Tuned In

Nipplegate at 10: A Flash — and a Flash in the Pan

Decency crusaders thought it would be a pop-culture 9/11. But if the Janet Jackson incident changed anything, it was the belief that one controversy could turn back the cultural clock.

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Getty Images / Getty Images

Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" in full effect at Super Bowl XXXVIII.

A confession: I watched the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show on Feb. 1, 2004, and I did not notice Janet Jackson’s nipple.

I don’t remember why. Maybe I was looking down, typing notes on my laptop (this was a year before I started Tuned In, but I usually reviewed the Big Game-cast for TIME.com). Maybe I saw Justin Timberlake rip a patch from Jackson’s outfit, assumed she was wearing some type of sheer bodysuit, and thought nothing more of it. (I wouldn’t have HDTV for two more years.) Maybe I blinked. But not until chatter started popping up on blogs later—this was years before Twitter, three days before the founding of Facebook—did I go back to my TiVo recording, rewind, slow-mo, and—oh, yeah! There.

I say all this not to excuse my own cluelessness, but to emphasize something that, 10 years after the world learned the phrase “wardrobe malfunction,” we tend to forget: it was really, really fast. It clocks in at 9/16 of a second. Over the last decade, we’ve seen a lot of close-up stageside photos, slo-mo replays, enlargements scrutinized like the Zapruder film. It’s become pop-cultural legend. So people could be excused for remembering it, in hindsight, as if the camera zoomed in, Reliant Stadium fell silent, and Timberlake boomed: “Gaze upon this flesh, America! See what decades of moral permissiveness hath wrought! Behold your doom!”

In truth, there was just not that much nipple. In the actual CBS broadcast (you can watch it right here) Timberlake and Jackson are shot from the middle distance. He rips; there’s a breast—is it covered? isn’t it?—and the presumably panicked director’s booth instantly cuts to a pyrotechnic explosion. If your eyes can discern, even on replay, Jackson’s sunburst-shaped “nipple shield,” much less the fraction of areola beneath it, you have been eating your carrots, my friend.

Over that, America went absolutely nuts. And—even though I later wrote a cover story for TIME about the ridiculously excessive reaction—it was not totally without cause. It was not so much about a nip slip as the idea that CBS slipped it into 90 million viewers’ living rooms uninvited. It became a flashpoint (as it were) for people who had no problem with sex in sexy movies, with nudity in obviously adult shows like HBO’s, but who were tired of vulgarity busting out where they weren’t expecting—on billboards, in sportscasts, in airplane in-flight movies. A prime example being, well, the Super Bowl, which that year included commercials that featured a woman being farted on by a horse and another getting hit on by a monkey. (It’s worth noting that everybody devoted a lot more breath back then to a woman’s breast being bared than the way it was exposed—a man reaching across and ripping off half her bustier in essentially a choreographed sexual assault. “Gonna have you naked by the end of this song” were the lyrics Timberlake had just finished singing.)

Nipplegate was a big deal because it was so widely seen and extreme—actual blatant nudity on one of the few mass-audience broadcasts that still exists. But it was therefore also a relative fluke. It stayed a big deal, though, because of advocates who saw it as an opportunity to clean up the rest of the culture.

The moment seemed right. In winter 2004, President George W. Bush was well into his first term, an evangelical Christian presiding over the kind of pre-Tea Party, big-government conservatism that suggested to “decency” advocates an opportunity to bring back an activist FCC. And there was an election coming—Hollywood-bashing is a perennial fave in election years, let alone one in which, as it would turn out, Bush would owe his victory largely to evangelical turnout.

To these crusaders, the Super Bowl was potentially the 9/11 of public morality, a casus belli for a war on smut, the broom with which to sweep back the sea of changing social standards going back to the ’60s, Elvis, and beyond. “This is going to change things—finally,” the president of an Ohio conservative group told TIME the week after the halftime incident.

