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MTV vs. Janet Jackson: Re-examing the infamous Superbowl Moment that ruined her career

The misogynistic and racist implications of that ‘nipple slip’ moment which cost Janet Jackson her career.

Illustration of nipples with X symbols covering them.

Artwork – WARNING: X-RATED CONTENT, Elish Kathleen, 2020.

The 2004 Superbowl halftime show has remained iconic and culturally significant for the past sixteen years – for all the wrong reasons. While you may distantly remember it for being the moment where Janet Jackson’s nipple (which was covered by a nipple cover) was exposed on stage mid performance (for 0.5 seconds) by Justin Timberlake, it is what happened after that which remains the problem to this day.

This incident caused an onslaught of controversy, mainly directed at Janet Jackson, and led to an immediate revision of, and widespread debate, as to what was perceived indecency in broadcasting. While cancel culture did not officially exist in 2004, Janet Jackson was “cancelled” because of this incident; 0.5 seconds, and her career was ended. The halftime show was produced by MTV, and following the outrage from viewers after seeing a (not even) exposed nipple, the National Football League announced that MTV would not be producing, or be involved with the Super Bowl halftime shows in the future. Understandably, is a huge loss for MTV. In retaliation , CBS’ parent company, and its co-owned subsidiaries MTV and Infinity Broadcasting, blacklisted all of Janet Jackson’s music and music videos on their radio formats and music channels worldwide.

But why? Why did Janet Jackson take all of the heat for something she had no control over – For something that was done to her, not done by her? What did her music have to do with it? We are all aware that Justin Timberlake went on to have an extremely successful career following the incident which he caused – so why was Janet Jackson treated differently?

Janet Jackson was vilified and stripped of her career, while her white male co-star suffered no consequences whatsoever. Despite the fact that he was the one who exposed her breast (without consent btw) for millions of primetime viewers to see.

Unfortunately, this turn of events is not entirely surprising.  Women, especially Black women, are so often held to a different standard to that of their white male counterparts, and white female counterparts. So often in the media, we see Black women demonised for daring to be sexual and for daring to have ownership of their bodies and sexualities.

This form of racist misogyny has deep roots in colonisation. During the Age of Exploration, Europeans’ perceptions of Black African bodies were loaded with intense ideological meaning. From the 15th century onward, the ‘‘vile’’ bodies of Africans and women, in particular African women, were treated as subsets of humanity. This narrative has subconsciously continued into modern culture. We can see this in what happened to Janet Jackson, and, more recently, the media and public outrage regarding Cardi B’s single WAP featuring Megan Thee Stallion. People were disgusted by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s ownership of their own sexuality. Many flooded to social media to express their dismay at the lyrics and the way they danced in the music video. However, there was less discussion of Kylie Jenner, who was also featured in the video displaying herself in a sexualised manner.

Similarly, while Janet Jackson was exiled out of the music industry by MTV, In the same year, MTV continued to air countless ‘indecent’ music videos starring her peers. For example, Britney Spears released “Toxic” that year, the music video for which she spends a large proportion naked in a see-through mesh bodysuit. MTV still decided to air this video, as well as Spears’ Every Time video, in which she is seen naked in a bathtub. While there were no nipples on show in either of these videos, technically, neither was there at the Superbowl – Janet Jackson’s were covered, just like Britney Spears’. Just like Kylie and Cardi, Janet was held to a different standard than Britney. Britney’s indecency was sexy yet tasteful she still remained a ‘family friendly’ sex symbol, but Janet’s was branded crude, vile and X-rated. 

Black women being treated unfairly in comparison to white women is not a new construct – this has been a factor in society and culture for centuries. Sexuality in white women is often viewed as a positive thing: it is seen as empowering – especially after third wave feminism – and, ultimately, it still allows for white women to be deemed “wife material”. But this is not the case for Black women. According to feminist scholar Ann Stoler, ‘‘who you could bed and who you could wed’’ were fundamental in the construction of the colony. This included, of course, the sexual exploitation of women of colour through rape and systems of concubinage. Currently, this exploitation is still visible in politics, popular culture, and the media, but is individualised and perceived as ‘‘choices’’ made by women of colour to present themselves in hypersexualized ways. The social creation of the marriageable (White) woman is based in large part mostly on the social creation of the animalistic, morally lax, dirty, diseased, poor woman of colour. Both constructions require the colonization of women’s bodies and sexuality—for White and Black women—albeit in different ways.

It is apparent then that the hypocrisy from MTV’s executives is both outwardly racist and patriarchal. The explanation is simple: MTV could not afford to upset their white conservative viewers, hence the blacklisting of Janet and promotion of ‘family friendly’ Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake. Following complaints about the incident at the superbowl the Federal Communications Commission fined CBS $325,000 for an indecency violation. MTV had to act and pretend that they were doing something about the outrage whilst shamelessly promoting exactly the ‘indecency’ that they stood against with Janet Jackson with their white stars. MTV feared people did not want to see Janet Jackson anymore She was tarnished and damaged, and now damaging to their brand. This was beginning to cost MTV’s patriarchal money, and they couldn’t have that. Patriarchal capitalism and colonialism operate similarly in terms of ideology, and method of conquer and oppression. Both are systems of White elite patriarchy. Both systems are violent and exploitative. Both rely on ‘‘ownership’’ of Brown and Black bodies. Both are ultimately about profit-making. Finally, both are systems of structural violence that routinely violate human rights. The ideology that underpins much of the media tells us exactly why Janet Jackson was ‘cancelled’ by the industry; MTV and other companies had to ensure that they kept their viewers, who were upset, to continue making profit. This further demonstrates the symbolic violence used against Black women in the music industry. It is important to understand that symbolic violence is interchangeable with physical violence as a mode of economic domination, as Bourdieu’s argument states: symbolic violence is more effective because it is a ‘gentle, hidden violence’ that operates under an illusion of choice.

The infamous moment involving Janet Jackson and the subsequent fall out had huge ripples for popular culture. YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim credits the incident with leading to the creation of the video sharing website. The event also made “Janet Jackson” the most searched person and term of 2004 and 2005. It broke the record for “most searched event over one day”. And it further became the most watched, recorded, and replayed television moment in TiVo History. These facts continues to reinstate the notion that it is only okay to profit from women’s sexuality or bodies, when a man has ownership of or benefits from it.

Sixteen years later and the music industry is continuing to dehumanise and exile Black women out of their jobs for doing what white women and men have been doing forever.

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Written By

Elish is co-founder of The Culture Sift.

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