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Let’s Agree To Leave Sex And Racism Out Of This Year’s Superbowl, Shall We?

By February 5, 2016 0
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I bet you don’t remember who won the 2004 Super Bowl. But I bet you DO remember who’s left nipple popped out during the half time show.

Its been twelve years since Janet Jackson’s infamous wardrobe malfunction. It seems like such a distant memory, especially today with our greater understanding and tolerance of sexual identity and self-acceptance. The controversy that night and the persecution that followed overwhelmed any memory of the game being played around it. American society was seemingly given carte blanche to attack and demean someone on the national stage. Figureheads apologized for allowing her to be seen, opinion articles decried the all of western civilization, and a poor woman suffered explicitly for being a victim. I’m glad we’ve progressed as far as we’ve come, but this to me is a moment in time that’s really worth reexamining, and even apologizing for.

Before getting ahead of myself, I should mention that this piece is less about which performer was responsible for the reveal, and more about the responsibility and reaction of the audience. Whether they were courting controversy or not, the mob behaved with a level of cruelty that was unquestionably gross and inhuman. It was revealing how quick we were to blame the victim, to body-shame, and to demonize an otherwise benign expression of sexuality.

To my complete surprise, during the research of this article I learned that MTV, the producers of the halftime show, intended for the act to promote their “Rock the Vote” campaign for the 2004 presidential election. The motto of the movement, “Choose or Lose” was even mentioned briefly after the incident, right before the telecast was swiftly cut and the outrage was then fomenting. The fact that Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake were somehow seen as leaders of the political youth is an entirely different crime altogether, but it is worth noting that this event was originally meant to organize and inspire a completely different public conversation entirely.

As the halftime show began, performance itself wasn’t risqué by any measure and was actually quite endearing. Ms. Jackson was center stage amongst a throng of backup dancers, the tempo was upbeat and the movements were powerful. Fun and positivity were on display here. A marching band led Janet and the audience into a wonderful chant; “Prejudice? No! Ignorance? No! Bigotry? No! Illiteracy? No!”

All of a sudden Mr. Timberlake ascends from what must clearly have been the depths of hell, wearing the most diabolical khakis and speaking of how he had every intention to “rock my body” (note: he was never invited to). Humor aside, his appearance directly correlated with introduction of sexuality into the act. All the empowering choreography from before was thrown out for dry-humping and poor gyration, which in my opinion dismantles Janet’s responsibility for receiving blame for any of the seduction that took place. Its a strange concept, that of what a woman’s immediate response “should be” when sex is advanced on her. Yes this was operating within the construct of a coordinated dance, but I’ve always been confused as to why a man’s agency and responsibility is lost and all the blame is shifted onto the woman in circumstances such as these. Surely as the one initiating, JT is author to whatever comes next – planned or unplanned.

“Better have you naked by the end of this song.” Poetry it is not, but these were Justin’s final words before removing her chest-piece. With that quick cut-to-commercial, the battle-lines were drawn. This wasn’t just about moral decency, it was taken to an even further extreme of the state of our national identity. “Where did we, as a country, go so wrong as to allow this?” I’m paraphrasing, of course, but its hard not to imagine these words escaping behind a fever of pearl-clutching. Her breast, her responsibility, as far as the public was concerned. It was the one topic that those on either side of the fence could agree on; what she did was wrong.

Just read how the event plays out in this article. All the moments being so itemized, how could we not see so much in-between them? My own personal experience watching the broadcast was probably the same as most, I saw nothing in the moment, and was only later informed by the reaction of others. Before I even had time to think about it, I had to have (and display) an un-examined reaction. “So what?” only goes so far in moments like these, when our morality is seemingly on trial.

Her choice of nipple-fashion also seemed to be all the evidence that anyone needed. Clearly, why would anyone decorate themselves without yearning to display to their audience. Intent notwithstanding, this line of thinking forces this notion of conspiracy, the “of course it was all her fault” argument casts her as scheming, as some sort of villain of childhood innocence. Never mind the fact that people who do love to adorn and express themselves with fashion, or piercings, or tattoos, do so more out of an expression of self and creativity.

A black woman in black leather, and her limp white accessory, dominated public discussion in this country for months – but how could it not? For a televised moment to receive such wall-to-wall coverage, its strange how quickly it became mythologized, and how her agency and responsibility were so magnified and blown out of proportion. It is worth remembering that we were living in a pre-YouTube era at the time, and while the youth were certainly capable of finding and downloading the clip in question, the public at large really couldn’t. Video wasn’t so readily accessible online, and there was an absolutely ravenous demand that to find and exploit this moment. The 2007 Guinness World Records declared the search term “Janet Jackson” as the “Most Searched in Internet History”, as well as the “Most Searched for News Item.” Its by no means a stretch of the imagination to understand why, but it is humorous that in all the efforts to suppress this image, it seemingly could not be contained in the slightest.

The following Super Bowl Halftime shows ran according to their own rules of tasteful and tacky, and there was a broadcast mandate put in place for five-second delays in live television, but that’s not what really what needs investigating at this point. Right now I’m curious about this strange divide we have when it comes to our understanding and interpretation of sexuality between the races. Yes, it is absolutely worth bringing skin-color into this conversation. Accident or not, the exposure of a black woman’s death was greeted with public disdain and furor, but today the deliberate parading of a pasty-adorned white bosom is celebrated as an act of emancipation and beauty.

This is by no means an indictment or an attack on Miley Cyrus, as I’d be overwhelmingly hypocritical and unfair to her as an artist and a person, but I do believe she’s allowed and encouraged (again, based on her skin-color) in a way that no other minority woman currently is. I don’t believe this to also be just a “sign of the times”. Yes there have been numerous slut-walks and thoughtful conversations that have forwarded appreciating and accepting our naked selves, but the stages those have operated on are much smaller, and have been seen by far less, than where Janet and Miley have performed.

For the sake of argument, let me introduce another example. Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj both employ similar candy-colored flair and grace. Both appeal to a very young audience of girls on occasion (Nicki does cross-over to her adult fanbase and intentions more often, I’ll admit).  Katy Perry’s sexuality is seen as nothing but sugar-sweet and wholesome. Remember, this is the preacher’s daughter we’re talking about, so whenever she does step out of line, there’s this false refuge she can always immediately return to seek in the arms of her father (of Heaven and of Earth). Its a license to thrill and titillate with no fear of repercussion or public slander. Compare that to Ms. Minaj, who’s supreme self-confidence is too often confused for aggression and her sexuality seen as violent and untoward.

I mentioned it at the top of this article, but it really is worth repeating. I can’t help but feel that no one has properly apologized to Ms. Jackson. I can’t think of another time outside of the Monica Lewinsky scandal that a woman was so punished and shamed for the actions a man took upon her. When the masses are speaking, it doesn’t always lead with a centralized voice or leader, so it is hard to ask for seemingly everyone to take responsibility for themselves, but it still is worth doing so. Ms. Jackson is hardly still resigning herself to life out of the spotlight, but I can’t help but feel that she’s somehow less than willing to perform since this fiasco ensued.

So how doe we apologize in situations like these? Do we only take action on our own part, and write her Twitter directly (@JanetJackson for those interested), or do we come together in a mass effort of some sort? Unfortunately, try as I might, I’m not the messiah I’d like to be and I cannot influence the will of the nation. I can’t expect those that were most vocal and accusatory during this period to come forward of their own accord. But I can lead by example, and I can say that despite my youthful ignorance, I apologize for not having done better job a shutting-down the ignorance and intolerance that was behaving around me.

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