Janet Jackson’s Wardrobe Malfunction erased an icon of unapologetic sexuality

In the Purity Chronicles, Vox looks back at the sexual and gendered mores of the late ’90s and 2000s, one pop culture phenomenon at a time. Read more here.

There was something in the air in the 2000s. It was as though American culture was obsessed with ripping away women’s clothes and then blaming them for it. Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Kim Kardashian. Upskirt photos, leaked sex tapes, leaked nudes; teary-eyed apologies, snide jokes on late-night television, righteous op-eds in the newspapers. Every day we were acting out literally what was happening in the cultural marketplace, where women faced commercial and structural pressures to market themselves with highly sexualized images and then were called whores and sluts for doing so.

Perhaps no event more clearly captures this moment in cultural history than what happened to Janet Jackson after the Wardrobe Malfunction of 2004.

The Wardrobe Malfunction (also known as Nipplegate) occurred on February 1, 2004, during the Super Bowl 38 halftime show live on CBS. Pop supernova Janet Jackson had finished performing her 1989 classic “Rhythm Nation,” and the young up-and-comer Justin Timberlake had just joined her onstage to croon his new single “Rock Your Body.” As Timberlake arrived at his final line — “Gotta have you naked by the end of this song” — he reached for Jackson’s black leather bustier and tugged. The leather collapsed, and Jackson’s breast, partially obscured by a silver nipple shield, appeared on TV for nine-sixteenths of a second.

For that fraction of a second, the FCC would receive a record 540,000 complaints and fine CBS a record $550,000 (the fee was later voided by a federal appeals court, which noted that advocacy groups may have been behind many of the complaints). Jackson would see her career go into a tailspin from which it would never truly recover.

She was disinvited from the Grammys. Her new album was panned. When she showed up on TV for interviews and performances, many stations made a point of announcing they had adopted a five-second delay, lest she be tempted to show her breasts to America again. Her songs stopped playing on the radio, on MTV, on VH1. Sales of her music plummeted.

The consensus at the time was that Jackson brought all this on herself on purpose — that she had cunningly plotted to expose her bare breast on TV in a tacky publicity stunt, a sleazy demand for attention from an aging pop star past her prime.

Jackson herself maintained otherwise. What actually happened, she said, was that Timberlake was supposed to have removed part of her bustier to reveal a red bra in a sort of PG-13 striptease — but he ended up accidentally ripping the bra along with the rest of her top.

This story made little impact. Neither did photographs of the aftermath of the so-called Malfunction, which saw Jackson huddling into her torn clothing and trying desperately to cover herself, with the face of a woman who very much did not intend to show America her nipple.

Whether Jackson planned the Wardrobe Malfunction or not, those nine-sixteenths of a second at the Super Bowl destroyed her carefully guarded plausible deniability. Her body and sexuality surged past the boundaries of performance to become something viscerally present, potentially threatening. Simultaneously, her body and sexuality became laughable, ridiculous, an object of mockery. That narrative would spread to the reception of Jackson’s 2004 album, Damita Jo.

In 1990, the sexuality of Janet had been a revelation, a liberation, something to celebrate. In 2004, critics considered the sexuality of Damita Jo to be self-evidently something to mock.

“It’s not just that there’s no depth to her boudoir insights and philosophical musings, or that the bulk of her lyrics manage the unimpressive feat of being explicit and banal,” opined the LA Weekly, “but that she’s morphing into an aging porn starlet of the most tragic type — chasing relevance with ever bigger hair, ever bigger boobs, and a willingness to fall to her knees in mirthless, monotonous mimicry of sexual ecstasy. It’s like, after all the fucking and talking about fucking that she’s done, she has almost no idea what true liberation — or even pleasure — really is.”

“A youngster can get X-rated and come across as a wayward kid who has plenty of time to straighten out her act. Ms. Jackson is 37,” tsked the Washington Post. “When she moans and boasts through ‘Warmth’ — one of the more explicit paeans to oral sex you’ll ever hear on a major label — she sounds like she knows better and is pretending that she doesn’t.”

In the time since 2004, Damita Jo has enjoyed a critical reevaluation. After Jackson’s fan base pushed #JusticeForDamitaJo to trend on Twitter in 2019, a new narrative emerged that argues for Damita Jo’s status as a landmark album within Jackson’s storied career, and as another chapter in her long history of celebrating Black women’s sexuality without apology.

“Damita Jo deserves our attention and, yes, justice, not just as a reparative formality but because its specific depiction of sexuality in a mainstream forum — a superstar’s major-label, highly anticipated album — is extraordinary,” declared Pitchfork in 2019. “Damita Jo is not just rare for being a piece of mainstream erotica authored by a black woman — it’s also mainstream erotica that isn’t mired in darkness or shame.”

That Pitchfork reevaluation was part of a larger post-Me Too redemption of Janet Jackson. In 2019, she entered the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and launched a well-received residency in Las Vegas. She continues to tour and release albums, and she has lasted long enough to see the popular consensus on the Wardrobe Malfunction shift from “She did it on purpose” to “It’s a shame that happened to her.”

Still, Jackson has never again achieved the height of ubiquity, the understanding that her albums would as a matter of course be played on every Top 40 radio station out there, that she had before the 2004 Super Bowl. That level of fame and success was forever stripped away.

And within the context of 2004, Damita Jo existed not as an album worthy of critical appraisal but as evidence for Jackson’s supposed sex-mad deviance. The world was determined to see Jackson as shameless, past her prime, clawing desperately for attention and relevance she had not earned with tacky, trying-too-hard attempts at shocking sex appeal. Damita Jo, along with the rest of Jackson’s career to that point, was all interpreted to fit the argument.

It is worth remembering that this argument was molded by, among others, a white man with a reported history of sexual harassment. And in order to mold that argument, he allowed the white man who actually ripped Jackson’s clothes off to skate through the controversy with minimal consequences. But the overall narrative was produced and disseminated by a culture in which the bodies of Black women are considered inherently sexual, inherently threatening, and inherently humiliating.

It took all of Janet Jackson’s star power combined with all her fiercely held private reserve to force America to treat her as an exception to that rule. The moment her reserve broke — even when Jackson was not the one to break it — she became subject to the normal rules of racism and misogyny once again.

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