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New York Times doc on Janet Jackson's Super Bowl scandal leaves questions unanswered

Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson during their performance at the Super Bowl halftime show in 2004.
David Phillip
Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson during their performance at the Super Bowl halftime show in 2004.

The initial announcement sent ripples through the pop culture universe: The New York Times is developing a documentary on Janet Jackson's Super Bowl incident.

That's because the newspaper's documentary work for FX's The New York Times Presents series has been nothing short of spectacular. In particular, its two films on Britney Spears – Framing Britney Spears, released in February and Controlling Britney Spears, aired in September – are widely credited with jump-starting a public conversation which culminated in a judge ending the pop star's 13-year conservatorship just last week.

Those films had such impact, in part, because they pushed us all to reconsider how Spears was treated more than a decade ago by media outlets, standup comics, the music industry and even her friends and family in light of modern attitudes about misogyny and mental health.

But their new documentary, Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson, doesn't have quite the same impact – in part, because the film itself reveals a more complicated situation and fails to answer some basic questions.

Sorting through the Super Bowl controversy

It's centered on the massively explosive controversy kicked off when surprise guest Justin Timberlake ripped off a piece of Jackson's costume during their performance at the Super Bowl halftime show in 2004, briefly exposing one of her breasts.

The thesis of the film is summed up in its title: it contends Jackson was unfairly and inordinately punished for the "wardrobe malfunction," as it came to be known, while Timberlake, in particular, went on to win Grammy awards and continue his charmed show business life.

Hiding in plain sight, the film suggests, was how sexism and racism focused criticism on Jackson – given a helping hand by former CBS chairman and CEO Les Moonves, who took the whole scandal personally, since he had promised NFL officials the halftime show would be fit for family entertainment.

The documentary presents a former employee of the The Recording Academy saying Moonves, who stepped down from CBS in 2018 after several women made sexual harassment and assault allegations against him, insisted Jackson and Timberlake apologize at that year's Grammy awards. (Timberlake attended and apologized, but Jackson did not attend.) As the film shows, Jackson's eighth album Damita Jo, released a couple of months after the halftime show, floundered amid the controversy as MTV and VH1 seemed to avoid playing her videos.

Jenna Wortham, reporter for the New York Times, speaks during 'Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson.'
/ FX networks
FX networks
Jenna Wortham, reporter for the New York Times, speaks during 'Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson.'

"It didn't just happen to her...it rippled and touched all of us," says Jenna Wortham, a New York Times writer who spoke about identifying with Jackson as a Black woman. "I still don't understand how hard they came for Janet."

This isn't a new idea; Jackson's fans have complained for a long time that Timberlake paid a much smaller price than she did when their stunt went wrong in front of a massive TV audience.

But the film also implies that the idea for the stunt came from Jackson or one of her staff, quoting former MTV executive Salli Frattini, a senior vice president at MTV who worked on the halftime show. Frattini says Jackson left the stadium immediately after the incident and never really explained to CBS or MTV staff onsite what happened, though the star later issued several public apologies.

According to the film, people who worked on the halftime show recall watching a rehearsal with Timberlake where he pulled her skirt off, concluding it didn't work. MTV was producing the halftime show; with a roster of performers that included Nelly, Kid Rock and P. Diddy, the lineup had already spooked the NFL and the network, which made it clear they didn't want anything overly risqué to occur.

The film notes news reports implying Jackson's stylist may have purchased new wardrobe items, including a sunburst-shaped nipple shield, after the rehearsal. According to Frattini, Timberlake met with Jackson and her stylist privately for a few minutes before the performance and they did the show, where Jackson's naked breast and a sunburst nipple shield were exposed for an instant.

"I felt betrayed," Frattini adds during the film. "My instincts told me that there was a private conversation between wardrobe, stylist and artist, where someone thought this would be a good idea. And it backfired."

And while it is tragic to see how much criticism and backlash Jackson endured, the film never quite contends with the notion that this was a mess which may have originated with the singer herself, at a time when everyone involved knew that sexual content on TV was a hot-button issue with CBS, the NFL and the general public.

Key questions remain unanswered

One reason the word "implying" surfaces here, is that the film lacks original interviews with some primary characters: namely, Jackson, Timberlake and Moonves. They also didn't speak to the stylist who allegedly bought Jackson's new wardrobe items. (That stylist, Wayne Scot Lukas, told The New York Post in April that the stunt was Timberlake's idea, as a way to show up Britney Spears, Madonna and Christina Aguilera, who had kissed onstage at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards.)

As the film notes, the day after the halftime show, Jackson did issue a written apology, which said in part: "The decision to have a costume reveal at the end of my halftime show performance was made after final rehearsals...MTV was completely unaware of it. It was not my intention that it go as far as it did. I apologize to anyone offended — including the audience, MTV, CBS and the NFL." She issued a similar statement on video two days after the incident.

So, who actually came up with the idea? And did the stunt go off as planned, or was the intention only to reveal her bra, as Timberlake and Jackson's representatives later claimed? The film's inability to answer some of these basic questions definitively is disappointing and robs the program of some power.

The film documents how a deluge of media reaction focused on criticizing Jackson, sometimes referencing race and gender in dismissive, insulting ways. It also suggests another reason Timberlake survived the controversy because he apologized to Moonves in person and distanced himself from Jackson in his initial public statements, essentially allowing her to take the full brunt of the negative publicity.

Timberlake offered a vague apology on Instagram to both Spears and Jackson in February, admitting he "benefited from a system that condones misogyny and racism." Of course, a better apology might have been to say this in interviews for any of the New York Times documentaries on either artist. But the film also notes Timberlake and Jackson share the same publicist, indicating they must not be too cross with each other.

What the documentary does well, is explain how controversy over the incident – which Frattini admits happened so quickly she didn't initially notice it – was fueled in part by conservative activists who had been advocating stricter crackdowns on TV and radio content for years.

Back then, broadcast TV and radio outlets dominated the media landscape. The Federal Communications Commission had the power to fine broadcasters for presenting material it found to be indecent, and eventually tried to levy a $550,000 fine against CBS, which was eventually thrown out by an appeals court.

In modern times, with a media landscape dominated by streaming services, cable channels and online platforms not regulated by the FCC, it almost feels quaint to see a time when a flash of nudity drew such condemnation. Especially at a sporting event which features the violence of professional football and the sexiness of scantily-clad cheerleaders.

That may be the biggest reason why this documentary feels less impactful than other projects urging us to reconsider past scandals distorted by sexism and racism; unlike Spears' conservatorship, what happened to Jackson is not ongoing as the film airs.

She survived the scandal, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and has a two-night documentary of her own set to air on A&E and Lifetime early next year, promising to tell her life story her way. And the concern about conservative crackdowns on media content has been obliterated by the Internet.

Still, Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson serves as an important reminder of how differently the nation viewed sexual content on TV less than two decades ago, sparked by a high-profile stunt that pushed society's buttons in ways none of the performers seemed to anticipate.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.