Girls on Film

I have watched a lot of TV lately, what with the latest lockdown and the freezing cold temperatures. There is a finite amount of good television produced, and thus I’ve seen some pretty mediocre to bad programming. I watched the entirety of a seven-part British murder mystery series on Netflix called “Stay Close”, despite the story being built on a gapping plot hole. The main character was a stripper as a young woman, and when a patron who was obsessed with her showed up beaten to death, she ran away fearing she would be blamed for the murder. She didn’t flee to a far-off city to start over as any sane person would, but rather simply moved across town. What!? Also, the catalyst for the story is an inexplicable visit she makes to the strip club some 17 years after she took off. At least she’s well-disguised, however, what with that blond wig and all. I must admit I stuck with this show to the end because I wanted to see the case solved and the supporting cast was quite good, but normally I find such obvious flaws in the story so distracting that I simply cannot continue. It’s the reason I never watched “Everybody Loves Raymond”. There’s absolutely no way Raymond’s wife would agree to live across the street from his horrible, interfering parents.

I’ve also watched shows simply because they were the best thing on at a given moment. This is how I ended up watching a documentary about Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction at the 2004 Super Bowl, a subject in which I have virtually no interest whatsoever. I missed the first 20 minutes or so and came in just as the production manager was discussing the final preparations for Jackson’s appearance. CBS, the NFL, and the FCC all have very strict “decency” codes, and I put the word in quotation marks because its definition broadens or narrows depending on who is using it. Decent behaviour conforms to accepted standards of morality or respectability, and these three bodies, along with many religious individuals and institutions, seem to feel it relates almost exclusively to things of a sexual nature. Even simple nudity and acts between consenting adults are considered inappropriate and unacceptable. I would argue that instances of deceit, abuse, and violence are much more indecent. 

Jackson’s management team assured the producers and sponsors that the show would be family friendly, without even a whiff of sexuality. What these bodies actually agreed to was that it was fine for Justin Timberlake to sing “Rock your Body”, which includes the lines, “…just do that ass shakin’ thing you do”, and, “…gonna have you naked by the end of this song.”, just as long as it was clear that Ms. Jackson wasn’t going to say or do anything naughty. Anyone else sensing a double standard here? 

The plan was for Timberlake to rip off a part of Jackson’s top right after the final lyrics, “…gonna have you naked by the end of this song.”, exposing a red bustier beneath. Timberlake mistakenly tore away both the top layer and the bustier in the heat of the moment, revealing Jackson’s right breast. It was not completely exposed because she was wearing a nipple patch, yet America responded by going insane. Let me just say here that the costumes of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders expose about as much of their breasts as we saw of Jackson’s, and yet the NFL, major broadcasters, and Americans generally are perfectly okay with that. What’s more, cheerleaders are bouncing around with their breasts on display for hours at a time, whereas Jackson’s breast was exposed for nine-sixteenths of a second. Yes that’s right, we glimpsed her breast for less than a second, and yet she was absolutely pilloried and shunned for her transgression.

The reaction from the FCC was swift and furious, fining CBS $550,000. Les Moonves, then president of CBS, was apoplectic. He felt the incident was an intentional bid to stir up controversy in general, and to embarrass him in particular. He banned Jackson and Timberlake from the 2004 Grammys which were being aired by CBS, but eventually allowed Timberlake back in after the latter made a long, tearful public apology. Jackson’s apology, on the other hand, was dry-eyed and short, and evidently Moonves felt she was not sufficiently contrite. It never occurred to him that she kept her comments brief because she was embarrassed after having just been utterly humiliated in front of millions of people. Not only did Jackson remain barred from the Grammys, but Moonves instructed MTV and VH1, which like CBS are subsidiaries of Viacom, along with all their affiliated radio stations, to stop playing Jackson’s music. This in turn tanked the album she had just released and significantly damaged a career which had previously produced ten #1 hits. I wasn’t surprised to read that Moonves was fired from CBS in 2017 amidst a flurry of sexual harassment charges. Gotta love the #METOO movement!

