Super Bowl 38 has gone down as one of the most memorable broadcasts in the history of the NFL, and that has nothing to do with the New England Patriots eking out a win against the Carolina Panthers in the fourth quarter.
Instead, it was what happened during the halftime show, when Justin Timberlake tore away a part of Janet Jackson’s dress, exposing her breast, in what was soon dubbed a “wardrobe malfunction.”
The 2004 event left viewers reeling, sparked a crackdown from the FCC and left one of the performers to suffer a major career fallout. That’s the topic of “Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson,” and according to the documentary’s director, Jodi Gomes, even now it’s “something you can’t ignore.”
It only took nine-sixteenths of a second before cameras cut away from the incident, seen by 144 million viewers, but the damage to Jackson’s career continued for years.
“I think it just became an explosive powder keg,” Gomes explained during a Wednesday interview on TODAY. “And in the middle of that was this woman who had pioneered her image, and she was punished for it.”
The focus on a hugely successful woman in pop music paying an unfairly high price for living her life in the spotlight harks back to another documentary that was released earlier this year — “The Framing of Britney Spears.” And that makes sense, because “Malfunction” comes from the same New York Times Documentaries production team that created that pivotal piece.
“So much happened in between (then and now) culturally, politically and socially to us as America, that I thought we needed to look at this film through a different lens,” Gomes stated.
“Malfunction” takes viewers back to the days and weeks after the incident, when then CBS head Les Moonves demanded apologies from both Timberlake and Jackson. Following Timberlake’s public apology, he seemed instantly forgiven. Meanwhile, when the Grammys aired on CBS later that same year, it was only Jackson, who’s 15 years Timberlake’s senior and had enjoyed a much longer career, who was excluded completely from the musical celebration.
“She apologized two or three times,” Gomes noted. “You know, what took place back then wasn't right. Janet's career certainly descended, while Justin's career ascended. And that's just something you can't ignore. I think it says a lot about our industry, and how we handle ageism. I think it has a lot to do with sexism, and I think it has a lot to do with racism.”
Timberlake recently issued another apology — this time to Jackson (as well as Spears) — after the halftime controversy came under new scrutiny following the Spears’ documentary, in which he was also prominently featured for his role in that singer’s life.
“I understand that I fell short in these moments and in many others and benefited from a system that condones misogyny and racism,” he wrote in a February post to Instagram. “I specifically want to apologize to Britney Spears and Janet Jackson both individually because I care for and respect these women and I know I failed.”
Gomes said that where both women are concerned, only they can say if Timberlake’s words are “enough.”
“Because at a certain level, a pound of flesh was taken from both of those women,” she added.
“Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson” will be available to stream on Hulu and FX starting Friday night.