Super Bowl XXXVIII, Nipplegate, February 1, 2004

Written By: Greg Howell - Feb• 21•14

An important element of television history is its measure of the pulse of American culture. Never was this more true than February 1, 2004. If nothing else, Super Bowl XXXVIII defines America ensconced in a controversial war when… America turned her full attention to . . . nipples.

It is almost too ridiculous to write about it. For less than 2 seconds and via a camera long shot, Janet Jackson exposed her covered nipple and partially exposed breast, and the country lost control. The public outcry of indecency prompted a record-breaking 200,000 phone calls to the network from outraged viewers. Seemingly, the very violent nature of football itself was no problem, but the possibility that a child (or husband) caught a glimpse of a dangling breast for 2 seconds was seemingly further proof that America was collapsing into a dark, immoral pit. Even stranger, to even get a glimpse of Jackson’s partial nipple, a viewer would need to rewind repeatedly, pause the playback, and enlarge the picture about 400 percent.

While America protested, Canadians and Europeans watching the Super Bowl hardly noticed, and were left scratching their heads and wondering what were Americans thinking when news spread of the scandal. Janet Jackson attempted to defend herself from the disaster as an innocent wardrobe malfunction. But America would have none of it. No one would pull the wool over their eyes!

The most shocking element of the entire fiasco was that Ms. Jackson took all of the heat for the situation. Perhaps her television tour to promote her “innocent wardrobe malfunction” theory did herself no favor. After all, Timberlake ripped her bra off, exposing a pasty over a nipple at the exact same time he sang “I’m gonna have you naked by the end of this song!” Ms. Jackson pleas of complete innocence seemed disingenuous. Timberlake, on the other hand, avoided the media and laughed off the hysteria.

No matter the truth of the situation (the duo, to be fair, had a surprised and embarrassed reaction on air), the incident sent shock waves throughout broadcasting. The FCC levied record amounts of fines against broadcast networks, including $3.5 million against Clear Channel alone. Congress enacted a bill increasing fines for indecency violations. An onslaught of censorship encompassed daytime TV, talk radio, and cable programming.

Sadly, Janet Jackson’s career has yet to recover. With 27 top ten hits prior to the incident, Ms. Jackson has not landed anywhere near Billboard’s Top Ten Singles chart since February 1, 2004. Justin Timberlake skated away unharmed from the incident, also pointing out the double standards imposed on women and African-Americans in American society even in the 21st century.

Here is a short segment of the actual performance:

©Wednesday, May 16, 2007, Greg Howell

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