftime performance of the Super Bowl," Justin Timberlake said regarding his controversial removal of part of Janet Jackson's top during Monday evening's Patriots-Panthers game. "It was not intentional and is regrettable."

Wardrobe malfunction? One wonders what Timberlake was trying to remove—her wig? (Not to imply that your hair looked bad, Janet. Love ya.)

With all the fuss surrounding the performance, it's easy to forget that an entire breast was not exposed. At least Janet's nipple was covered by a metal, sun-shaped decoration. It was not quite an "outrage," as the Drudge Report would have it. (Those hypocrites seemed to have no problem with splashing Janet's naked flesh all over their website, either.)

Was it a "classless, crass, and deplorable stunt," as FCC chief Michael Powell stated? Probably. But was it really more offensive than that Budweiser ad featuring a flatulent horse, or the Busch-Anheuser ad with a crotch-mauling dog? In some people's eyes, sure—but only because we tolerate those kind of "deplorable stunts" regularly.

It's a shame that Justin Timberlake won't just come out and admit he made a mistake. Instead, he said, "I am sorry that anyone was offended." Note the wording. That's not really an apology. I'm not trying to split hairs here, but are we to infer that if the subsequent controversy hadn't developed, Justin would gladly do it all over again?

I'm reminded of several sleazy politicians when I read Justin's response, and that saddens me. There's Trent Lott, who justified his racist comment at Strom Thurmond's birthday party by saying he "regret[ted] the way it had been interpreted." There's Michael Savage, who was fired from his MSNBC show after saying a caller should "get AIDS and die," and then backtracked by claiming, "If my comments brought pain to anyone, I […] apologize for any such reaction."

The thing is, reactions and interpretations don't need apologies. For both of these men—and now, for Timberlake—the actual transgressions are brushed aside. Instead, their worst behavior becomes an issue of misinterpretation, of "wardrobe malfunction."The photo being circulated around the Internet says it all. No, not the photo of Janet's breast, although I'm sure that's being downloaded by several million teenagers as you read this. I'm talking about the photo taken right after Justin tore the outfit. Janet moved frantically to cover herself, a look of confusion already settling over her face, her body language close and guarded. Justin had some unidentifiable emotion on his face—triumph? Satisfaction? Pride? More than anything, he looked weirdly angry.

What this picture implies—that Janet may not have been one hundred percent comfortable with what transpired during the performance—is more offensive than any number of naked breasts. I just can't get that look out of my head. Maybe Janet realized that CBS's cameras were already cutting away from the spectacle, and knew that she had made a huge public relations gaffe. Maybe what seemed like a good idea during rehearsals suddenly seemed too over-the-top to contemplate. Maybe she was just cold. But I can't shake the feeling that something happened during halftime that should never happen to any woman—whether she's a minimum-wage employee being sexually harassed by her boss or a multimillion-dollar superstar.

Of course, no one's speculating how Janet must feel about all this—or if anyone is, I haven't heard it. We're just outraged about that breast because we're Americans and nudity makes us hugely uncomfortable. The humiliation and abuse of women is fine, but showing flesh—even if it's for (admittedly lowbrow) artistic purposes? That's what we cover our kids' eyes for.

Several facts concerning this incident will come to light during the next few days. Did Timberlake have Jackson's permission to bare her breast? I know she was wearing a decoration over her nipple, and that seems to suggest she was prepared for the exposure, but we need to know for sure. Did CBS executives really know that the halftime show would end so explicitly? According to several sources, they did—and they're only professing their innocence now because of the scandal they've caused.

This will probably go down in history as the defining moment of Super Bowl XXXVIII (sorry, Patriots), but there are two things I'm going to take from the incident that won't be covered extensively in the media. The first is that while the hyper-sexualization of pop music can be cheeky and fun, it crosses a line when it involves the exploitation of women—and that line may have been crossed Sunday night. The second is that no matter how many advertisements feature acts of brutal, senseless violence (like a woman being scorched by a flatulence-ignited flame), there are some people who will simply find a woman's breast to be the epitome of shock value. It is time we realized that those people are the biggest boobs of all.