Justin Timberlake at the halftime show: white privilege and patriarchy at its prime

The NFL is blatantly demonizing Janet Jackson for Timberlake’s 2004 halftime transgressions

By: Youeal Abera

On October 22, Justin Timberlake confirmed through a Tweet that he was indeed set to perform at the 52nd Super Bowl halftime show. Fans rejoiced; their idol was to perform on the world’s most prolific stage. Yet others began to discuss why this is an excellent display of white privilege and white patriarchy.

In 2004, Janet Jackson performed at that year’s halftime show. She welcomed Timberlake to the stage, he joined her performance, and towards the end, they both experienced what might be the most infamous incident the Super Bowl has ever witnessed. For the finale, Timberlake ripped leather fabric off of Jackson’s chest, but instead of the additional layer of clothing that was supposed to be revealed, Janet’s breast was exposed to the world. The incident was so big, it drove the Federal Communications Commission to implement a five-second delay for all future live televised events.

Following this shocking mishap, Jackson endured tremendous backlash. Radio stations around America refrained from playing her music. Her planned appearance at the Grammy awards the next day was terminated.

But Timberlake still performed at the Grammys, winning multiple awards. The male performer experienced an exponential growth in popularity after the incident. As opposed to facing any form of criticism for the wardrobe malfunction, Timberlake’s career reached new heights and he successfully avoided blame for an incident he inadvertently created.

Funnily enough, after the news of Timberlake performing at the 2018 halftime show evoked heavy criticism, an official spokesperson of the NFL issued a statement to Entertainment Weekly claiming that Jackson was not banned from the halftime show. However, according to Huffington Post, in 2014 a representative of the NFL, after being asked by TMZ Sports who was to perform at the next year’s show, replied by saying, “As for potential acts — we have only ruled out Janet Jackson.” (Interestingly, the original article by TMZ is no longer online.)

Therefore, it seems evident that Timberlake not only evaded any negativity from the wardrobe malfunction, but actually benefited from it. While Jackson was left to mass ridicule and career-threatening consequences, Timberlake never even admitted to any blame for exposing her breast. Now, as the NFL welcomes back Timberlake to perform at their celebrated halftime show, it proves that we still abide within a society that not only poses unjust and harsh double standards for females and their sexuality, but also demonizes and villainizes black bodies.

Timberlake removed the piece of fabric off of Janet’s breast. Although an accident, it was physically his doing that exposed Janet’s breast to the world. Despite this, Janet was shamed and her persona was deprecated while Timberlake was unanimously deemed ‘innocent’ and was perceived as the victim of a situation he essentially created.   

This incident exemplifies how males are often excused and women are mostly deplored when expressing their sexuality. It also projects a pristine image of how society will not just excuse, but defend and even reward, white folk for their controversial actions (no matter how visible they may be) while quickly vituperating black bodies for engaging in similar or less contentious activity.

The white privilege expressed through the NFL awarding Justin Timberlake the title of headline performer at the 52nd Super Bowl halftime show lives in the unsettling fact that the same incident that damned a woman of colour left Timberlake unscathed, thus blessing him with another opportunity to perform on the same stage that Janet was mocked, ridiculed, and belittled. The NFL should do better.