Clarification: An updated version of this story includes additional context regarding the aftermath of the 2004 Super Bowl, and Spears and Timberlake’s relationship.
The image appeared for less than a second. But that’s all it took to have a disproportionate impact on one woman’s career.
Seventeen years ago this past weekend, with nearly 144 million people watching, Justin Timberlake reached across Janet Jackson’s chest and ripped off part of her top, exposing her breast on live TV during the now-infamous 2004 Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show. In subsequent interviews, Jackson said that the move was planned, but that Timberlake inadvertently ripped off more fabric than was intended.
For Jackson, the blowback was swift; officials and network executives hurried to distance themselves from what was almost immediately described as a “wardrobe malfunction.” As was later reported, then-CBS chairman Les Moonves, who has been accused of sexual misconduct, was “obsessed” with derailing Jackson’s career in the aftermath. She was banned from the Grammys, which took place the following week. Jackson’s decades-long career took a hit.
In a 2006 interview with MTV, Timberlake said of the conseqences, “If you consider it 50-50, then I probably got 10 percent of the blame.” Today, he’s one of the world’s best-selling musical artists and has won 10 Grammy Awards; he’s also had a successful acting career, starring in films such as “The Social Network” and “Bad Teacher.”
With this year’s Super Bowl coinciding with the Feb. 5 premiere of “Framing Britney Spears,” the sixth installment of FX and Hulu’s “The New York Times Presents,” which delves into the conservatorship of Britney Spears, women who were in their teens and twenties during the early 2000s took to social media to discuss Timberlake’s role in both women’s downfalls. Many of the posts decried Timberlake’s actions in the aftermath of his and Spears’s split; others bore the hashtag #JanetJacksonAppreciationDay.
“When you think about it and delve a little deeper, there is this huge connection there between Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears and the situation at the Super Bowl,” said Emerald Christopher-Byrd, an assistant professor of women and gender studies at the University of Delaware. “A White man can go pretty much unscathed, unblemished, and still have his career take off, basically on the backs of these two women.”
The heart of the issue, many say, lies in the sexualization of high-profile women — and the double standard for their male counterparts.
“What I always thought, even at the time, even though I didn’t have the words that I have right now, was just how (the era) had a tendency to sexualize women, especially in pop,” Christopher-Byrd said. “Not to say other genres didn’t do that, but between Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears — I think we remember the schoolgirl outfit, the snake — it wasn’t until later when I realized just how young she was at the time and the fact that it was considered acceptable and normal to sexualize young girls.”
Indeed, “Framing Britney Spears” delves deeply into the “good girl persona” that Spears was expected to live up to in the early 2000s. Teenage pop stars, including Spears, were asked about their virginity, with speculation and innuendos splashed across the tabloids.
As author Jill Filipovic explained, purity culture had taken hold, particularly for young female entertainers coming of age in the spotlight. But their sexualization was also always omnipresent — either via the way they were portrayed in photo shoots and music videos, or by how society talked about them (e.g., the countdown to when Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen turned 18, and thereby “legal”). That forced sexualization is unique to women in a way men rarely experience, Filipovic said.
“There’s so much overt, pretty disgusting sexualization that happens to these girls that doesn’t really happen to boys the same age,” Filipovic continued. “Then there’s really reactionary hand-wringing, not just of the sexualization part, which I think is a problem, but of those girls themselves displaying any kind of adult sexual identity.”
For boys, meanwhile, things are “relatively harmless.” Timberlake, for example, was also in the Mickey Mouse Club with Spears. He rocketed to fame as a member of the boy band ‘N Sync, but as he came of age, he “is sort of a sexual agent in his own right, we see him being allowed to take control of his narrative as a sexual person,” Filipovic said. “We don’t see it being put on him the way it was put on these girls, and we certainly don’t see as much anxiety when he takes the lead on his own sexuality.”
When Spears and Timberlake split in 2002, rumors of Spears’s infidelity were fueled in part by Timberlake’s first solo album release, “Justified.” The album’s first single, “Like I Love You,” peaked at No. 14 on the Billboard charts. Then he released “Cry Me a River,” a song about someone scorned by their cheating partner. The music video starred Timberlake and a woman who bore an uncanny resemblance to Spears. The song shot to No. 1.
Christopher-Byrd, who grew up watching both Spears and Timberlake as preteens in the Mickey Mouse Club, said she vividly remembers when Spears and Timberlake broke up. She recalls thinking, “Well, Britney Spears did something wrong, and he’s just calling it out in his music.”
The song “really catapulted him into that individual recognition and someone who could perform in his own right outside of his band,” said Marcie Bianco, who is writing a book on feminist ethics and accountability.
“So much of that video, when you reflect back on it, is about revenge and that he cast a woman who looks like Britney Spears,” Bianco continued. “The fact that he’s able to profit off of these women over decades, multiple decades, is because he has never been held accountable.”
As “Framing Britney Spears” puts on display, Spears, meanwhile, was ripped apart by tabloids and harassed by paparazzi, igniting a spiral downward that would make headline after headline. Diane Sawyer has been criticized in light of the documentary for a 2003 “Primetime” interview in which she grilled Spears about the breakup.
It’s clear that the conversation around the gulf between women’s and men’s success has shifted in recent years, but for many experts, it remains to be seen whether those conversations will have consequences.
“I think with the Me Too movement, the Time’s Up movement, and more of a focus on sexual assault, violence and misconduct, I do think perhaps the conversations around Janet Jackson today would be very different than what they were previously, but that’s still not to say she wouldn’t have some repercussions,” Christopher-Byrd said.
Bianco, meanwhile, said that men “continue to profit off women’s bodies” because “they’ve created the system in which they operate.”
“It varies depending on the race of that man, the wealth of that man,” she continued. “Unfortunately, the past has created enough evidence for us to have these discussions. … [But] do I think the conversations are different in terms of the consequences as a result? No.”
Timberlake returned to the halftime show in 2018. Jackson hasn’t been back.