It did change things, for a short time, in ways that were inconsistent and largely for show. There were Congressional hearings and stiffer fines for broadcast indecency. Terrified of a crackdown by the FCC, which was vague as to what it would and wouldn’t consider indecent, TV programmers began pulling everything. That fall, 65 ABC affiliates refused to air Saving Private Ryan because of its profanity, though it had aired twice before without protest or punishment. The FCC reversed itself on an awards-show incident (Bono called U2’s Golden Globes win for Original Song “f—ing brilliant”) that it had ruled was not indecent just the year before. In a rerun of perennial indecency target Family Guy, Fox edited out the rear end of Stewie, a cartoon baby. TV executives erred on the side of scared.

But here was the thing: even offended Americans did not necessarily want the government, or anyone else, monkeying with their entertainment. The week after the Super Bowl, with umbrage at its peak, more than two-thirds of Americans polled by TIME said that the government should not punish CBS. Maybe parents were upset by the halftime flash, but most people aren’t parents. As taxation without representation was to the colonists, so to modern TV watchers is the idea that their entertainment choices should be circumscribed by someone else’s moral standards.

The question of who sets the standards may have been what caused the post-Janet backlash to fizzle. Family-values advocacy groups like the Parents Television Council depend on the legal concept of a “community standard”—the consensus values of the larger group, which should determine what’s acceptable in prime time. But by 2004, we were already well into the era of audience fragmentation—with hundreds of entertainment choices any evening, there was no pop-cultural consensus on anything.

In fact in the year after Nipplegate, the targets of protests and FCC letter-writing campaigns were also some of the most popular shows on TV. If decency-cop target CSI—the highest-rated show in the land, full of grotesque, often sexual violence—did not represent the community standard with 30 million weekly viewers, what did? The anti-nipple crusaders rose up in 2004 in the name of mainstream American values, but if anything, they were trying to defend against mainstream American values.

Ten years later, it’s the same story, except with smaller audiences for everything. Over the last decade, CBS has had the raunchiest sitcoms on network TV and the most popular, shows that throw around the word “vagina” like Fonzie threw around “Ayyyy!” (Whereas sweet-hearted, relatively clean comedies like Parks and Recreation are niche entertainment—or, like Bunheads, just cancelled.) Serial killers are mainstream drama protagonists. This guy can watch Phil Robertson, who fulminated against same-sex marriage, on the very popular Duck Dynasty; and that guy can watch a beloved gay couple getting married this spring on the very popular Modern Family. Which of them can claim to set the standard?

There is no safer wager than to bet against any prediction that [insert big news event here] will “change pop culture forever.” It hasn’t happened after multiple school shootings that supposedly portended cutbacks in screen violence; it didn’t happen after 9/11, when a fellow TIME columnist predicted “the end of irony.” In a statement marking the anniversary, the PTC tries valiantly to remind us that the Super Bowl was, in fact, “a very big deal,” but it’s much harder to argue that it remains one.

The 2004 Super Bowl did change some things. It made industry-wide practice of the kind of video delay that would have spared us the whole spectacle. And as an excellent Nipplegate retrospective in ESPN points out, it was a big part of the motive behind the creation of YouTube—to disseminate viral videos like that one.

(Imagine, by the way, if today’s piranha school of social media had been around to feast on the Super Bowl flash: Facebook would have exploded; the scene would have been memed, GIF-ed, and Photoshopped within seconds; and Janet Jackson’s nipple would have 5,000 fake Twitter accounts. The incident would have flared even faster, louder, and bigger, but it possible we might also have gorged ourselves on it sooner and moved on.)

But those are technological changes, and technological changes also make the case for sweeping morals policing much harder to make. We watch shows on DVR, on streaming; we download shows to our phones; we pause and skip ads and time-shift; we watch shows that are not only not on broadcast but, through Netflix and Hulu, not on “TV” at all. We actively acquire TV now as much as we passively receive it. It’s hard to make a case for the sanctity of “the family hour” when so little viewing is tied to a particular hour, or channel, or even electronic device.

If that Super Bowl halftime flash changed everything, really, it changed everything in precisely the opposite direction, by proving that even a controversy that dramatic could not shove provocative pop culture back into its bustier. Justin and Janet got everyone worked up for a long time. But America’s return to Mayberry? It was gone in .5625 seconds.