The Politics of a “Wardrobe Malfunction”

 

I have a dream this Super Bowl season. Now, to be quite honest, I do not follow American football at all, but I do follow the halftime performances. This year, Justin Timberlake performed at the Super Bowl LII halftime show over a decade after his infamous performance with Janet Jackson. While I am a big fan of the “Prince of Pop” and can honestly say that Justified was the catalyst for my sexual awakening, the way in which Janet Jackson (and the female body for that matter) was chastised after Nipplegate is not only telling of America’s ongoing “fear” of the of the female body entering the public sphere, specifically the black female body, but also the legitimization of rape culture’s place in the public sphere.  Nipplegate became a discursive event in that it affirmed the existence of rape culture within the public sphere. After the alleged “wardrobe malfunction”, topics regarding broadcasting censorship and free speech came into question. The Federal Communications Commission fined CBS over half a million dollars for the incident to set a precedent for this type of overexposure.

The performance wardrobe of both Jackson and Timberlake aided in the cementing of their public image as popstars, but in different ways. At the time of the performance, the public image of Janet Jackson was arguably branded as a sexualized, mature, political, divorcée. Wayne Scot Lukas, Janet Jackson’s stylist for the show, said in an interview with Channel Guide Magazine that, “For the Super Bowl we had to really have a special, big outfit to create some kind of look that was going to be really magical. I told you the war had started, so we were thinking it had to be semi-military, but it had to still be a little bit sexy and fun.”[1] The semi-military inspired look was appropriate for the show because the public was still coming to terms with the United States’ decision to invade Iraq. Instead of the militarization of armed bodies, Janet’s performance wanted to inspire the militarization of the youth voice. The use of military outfits in music performances was popularized by Jackson’s brother, Michael, and has become a symbol of resistance towards hegemonic forms of power when used by minorities. Justin Timberlake was only 23 at the time of the performance, he had recently released his first solo album Justified (2003) after his split from the boy-band, NSYNC. His public image rested on his youth, his looks, and also his new bachelor status after Britney Spears cheated on him, ending their three-year relationship together. Timberlake, was branded as the heartbroken and tortured artist trying to find his way after he was scorned by love. Justin’s outfit lacks a political motivation. He is dressed casually in baggy jeans paired with an oversized shirt and jacket—a precursor to the f*c@boy image and style.

Timberlake joins Jackson on the stage to perform his single Rock Your Body. In their performance, Janet plays the love interest. Both playfully dance with each across the stage. Timberlake chases Jackson as she coquettishly plays “hard to get”. At the end of the performance, Timberlake finally catches Jackson in a moment of embrace and rips the bust of her bustier revealing Jackson’s breast. The camera stills, but only for a moment to catch both Timberlake and Jackson in a state of shock and then the stadium lights immediate fade to black. Planned or not, the action of ripping one’s clothes is an act of aggression. The immediate fade to black and blame for the incident on Jackson and her team perpetuates rape culture in the way that it normalized Jackson’s body as an explicit sexual object meant to be censored, while also promoting victim blaming (establishing a whodunit? rhetoric) and slut shaming vis-à-vis her outfit and flashy nipple clamp. Timberlake was portrayed as the naïve and innocent one, who claimed to not know anything while also refusing to acknowledge any possible chance of responsibility.

My dream this Super Bowl halftime show is a small one. I wish for Janet Jackson to storm the stage on live TV during Justin’s performance in an all-black gritty, military-inspired wardrobe (which is still appropriate today), with big hair, attitude, and a full dance troupe so that people remember her halftime performance as what it should have been remembered 13 years ago–iconic.

[1] Acken, Lori. “Nat Geo’s The 2000s: A New Reality – Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl Stylist Wayne Scot Lukas Tells Us What Really Down.” Channel Guide Magazine, 12 July 2015, www.channelguidemag.com/tv-news/2015/07/09/nat-geos-the-2000s-a-new-reality-janet-jacksons-super-bowl-stylist-wayne-scot-lukas-tells-us-what-really-down/.

By Destinee Forbes