by Robert Gillis
Published in the Foxboro Reporter 2/2004

It’s taken me a little while to collect my thoughts about the alleged “wardrobe malfunction” incident during the Superbowl half-time show. But I finally figured out what needs to be done. It’s a baby step, but one in the right direction.

First of all, let’s dispense with the obvious rhetoric. Yeah, the line has been crossed. This is a sex-saturated culture. The act was reprehensible. Something must be done. It’s time for change!

Well, d’uh.

I’m not being flip, or in any mitigating the impact of what happened, but let’s remember that the Superbowl half-time show also featured performances by other artists that included barely-clad women and a lot of crotch grabbing. Many of the ads were for erectile dysfunction, and most other Superbowl ads were pretty lowbrow, including fart jokes, bathroom humor, dogs biting a guy’s nether regions, and a monkey putting the move on a model. But all we hear about is the infamous breast-baring moment.

Why is that? It’s because in a halftime show full of seductive firecrackers, Jackson and Timberlake set off a sexual nuke. And suddenly, everyone finally noticed just how bad things have gotten, just how indecent things have become.

Yes, a line was crossed. Big time. The actions of Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake were reprehensible, stupid, wholly inappropriate, and crass. That it was an intentional stunt – despite the idiotic claim of “wardrobe malfunction” – makes it all the more wrong. That Jackson and Timberlake knew that over 90 million people – including millions of children – would witness it — is deplorable.

MTV personality Carson Daly was quoted as saying, “This particular event might be, for the moment, the straw that broke the camel’s back on the patience of the audience. Tolerance of this sort of sexual imagery may have reached its peak.”

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps commented, “The Jackson case could have a “galvanizing effect” on the move to toughen standards … at the very least, he said, it punctures the argument of people who say that those who are bothered by things on TV just shouldn’t watch. ”

Maybe. But honestly, I doubt it. Was the halftime show inappropriate for the millions of small children watching? Absolutely! But so are half the shows on prime time TV. We’ve seen worse, haven’t we? This is a sex-saturated culture where few things surprise us anymore. Sleaze sells. Sex sells.

It’s not right, it’s not moral, but there it is, in every magazine, in every video, on every channel. As a culture, we obviously like it, because we buy the products and patronize the companies. We buy the music, the movies, watch the shows and judging by the demand, we want more.

Generational attitudes may change, standards will vary, but the envelope will always be pushed – new limits of “just how much can we get away with” will always be tested.

I am not defending it.

I am not condoning it.

I am not excusing it.

But this is our reality in 21st century America.

It’s very sad.

So what should we do? Despite calls for immediate FCC investigations, fining the networks and opening new debates about decency and morality, it is the two “performers” who should be held responsible. That’s where a positive change can begin.

Don’t fine Timberlake and Jackson – they have so much money, financial penalties are meaningless. Threaten all the boycotts you want, but kids will still buy their CDs and attend the concerts. Let’s do the one thing that might make a difference: Require an apology, and make sure it is directed at the ones who most need to hear it: The kids.

Forget prepared press statements. At their own expense – not their management or record company – Timberlake and Jackson should take out full page ads in EVERY teen magazine – YM, Teen Beat, Teen People, and all the others – and apologize. In their own words, they need to admit that their actions were thoughtless, crass, and wrong, and explain WHY they were wrong.

Forget CNN and Larry King. The apologies have to be made when the kids are reading and watching. The apologies should be broadcast on MTV and VH-1.

On the liner notes of both of their next CDs, let’s see the same apology. Kids read every word of those liner notes. Maybe while Timberlake is thanking God and his family on his next CD, he can add how sorry he is for being such a pig at the Superbowl. Perhaps he can explain that he is not a role model and no one should ever do what he did, and that people can actually go to jail for doing what he did.

Maybe Jackson’s apology can help explain why she orchestrated the stunt, and why she’s sorry for it. Maybe Jackson can explain why she exercised such a galactic lack of common sense and did something so obscene at the same time her brother is in court fighting sex abuse charges.

Maybe these alleged role models could teach a little – just a little – personal integrity and responsibility to their millions of fans. Maybe they can help set things in the right direction.

Parents and teachers and can lecture all they want, but when the kids hear apologies and explanations from these “role models” themselves, maybe they’ll understand. Maybe they’ll listen. I really hope so. Because if this level of personal responsibility and apology isn’t forthcoming from Timberlake and Jackson, then what happened at the Superbowl is only the beginning.

Update 2015: While I cannot possibly condone ripping off a woman’s top during a concert performance (you can go to jail for that in most some states!) I think I came across wait too hard on both JT and Janet. I’ve always liked Janet Jackson and have come to really respect JT as an actor and performer. Regardless of their revisionist history and the concept of “wardrobe malfunction” I think it what they did was either spur of the moment or a publicity stunt.

Considering that most Super Bowl commercials feature guys getting kicked in the balls, or sell medicines for erectile dysfunction, or feature sexists ads, usually in some way demeaning to men or women, a split second breast flash on live TV before the live feed was cut doesn’t mean much compared to the saturation of violence and sex out there, even during the game. This incident was HARDLY a watershed moment for ANYTHING except more hype for months before things went back to the way they always were.

So to clarify, I’d write this one differently today. Ripping off someone’s clothes (especially on live TV) is not brilliant, but I was waayyy too hard on JT and Janet — and given the venue they were playing, and the commercials during the game, their action almost pales by comparison. Like I said, not one of my best.  And I’d still pay money to see either of them in concert!

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