Format: I saw it on TV, but I believe they're trying to get you to watch it on Hulu
Director: Jodi Gomes
I was flipping channels and somehow caught what I thought was someone's rushed attempt to get in front of the "coming to Hulu" documentary by the New York Times about the fateful Super Bowl performance in which Justin Timberlake removed an item from Janet Jackson's wardrobe, exposing her breast on TV for a blink-and-you-miss-it moment. But, no, it was the actual doc.
I am not sure that Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson (2021) is the final word on the incident. I think it has a lot to say that I think is worth reflecting on, but at the center of the doc are a few gigantic questions it won't/ can't answer, and I am unsure some of the arguments are fully explored. What the doc manages to do is paint the most complete picture of the Super Bowl incident and the fallout, giving detail I'd not heard, following the incident's years-long legacy. But I can't quite sort what the doc is trying to say. Nor am I sure revisiting the incident is as compelling as cultural conversation as we'll treat it for a few weeks here.
The doc spends quite a bit of time contextualizing Janet Jackson, but the picture of Janet Jackson from Rhythm Nation and up to the Super Bowl as a perceived threat as she found sexuality in her lyrics and performances feels... disingenuous. She was not a controversial figure even when she moved to more mature themes in the early 1990's (she was a grown ass woman, we were all fine with it). The culture did not spend the prior 10 years before the Super Bowl pearl clutching, and Black sexuality in performance was a horse that had left the barn if I remember my MTV from late high school. So it feels like a strawman argument being made about how the culture wars were targeting Jackson or looking for her to fail.
Circa 1993 a lot of female musicians were in that conversation - but not Jackson. I liked that Rolling Stone cover, too, but no one was covering their children's eyes at the newsstands. The 90's were not the 2020's. Heck, that same year, Blind Melon - the entire band - posed nude on the cover. (the 90's were a TIME, man). Nudity on the cover of Rolling Stone is kind of a thing. The conversation is further muddled by Jackson's 2006 Vibe cover.
What the doc doesn't do - flat out - which seems like the primary reason one would go back in and look at this subject - is explain to the viewer what happened that led to the "wardrobe malfunction". We can guess, but the details shared around the event make everyone involved - including Ms. Jackson* - look irresponsible.
Had the term "wardrobe malfunction" not made its way into the parlance via the next-day reports, and now be used as both a legitimate explanation and a punchline, I don't know if we'd still be talking about this at all.
But. The doc is working very hard to tell a completely different story about cultural forces at work. And this is one of those times where I have to hold multiple ideas in my head.
The scholarly, sociological view that the doc is interested in pursuing is that of America's challenges with the bodies of Black people - and I am not here to disagree that that is a legitimate point of discussion, writ large. Including Janet Jackson. I am sure, as a famous person, some terrible things were said about her from time to time, but the doc has more evidence that her own family were dicks to her than the press in the years before the incident. After the incident is another matter, but it's not clear that Jackson being Black was the driving force in the fallout - but a contributing factor.
And, yes, absolutely, some organizations and individuals leapt at the incident as an opportunity to advance their own agendas, exploiting and distorting the incident. I found it odd that the doc didn't mention that 2004 was also really in the first few years of multiple channels of cable news with 24 hour cycles, and anything that wasn't our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and which easily digestible fodder where the networks could kill 30 minutes letting any idiot with something to say fill time was suddenly a fact. Thus, the barrage of media clips the NYT pulls to make the conversation seem ubiquitous... wasn't. Not the way the doc suggests (which is like people were running mad in the streets).
No matter how many hand-wringing dopes were waiting for a chance to share their supposed outrage on TV, they didn't choreograph the number, nor miscalculate Timberlake's overzealous grabbing. And I am not sure, had it been Madonna or Britney Spears - the reaction would have been much different from those organizations or the 24 hour news cycle (frankly, they probably already would have had something ready to go as a press release about Britney or Madonna with a Mad Libs of perceived perversions). Nor is it obvious that the reaction would have been much different for literally any famous woman. It's hard to measure how much race played a part, but the doc's insistence that it was a huge part - I'm not sure. Literally.
I know that's anathema to good lefty-ness, but watch-dog groups can be equal opportunity dickwads.
The cultural conversation seemed much more interested in "how does that even happen?" than it was specifically about Jackson and Timberlake. The crocodile tears about a half-second of TV was bullshit then, and the doc lets one of the watchdogs overplay his hand talking about how good it was for building his org. The water cooler conversation was much more about the "but what were they TRYING to do? and WHY?" - which the doc never answers.
Because that's the literal conversation I remember on Monday after the fact. I don't remember anyone thinking the slip was intentional as the look on Jackson's face was clearly one of surprise and horror, which were published all over the internet for a week after.
What the doc does do is check in with the actual crew working the show. And it's pretty clear - none of them knew this was coming. And, hey, wouldn't you know it - the incident damaged and ruined a lot of careers. Maybe rightfully so, but also - maybe (probably) not. But the doc doesn't ever consider: cultural storyline on pause - these people's careers and lives were collateral damage of the decision made on Super Bowl Sunday without consultation with the people running the program. They mention people's careers and lives were thrown into turmoil, but because it's not the story of the doc - we don't find out how many people were destroyed by someone else's decision.
We do get the deeply supported idea that Les Moonves is a ranting dick, and that he was stupid and petty about all of it, and that certainly he then had an impact on Jackson's career, which never quite recovered (and by the time of the Super Bowl was already was trying to return to what it had been in Fall of 1993 when I arrived at college). Moonves' MeToo issues and subsequent removal from CBS are treated as karmic comeuppance, but it *is* relevant to his rage at a woman embarrassing him and his over-the-top response.
And, yes, some pockets of the media said some stupid and shameful things about Jackson at the time (and that's not bad to show), and, yes, the entire affair was blown up into congressional hearings, and that was... stupid. But.
The doc seems to want to take down Timberlake for (a) being a dumb-ass in his younger days (fair enough. Seems like a jackass) and (b) essentially walking after the incident while Jackson received damage. But... and the doc bears this out and seems at odds with itself: Timberlake (likely his people) quickly realized what was happening, and issued apologies and kissed rings.
The doc treats this as the wrong move. And seems to support Jackson's disappearance in the time following the incident as important mental health days. But all evidence the doc itself shows suggests: that was a bad decision for Jackson and may have indirectly led to those congressional hearings and people losing jobs.
I don't know. The doc feels incomplete and overstuffed at the same time. The portrait painted is just one absolutely monstrous bad decision after another, and the cluster-fuck of fall-out exacerbated by corporate politics, actual politics and a media machine in need of content. But I'm not sure I'm as onboard when the doc keeps floating the idea "is society is to blame? Does that work?" Because... yes, we know society is terrible. But it also didn't decide on a change-up to a dance routine that was to be seen in front of a billion people.
Anyway, the dumbest decision of that whole thing was really letting MTV do the halftime show and putting Kid Rock out there. Had the wardrobe malfunction not occurred, we would have been having a national conversation about not wearing the flag as a poncho and may have been rid of Kid Rock once and for all.
*for the purposes of this post, I am a Nasty Boy