The ongoing cultural project of re-evaluating past scandals and controversies through the clarifying lens of our post-#MeToo sensibilities has been both noble and, in many cases, effective. In September, after years of rumors about his sexual abuse of underage girls, R. Kelly was found guilty of sex trafficking and sexual exploitation of a child, among numerous other crimes. In February, HBO’s four-part documentary Allen v. Farrow shed new light on Dylan Farrow’s nearly 30-year-old claim that her adopted father Woody Allen had sexually abused her as a child. Most recently, a Los Angeles judge ended the conservatorship that has controlled Britney Spears’s life for the past 14 years.
The not particularly reassuring reality is that it seems unlikely that the tide would have turned in these cases if it weren’t for the various documentaries made about the rich and famous people at the center of them. On the one hand, that’s what the media, at its best, is for: exposing injustice so that it can no longer be ignored. On the other, if people like Spears and Mia Farrow couldn’t get justice for themselves and their families without the help of documentarians, what hope is there for the rest of us? And then there’s the added irony that the very media infrastructure now engaged in this noble reconsideration is essentially the same one that hounded women like Spears and protected men like Allen and Kelly.
Still, there is edification to be had in these matters, and the latest imbroglio up for review is the sad case of Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake’s calamitous 2004 Super Bowl halftime show. Calamitous for her, that is, which is the essential thesis of FX/Hulu’s latest New York Times Presents documentary Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson. The doc doesn’t necessarily reveal any groundbreaking new details about the infamous “wardrobe malfunction” that exposed Jackson’s breast on broadcast television of mere seconds. What it does most effectively is contextualize the outrage that even at the time seemed so out of proportion to the actual event.
Director Jodi Gomes spends considerable time setting the scene: Jackson’s rise to fame, her mid-’90s pivot to more sexually frank material; the growing conservative panic around sexually explicit content in music and on TV. It’s ironic, then, that leading up to the 2004 Super Bowl, Jackson was actually the least controversial halftime show performer. The show, which was produced by MTV, included appearances by Nelly, P. Diddy and Kid Rock, all of whom had the NFL extremely stressed. The owner of the Houston Texans reportedly wrote a letter expressing his concern.
Malfunction doesn’t deviate from what is already widely known about “Nipplegate.” Neither Timberlake nor Jackson participated in the doc, so the story we get is essentially MTV’s version of events—one that Jackson also confirmed in one of her apologies after the fact. After the show had been meticulously vetted, after wardrobe had been approved, Jackson and her team devised something to punctuate the finale, unbeknownst to MTV or the NFL. They shared the new plan with Timberlake moments before the show, again without anyone from MTV of the NFL present. It remains unclear what exactly was supposed to happen. (Timberlake was originally supposed to rip off Jackson’s skirt at the end of the performance, on the line “gotta have you naked by the end of this song.” This was nixed at final dress rehearsal earlier in the week.) Though by all accounts Jackson herself was involved in planning of the stunt, it’s worth pausing to think about the fact that these images of a man ripping the clothes off of a woman’s body were even considered back then.
The documentary’s accounts of Jackson leaving the stage in tears and immediately fleeing the arena are devastating—even more so considering MTV’s former senior VP Salli Frattini’s callous framing of the situation. “If she had been there, in retrospect, to sort of take the heat…She never said anything to us.” On Timberlake, who did not have his clothing torn off on national television, Frattini’s tune is markedly different: “He was very apologetic. He manned-up.” Frattini’s recollections have the queasy ring of someone blaming a victim for fleeing the scene of trauma. Of course, as we all know, this was a pattern in the aftermath of the incident: Janet was blamed, Justin was let off the hook. Janet’s statements were viewed as insufficient; Justin’s plethora of comments and apologies were nearly universally accepted. According to New York Times reporter Rachel Abrams, then CBS CEO Les Moonves wanted in-person apologies from both Jackson and Timberlake. Justin reportedly complied; Janet didn’t—and incurred Moonves’s wrath. The now disgraced mogul reportedly went so far as to try to get Jackson to pay CBS’s historic FCC fines.
What followed, in hindsight, was essentially a cancellation—but by people in power, all of them white men, rather than the public. While Timberlake’s career continued to thrive, Jackson’s flagged. It wasn’t until he was invited to once again headline the 2018 Super Bowl halftime show that calls to rethink the way Jackson was treated reached a critical mass online. The sense of injustice that many Janet Jackson fans had always felt finally grabbed the attention of the media, resulting not only in her 2019 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but also in this very documentary.
What Malfunction does best is put all the pieces together, confirming that nagging, diffuse sense that someone was wronged here. It’s worth thinking about what happened to Janet Jackson not only in the context of the turn-of-the-millennium culture wars, but also in contrast to so-called “cancel culture.” For so long, men like Moonves—who has been accused of sexual assault and harassment—were the ones with the power to stymie the careers of anyone who crossed them. It’s only recently that the public has been empowered by social media—for better or worse—to demand accountability, and along with that, justice for women like Janet Jackson.