The injustice done to Janet Jackson isn’t only in the past – new film “Malfunction” also falls short

“Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson” comes before us loaded with irrational expectations. Black women can relate. Audiences of all types can be prepared to match the quality and accuracy of the earlier “New York Times Presents” entries “Framing Britney Spears” and its follow-up “Controlling Britney Spears,” which they do not.

Fans can expect it to reignite conversations around the disproportionate level of contempt Jackson faced in the wake of the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show debacle compared to Justin Timberlake, the man who made a mistake with his costar’s chest. on national television.

Maybe it will, but in a more limited capacity than “Framed” inspired its audience.

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It probably goes without saying that Timberlake’s image won’t be substantially affected by him either, though he took advantage of the publicity the incident generated by jokingly at first, only to throw Jackson under the bus when politics heated up. .

But just guess what level of business “Malfunction” might not be enough. What it shows us, what it leaves out and the important opportunities it misses are more worrying, so this hour disappoints more than it illuminates or activates the viewer.

If the purpose of “Malfunction” was to remind us that the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, which was produced by MTV, was a terrible thing that happened to Jackson, we would have few notes, mainly because we wouldn’t care. This is how most people remember the incident almost 17 years later, as an event that generated extreme overreaction and fueled thousands of cable news and tabloid shots that eventually died out.

At the time, it felt like an areola bomb exploding, showering the FCC with a record 540,000 complaints. CBS would be slapped with a massive $ 550,000 indecency fine that was dismissed by a federal appeals court four years later. Sales of Jackson’s 2004 release “Damita Jo” plummeted.

The world advanced and Timberlake ascended. Only recently have people started listening to those who have pointed out that the white pop singer did it at Jackson’s expense. . . and Spears.

But the title is intended to do much more than simply commemorate that halftime debacle, and plants its thesis in establishing the “locker room malfunction” that generates headlines as the opportunity that conservatives were seeking to enact stricter censorship regulations on broadcasts. . Jackson, a black superstar and member of a musical family dynasty led by his brother Michael, was a brilliant scapegoat.

He grew up in front of “Good Times” and “Fame” viewers, establishing himself as a healthy figure before breaking free from his father Joe’s management and publicly embracing his sexuality. Her 1986 album “Control” and her 1989 follow-up “Rhythm Nation 1814” swept her profile into the stratosphere, making her one of America’s biggest stars.

Jackson began starring in movies and became MTV video royalty in the ’90s and early Aughts, and he probably would have kept some of his momentum if Timberlake hadn’t exposed his chest for nineteen-sixteenths of a second.

“Malfunction” producer Jodi Gomes, who previously produced the 2009 miniseries “The Jacksons: A Family Dynasty,” devotes nearly half of the documentary’s more than one hour running time to her career as the path to the moment. known colloquially as “Nipplegate”. assuming viewers don’t know Jackson’s biography as much as they should.

But all of that is widely available, along with its impressive catalog of music. What is missing, and what we should hear in this exam, is the subject’s voice.

Jackson and Timberlake declined to be interviewed (and they happen to share the same publicist), which is typical of a project like this. Spears also did not appear in the FX / New York Times documentaries about her. However, there was a sense that someone was representing Spears’ point of view, in addition to journalists called in to analyze the significance of the incident.

Jackson has no such champion, but there are plenty of parties ready to blame her once again, including several network executives in charge of producing the halftime show or, God help us, Parent Television and Media Council President Tim. Winter, who hyperbolically opens the show. hour with “If the culture wars could have a September 11, it is February 1, 2004.”

There were no casualties for inadvertently stripping Jackson’s nipple. Thinking about it, most people actually had to rewind their VCRs and freeze the moment to blur. Even with that effort, the detail was obscured by the jewelry she was wearing.

However, former MTV Senior Vice President Salli Frattini reflects extensively on her hurt feelings, while the person whose career suffered the most serious damage is absent.


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And it’s just amazing that Frattini expresses his instincts that “there was a private conversation between the wardrobe, the stylist, and the artist in which someone thought this would be a good idea, and it backfired,” with no comment from Jackson’s stylist to refute or shed light on this. .

Wayne Scot Lukas, the former “What Not to Wear” host who designed Jackson’s fashion at the Super Bowl, isn’t particularly hard to find. He has recently taken part in the event on Page Six, although his account of who was responsible for the stunt was later contradicted by the Timberlake team.

Even if Gomes and the NYT production team didn’t use her accusation, certainly Lukas or anyone else close to Jackson could have offered insight into what happened or responded to the multiple hints that she didn’t apologize quickly enough or, just enough.

Ultimately, “Malfunction” focuses on pointing out the racial and misogynistic implications of Timberlake’s rise at Jackson’s expense, while also pointing the finger at the revenge of former CBS top executive Les Moonves to explain Jackson’s inclusion. blacklisted.

But that doesn’t tell us much that we don’t already know. Moonves’ reputation as a predator who ruined women’s careers is established, but when he was kicked out of CBS, he had still amassed a multi-million dollar fortune. Timberlake became a movie star and hitmaker who was even invited to return to the Super Bowl in 2018 as the headliner.

A white man helped crush this black woman’s reputation and another was freed from her pain. If you disagree with that observation, remember that a third party, Kid Rock, desecrated the American flag at that same Super Bowl performance. He continued to receive an invitation to the White House.

“Malfunction” incorporates analysis of the intolerance and misogyny at play here, relying primarily on journalists Jenna Wortham and Toure to cover that angle using the broadest references to the history of the dehumanization of black bodies. They are right about that, but this also speaks to an aspect of Jackson’s story that remains frustratingly unaddressed here and evokes what is currently unfolding in our political landscape.

Black women tend to be the canaries in the coal mine of liberty and its setbacks, and the punishments that the right wing persuades the mainstream to inflict on black women like a boomerang on everyone, including whites.

We see this with the right wing smear campaign against Nikole Hannah-Jones and efforts to ban his Pulitzer Prize winning work “The 1619 Project”. We are seeing it happen with the recognition of the legacy of Toni Morrison, especially her novel “Beloved.”

“Malfunction” only mentions in passing that after all the jokes died down, the decency squads’ first big victim was none other than Howard Stern. What happened to Jackson is terrible, meaningful to his fans, and familiar to black women. But the general audience doesn’t have a history of caring about a black woman’s problems until the forces that destroy her splash a white person they like.

This doesn’t apply to Timberlake, mind you, who apologized to Jackson and Spears in February after “Framing Britney Spears” took off and his past behavior came back to haunt him. “… I care and respect these women and I know that I failed,” he says in an Instagram post. “I also feel compelled to respond, in part, because everyone involved deserves better and, more importantly, because this is a larger conversation that I wholeheartedly want to be a part of and grow in.”

You will have that opportunity because that is how the United States works. All you have to do is withdraw from the limelight and wait for our recurring bout of amnesia to kick in.

But Jackson’s absence from the limelight is finally ending, as it should have years ago. We have long embraced his heirs, including Lizzo, Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion and Beyoncé.

Since joining the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2019, he has been building the process of reclaiming his rightful place in the pop firmament. People haven’t forgotten about Jackson, after all. But you can share Wortham’s bewilderment. “I still don’t understand how hard they were on Janet,” he says.

Watching “Malfunction” doesn’t change that, but maybe the two-part, four-hour documentary that Jackson is making for A&E and Lifetime does. That debuts in January 2022.

The New York Times presents “Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson” now airs on FX on Hulu.

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