Examine Sexism On The Anniversary of Janet Jackson's Nip Slip
Don’t you hate it when a guy rips your dress and your breast falls out in front of over 90 million people for 9/16ths of of a second? Isn’t it the worst when that nipple becomes a symbol for a 12-year-long wave of oppression against the female nipple? I mean, I guess the silver nipple pasty lining is that the nip slip did lead to the creation of one of the biggest websites in the history of the Internet, right? If you haven’t figured out whose nipple we’re speaking of, then the most divisive and consequential nipple-based incident in all of television history may have been before your time—so let’s backtrack 12 years.
On a cold winter night on February 1st, 2004, buff men tackled each other in a homoerotic show of masculinity for football’s annual Super Bowl game. It was on that night that I learned no matter how many footballs these men threw for touchdowns or how loudly they grunted, the night would be remembered for one single breast. After a visibly nervous Justin Timberlake ripped off a piece of Janet Jackson’s costume during the halftime show like an anxious teenage boy touching a girl’s lower back for the first time, Jackson’s Nipplegate became the Eye of Sauron in the quest for censorship against female nipples in America. 12 years later, and female nipples are still policed more than a Wall Street executive who ruined the economy. Here’s why this nipple censorship matters.
In the immediate aftermath of the 2004 Super Bowl, a record-breaking 540,000 complaints poured into the FCC about Jackson’s nipple thanks to the rise of the Parents Television Council (PTC). The precursor group to today’s ridiculous One Million Moms group (whose actually membership count adds up to far less than a million), the PTC had been on the fringes of television censorship for nine years as they dedicated themselves to forcing advertisers, networks, and the FCC to keep sleaze out of family-friendly TV programming. The Nipplegate was PTC founder L. Brent Bozell’s silver bullet that he pointed directly at Jackson, MTV, and the entire country’s love for the sleaze. “An outraged public needs to make this backlash long and commercially painful,” he said, following the incident. Remember the “think of the children” woman on Spongebob Squarepants? He was the human embodiment of that.
As the dust settled and the pasties came off, Jackson’s invitation to that year’s Grammy Awards was rescinded, a pair of horny software engineers created a website called YouTube so it was easier to see the video (seriously), Jackson released an album, and the FCC bitchslapped CBS with a $550,000 fine—and that was just during the first year following the incident. Yet an even bigger issue has emerged since the Great Nipplegate Scandal of 2004. In the 12 years since, a fierce backlash against female nipples has become the norm in pop culture and on social media.
Over the years, shirtless males after shirtless males have paraded across television, movies, and computer, their blasphemous areolas coming and going without the slightest controversy. However the same can’t be said of nipples that are attached to female bodies. Pop culture and social media have intertwined and skyrocketed into the public consciousness in the decade after Nipplegate and it seems that the constant threat of more fines and backlash against female nipples have gotten in the way of fostering equality in self-expression. Interestingly, the years following the 2004 Nipplegate were fairly quiet on the nipple front. It was only after we creeped toward a new decade that a new wave of censorship began to dominate social media’s rise to prominence.
In 2008, Facebook made headlines for their ridiculous habit of taking down—and even blocking—images and profiles that showed women doing something so immoral and indecent that it could rupture the fabric of society forever. Their heinous action? Breast-feeding. The breast-feeding scandal was one of the first social media phenomena that targeted female boobs, but it would certainly not be the last. In the years that followed, the morality gods at Facebook, Instagram, and other social media websites have declared war on the nip and banned everything from plastic dolls and artwork with visible nipples, to Breast Cancer Awareness advertisements and centuries-old statues of the Little Mermaid.
It’s not all doom and gloom in Nippleville, USA, though. As social media giants and the FCC have struggled to hide the fact that women have nipples, a new wave of feminists to take on censorship and proudly bare their breasts in protest. Filmmaker and activist Lina Esco made waves in 2014 for her #FreeTheNipple campaign and subsequent film that documents women rising up to take a stand against censorship. Although her campaign has gained the support of everyone from Lena Dunham and Liv Tyler, to Cara Delevingne and Chelsea Handler, she maintained that it was—at breast—a fun film to engage in a new dialogue.
“It’s supposed to be fun and the whole purpose of the film and movement is to open a dialogue and change hearts and minds and inspire them too,” she told us last year. “It’s ridiculous that there are so many laws are against women’s bodies.”
So where is all this censorship coming from? It’s all rooted in history. “The initial politicization comes from a patriarchal and, frankly, pretty Catholic or Christian or Puritanical perspective that has this implication that the female nipple needs to be censored because there’s something wrong with it or taboo about it. Meanwhile, there’s not something wrong with the male nipple,” Micol Hebron explained last year after releasing the brilliant Internet Acceptable Male Nipple Template. The art piece famously used an image of a male nipple as a sticker for “indecent” photos of female nipples. Away from art and academia, there’s also Miley Cyrus. The entertainer and singer has become synonymous with showing off what nature gave her. From the VMAs to the iHeart Radio Musical Festival and every performance, video, and social media post in between, she’s been fighting for nipple freedom for years.
As we enter into our 12th year since Janet Jackson’s infamous Nipplegate controversy, it’s important to remember that the repercussions of an exposed areola for 9/16 of a second have sent us into a backwards and sexist struggle for equality. It’s essential to remember that a woman’s nipple is not pornographic by default. We had the power to sexualize it and, therefore, we all have the power to desexualize it.
Stay tuned to Milk for more #FreeTheNipple.
Original imagery by Kathryn Chadason. Addition images via Micol Hebron, Free the Nipple, and Getty.