The day after former boy-bander Justin Timberlake ripped Janet Jackson's bustier away and accidentally exposed her right breast to millions of Super Bowl television viewers for 9/16ths of a second, a Chicago Sun-Times writer coined the 2004 incident "the breast shot heard of around the world." Court documents later revealed the Federal Communications Commission received more than 540,000 complaints about the exposure; the FCC chairman called the halftime show a "stunt more fitting of a burlesque show."
Yet on Sunday, the NFL announced Timberlake—one-half of those involved in what's become known as "Nipplegate"—will be performing during the 2018 Super Bowl halftime show. An anonymous source told Entertainment Tonight that Jackson would be open to performing alongside the "Cry Me A River" singer in February if invited, but many on social media are calling for #JusticeforJanet. In light of what happened the last time the two artists performed in front of a Super Bowl audience together, a number of people have said they want to see Timberlake issue a public apology to Jackson; one fan even created an online petition to get him banned from performing next year.
Many argue the fallout from the infamous nip slip was swift and unfairly biased toward Jackson. Not only was she uninvited from the Grammys that year, where she was supposed to present a tribute to Luther Vandross (meanwhile, Timberlake attended the show and was actually presented with a couple of awards), her music videos were blacklisted from MTV, VH1 and radio stations owned by Viacom.
In fact, according to Billboard, Timberlake didn't actually own up to his role until two years later. "In my honest opinion now, I could've handled it better," Timberlake said on MTV while promoting his album Future Sex/Love Sounds. "I'm part of a community that consider themselves artists. And if there was something I could have done in her defense that was more than I realized then, I would have. But the other half of me was like, 'Wow. We still haven't found the weapons of mass destruction and everybody cares about this!'" He also added: "I probably got 10 percent of the blame, and that says something about society. I think that America's harsher on women. And I think that America is, you know, unfairly harsh on ethnic people."
Shannon Holland is a visiting assistant professor of communication studies at Southwestern University. In 2008, she published an essay in the journal Women's Studies in Communication, arguing that mainstream media unfairly absolved Timberlake of his role in the scandal because of his white male privilege. After analyzing 200 news articles on the controversy, she determined the language in many of these stories suggested Jackson was to blame for the exposure.
Holland wrote in her paper: "The Washington Post sportswriter Tony Kornheiser commented, 'What Janet Jackson did was bizarre, deliberately flopping out of her costume like that,' and a writer for the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette referred to Jackson's breast as 'the offending breast.' Additionally, columnist Bob Ryan reported in The Boston Globe that 'Timberlake reached over to that infamous right breast belonging to Janet Jackson,' insinuating that although Timberlake may have reached, it was the 'infamous right breast' that committed the offense."
Holland also drew comparisons between how Jackson and Timberlake's clothing were depicted—"by focusing attention on Jackson 's seductive costume, the reports framed Jackson as the provoker of the scandal, the cause of the lewd event"—and analyzed speculations that Jackson orchestrated the whole stunt as a way to boost upcoming album sales.
"News media's construction of Jackson as a hypersexual deviant not only reinforced racist and sexist stereotypes regarding Black female sexuality," the researcher concluded, "but also normalized Timberlake's performance of white masculinity (a performance that might be read as inherently violent). … Ironically, by constructing Timberlake as a victim or passive participant in Jackson's lascivious plot, news media reinforced Timberlake's white male privilege by justifying his behavior with the familiar 'she asked for it' defense."
In an interview with Broadly, Holland says the fact that Timberlake has been scheduled to perform at the Halftime Show again reaffirms his privilege. The move "reminds audiences, at least in passing, that his role in the 2004 controversy was minimal, insignificant, and/or manufactured by his performing partner." To suggest Timberlake gets a pass, she says, because "modern audiences have a higher threshold for 'inappropriate' behavior and/or Timberlake has 'grown up' significantly during the past decade [is] problematic because those rationales have not been extended to Jackson."
Holland also explains why this event may exacerbate other recent criticisms of the NFL for some, though she explains that this sort of "cultural amnesia" also extends far beyond Timberlake and sports entertainment. "Although the scheduling of Timberlake is noteworthy on its own terms, the ongoing disputes regarding kneeling during the national anthem, the NFL's treatment of Colin Kaepernick, the suspension of Jemele Hill, and the ubiquitous policing of people of color within and beyond sports ups the ante," she says. "It is also difficult not to read this decision in relation to the response to Beyonce's 'Formation,' which was criticized as being too political for the Super Bowl. Of course, that is how privilege functions: It is invisible to those who have it and to those who want to preserve it. The depiction of Timberlake's upcoming performance as 'just entertainment' is as political as it gets."