Super Bowl XXXVIII will be remembered
mostly for the incident involving Justin Timberlake and Janet
Jackson. The fallout from that event, apart from her anatomy, has
included apologies all around: CBS, MTV, Janet, Justin and the NFL
have all agreed that breasts are “unfortunate” and
Perhaps the strangest thing about the unveiling was how
non-sexual it was. Of course, Justin was pressing his parts on her
too much, but the whole performance was an inhuman, industrial sort
of dance number, with Janet looking especially mechanized. And then
the thing came out all by itself — a single,
compartmentalized breast — and it just sort of sat there
staring at us. It was more like a scientific inquiry than an
assertion of Eros and the natural, uncontrollable passions.
This was then followed by the even more scientific explanation
of the mishap. Justin spoke of it in fine bureaucratic jargon as a
“wardrobe malfunction,” a very effective way of
diluting the pool of blame. Janet, meanwhile, divided the
split-second event into layers of clothing and potential outcomes:
According to MTV, she told reporters that “a lace
undergarment was supposed to remain intact, covering (her), but was
accidentally removed along with the outer layer.” After this
insight, it’s almost diagrammable; we can imagine a
cross-section of the boob looking like the earth’s core, with
the mantle, crust and atmosphere surrounding it.
And this must be how some people felt when it happened —
like we were penetrating to something deeply hidden, but also very
central to our existence — in order to elicit such a
resounding retraction by everyone involved. But you can’t
really retract the human body — it’s just there. So who
could have been so mad about it? Who honestly cares that we saw
Janet Jackson’s breast, aside from 14-year-old boys and old,
sexless evangelists? Nevertheless, an invisible hand guided the
reaction. It seemed instantaneous and inevitable.
In some ways, of course, this was just corporate double-speak.
Half of the ads during the Super Bowl were blatantly misogynistic,
like the one with the vaguely portrayed wife yelling vague insults
at her husband. Another more socially conscious ad, the anti-Bush
statement submitted by MoveOn.org, was banned from airing on CBS.
And then there was the formation of flying killing machines that
faded out of view as Beyoncé wrapped up the anthem. Clearly,
the companies responsible were not taking the high ground all
But they did take a stand on Janet’s breast. And it has
something to do with values. Ever since the 1980s, when Ronald
Reagan ran an ad saying “It’s morning again in
America,” mainstream Americans have had a fear that the
country would revert to ’70s-style hedonism. “Why would
we want to return to where we were, less than four short years
ago?” the ad asked. This was a polite way of saying that
there was still enough coke in the country to paint the lines of
every football field. But more generally, it was a reminder of what
Americans discovered in the past decade: Values don’t exist.
That is, social norms rise and fall with different historical
moments and have no basis other than consent.
So with Reagan, Americans embarked on a great purge. Our values
may be completely artificial, they said, but that doesn’t
mean we’ll bow to a hodgepodge of multiculturalism —
any value can be absolute if it’s the only one. Since then,
this country has bent, to a greater or lesser extent, under a
program of retrenchment led by successive groups: the Moral
Majority, the Christian Coalition, the compassionate conservatives.
And the course of action has necessarily been a negative one.
Asserting one set of values against all others means repressing
everything outside of a certain sphere. The canning of protests,
the reduction of public forums and now our preemptive foreign
policy have all flowed from this impulse. We have a complete system
of “counter-revolution” in place, capable of denying
the least of efforts toward spontaneity and liberation.
And apparently, we’ve lost something else during that
transition: the breast. A woman was recently kicked out of a
Denny’s for breast-feeding her child, though the restaurant
later apologized. It’s only a small example, but it’s
something that would be incomprehensible to women around the world.
Janet Jackson is no revolutionary, and sexual liberation
won’t guarantee any wider revolution anyway — it is
easily corporatized into prepackaged sexual displays. But when we
see clear acts of repression, we should recognize them for what
they are. Most Americans are afraid to sing and dance, let alone
show their bodies. But is it too much to even do this vicariously,
through a performer? A breast does not mean anarchy. It’s not
the denial of everything civilization has ever worked for. In
Janet’s case, it may have been a rejection of shame, but only
for a moment. It couldn’t last longer than that.