As Justin Timberlake sang “Rock Your Body” on Sunday, headlining this year’s Super Bowl halftime show, it was impossible not to recall the last time he performed the early-aughts hit in a football stadium, sharing the Super Bowl stage with Janet Jackson 14 years ago. The show went down in history for the incident that became known as #nipplegate—when Timberlake tore Jackson’s shirt, exposing her right breast to 140 million viewers.
But the real controversy is what followed: The stunt gone wrong derailed Jackson’s career while rolling off Timberlake’s shoulders. So this weekend, the public did not take kindly to Timberlake’s cavalier flashback to that fateful number. Twitter users labeled the singer’s stunt as “disgusting” and “classless,” demanding that he issue a public apology to Jackson, while The Washington Post questioned whether it was “smart to poke fun, even briefly, at the situation,” and TIME criticized the performance for “brazenly using the spotlight to call to mind an incident that had ruined the livelihood of someone other than himself.”
While it’s vindicating to see Jackson’s downfall acknowledged not only as unfair but also in part as Timberlake’s fault, this reckoning sweeps something big under the rug: The role each of us played in her public boycott. Yes, Jackson deserves an apology—not just from Timberlake but from all of us.
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Let’s not forget that the same media outlets that criticize Timberlake today minimized his involvement in 2004, while painting Jackson as a modern Jezebel who premeditated the situation for public attention. Timberlake was permitted to attend the Grammys following the post-#nipplegate outcry, while Jackson was uninvited from both hosting and attending the ceremony. The Federal Communications Commission’s chairman callously claimed Jackson “probably got what she was looking for." Meanwhile, the public nodded along, buying tabloids that slut-shamed her and listening to the networks that blacklisted her tracks while broadcasting Timberlake’s hits. In the months that followed Super Bowl 2004, Jackson released her eighth album, Damita Jo. The response was lukewarm at best, most of the attention focused on her indecent exposure rather than her music.
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Jackson is not the only pop queen who caught flak for a scandal that left Timberlake unscathed. His highly publicized breakup with Britney Spears is considered to have helped dismantle her reputation. For the uninformed, Spears and Timberlake were America’s sweetheart couple until they split in 2002, after Spears was accused of cheating. Although recent media coverage seems to place partial blame on Timberlake for Spears's character assassination, this topical awakening hardly makes up for the years of toxic public scrutiny Spears endured in the 2000s.
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Post-breakup, Timberlake was painted as a victim in media interviews while disclosing intimate details about his sex life with Spears. But that’s as much on the journalists who covered their uncoupling: Spears was hardly asked about her side of the story. This stark contrast was perhaps best demonstrated by two US Weekly covers released a week apart, one labeling Spears as a betrayer and other painting Timberlake as the strong, solo, “sexy” artist, rising from the ashes. Then came Timberlake’s infamous Britney diss track "Cry Me a River" that brought his album into the limelight.
While Timberlake may have injured Spears’s reputation during their breakup, it was the public and media that dragged her through the mud. Following Spears’s divorce from back-up dancer Kevin Federline, she suffered a series of well-documented public meltdowns. After being scorned for shaving her head and losing custody of her children to Federline, Forbes ran a story calling her a “bald-headed problem parent.” Meanwhile, Star boasted Spears’s weight gain on its cover, claiming the star had hit “rock bottom.” When she received help within the confines of treatment centers, US Weekly ran a cover featuring the singer with one single headline: “SICK!” In one instance, Spears was found crying on the pavement in the middle of the night after a fight with her then boyfriend. The Associated Press was reported to have presumed the situation was so bad that they started working on her obituary.
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Attitudes toward women battling mental health have historically been remarkably unforgiving. Lindsay Lohan and Amy Winehouse were similarly scapegoated while struggling with mental illness. Today, we are making small strides to reverse that. That's thanks in part to the willingness of public figures to speak up about stigmatized issues—Demi Lovato is providing mental health counseling for her fans on tour—and in part to the public's increasing support of their candor. Women whose bodies have been on display, whether intentionally or not, have been dealt similar scarlet letters. That too is beginning to change though movements like #MeToo and Time's Up.
There's no doubt that the voices demanding an apology from Timberlake are overdue signs of progress. But it’s time we recognize that Timberlake was not alone in destroying Spears’s or Jackson’s, or countless other women's, reputations. He is a manifestation of a culture that crucifies women for their humanity while applauding men for theirs.
So yes, Janet and Britney deserve an apology—and it needs to come from all of us.