Was Janet really the Super Bowl's most naked offender? In a show that glorified women-as-objects, the pop star's exhibitionism wasn't all that surprising, says Mark Harris

By Mark Harris
Updated February 04, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST
Credit: Janet Jackson Illustration by Robert Risko

Was Janet really the Super Bowl’s most naked offender?

On Super Bowl Sunday, millions of American children lost their innocence, and we’re still reeling. They — all of us, really — tuned in to CBS to celebrate what a recent Gallup poll affirmed is our country’s favorite sport. What we expected — and what we got — were, for the most part, the usual simple pleasures of the day: Cheerleaders shaking their tails, erectile dysfunction ads, Nelly grabbing his crotch, a horse farting in a woman’s face in an attempt to sell beer.

And then Janet Jackson had to go and vulgarize everything.

There is nothing more embarrassing to behold — not even a marching band playing an OutKast song while trying to dance, keep their plumed hats balanced, and not drop their tubas — than a pair of multibillion-dollar behemoths attempting to simulate outrage while fanning themselves and rearranging their petticoats. Was Janet’s breast filled with plutonium? Because nothing else could explain the umbrage taken by both the NFL and Viacom, which owns CBS as well as the halftime show’s producer, MTV. CBS chief Les Moonves promised an investigation (in a stunner, the network found itself not guilty), and NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue let his rhetorical sails billow with indignation, reportedly vowing to change ”our policies, our people, and our processes.” From all the self-righteous fury, you’d have thought Enron execs had been caught feeding steroids to Michael Jackson’s baby.

As if they cared. There’s no disputing that Justin Timberlake’s final bodice-rip, preceded by the hilarious lyric ”No disrespect, I don’t mean no harm,” was coarse, stupid, and sexist — and let’s leave to others a closer analysis of the racial implications of a white man ripping off a black woman’s top before a cheering crowd. The question is, how is it humanly possible even to feign surprise at this? The NFL’s track record in contributing to the glorification of the American woman consists of the fine 1981 TV movie ”The Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders on Gilligan’s Island” and, after that, our memory gets a little fuzzy.

As for MTV and women…well, were you watching? ”I got girls that can cook, girls that can clean, I got girls that can do anything in between,” sang Kid Rock after tossing off his American-flag poncho a few minutes earlier. You won’t hear about an FCC investigation of that lyric, because thudding literal-mindedness — ”I saw a boob!” — makes a safer starting point for manufacturing a show of outrage. One exposed breast is something you can count, and therefore a place from which FCC chairman Michael Powell can launch ”an immediate investigation.” But the astounding miasma of contempt for women that hung in the air throughout the show — well, that’s just the way things are.

Of all the hypocrisies being vented this week, the biggest has to be that Janet Jackson’s breast marks a battleground between the old-school NFL ethos and scary new MTV culture. You only had to watch Nelly and P. Diddy preen across the stage of the halftime show, surrounded by vacant-looking semi-strippers in a demonstration that the reward for being a playa (or a player) is a gaggle of adoring, use-and-toss women, to realize that the NFL and MTV are selling the exact same idea, give or take an inch or two of fabric. If we’re going to have a national conversation about ”indecency,” that’s a better place to start.