Jackson’s popularity had earned her label Virgin Records millions upon millions of dollars. This in turn added mightily to the personal coffers of Virgin’s owner and CEO, Richard Branson. For years Branson claimed that the revenue generated by Jackson’s album “Rhythm Nation” alone had been enough for him to buy, and erect several luxury buildings on, a private island. One might think he would feel a certain responsibility to step up for Jackson in her hour of need, but that’s not what happened. Branson was silent as Jackson was bad-mouthed by the media and black balled by hundreds of radio stations. He quietly waited until she had fulfilled the terms of her contract, and then just let her go. Branson has always enjoyed the reputation of being a nice guy, but I think this incident shows just what a craven, ungrateful, and unfaithful man he truly is. Clearly Richard is all about Richard, a fact made irrefutably clear when he recently forked out an estimated $600 million to spend 20 seconds in outer space. Sure climate change is wrecking the planet and millions of people need Covid shots, but what about what Richard wants?

Untold horrible things were said about the players in the costume malfunction, but the lion’s share was reserved for Jackson. The discrepancy was so obvious that even Timberlake commented on it in an interview less than a month after the incident. He said, “I am 50% responsible for what happened, but I’m only getting maybe 10% of the heat for it.” Jackson was lambasted not only by the press, but in popular entertainment as well. Chris Rock, a comedian I’ve never found overly funny, took a shot at her in one of his routines. He noted that Jackson was 40 years old, and nobody wants to see a 40-year-old “titty”. What’s more, women should know that by the time they’re 40 that it’s not their “titty” anymore, “…it’s their man’s titty.” I strongly feel that comedians have the right to poke fun at whatever they please, but the unmistakable implication of this joke is that women of a certain age, or at least particular parts of their bodies, belong to their men. I know it’s only a joke, but the idea behind it disturbs me, especially since I fear that there are still many men who think it’s funny because it’s true.

Jackson herself was already extremely insecure about her body. At 10 she had been cast in the Norman Lear comedy “Good Times”. She was an early bloomer and consequently was already developing breasts at the time. Lear and others in charge of the show wanted her to look more childlike, so they always bound her chest before she got into costume. Did I mention that she actually was a child? Imagine how that made Jackson feel about her burgeoning body. She has also struggled with weight issues for decades. Jackson was excited to go to college when she turned 18 – she knew exactly which university she wanted to attend, and which course of study she wished to pursue. Her father Joe, holder of the purse strings, said he would not pay. Rather, he pushed her into show business and, as her manager for the next several years, constantly nagged her about her weight. Jackson is a stress eater, and the battles she continues to have with her body began while her dad was in charge.

I have to wonder how the demonization of Jackson went over with her young fans in particular, and developing girls in general. Remember Jackson’s breast was only exposed for less than a second, and yet a firestorm of recrimination and insults ensued. How can pubescent girls feel good about their changing bodies when the media is telling them that even a glimpse of their chest is horrifying and immoral? While I’m at it, how can fully developed women either? Breasts are absolutely fetishized in North American culture. Women face hurtful comments if their breasts are deemed too big or too small, the latter designation leading some 300,000 American women to undergo the costly, extremely painful, and sometimes dangerous procedure of breast augmentation every year. We’re called sluts if we show too much cleavage, and frigid if we show too little. 

Certainly a women’s breasts are sometimes sexy, but sometimes they are not. This is a distinction that many cultures understand, but which seems to be largely absent in North America. The puritan American insistence on the indecency of sex means that any body parts considered sexual are consequently unseemly, and therefore are shameful and must be covered at all times. These strictures are particularly onerous for women as most of our bodies are seen as titillating. There is almost no part of us that can’t be perceived as sexual in a man’s gaze, which is why Muslim women are made to wear chador. 

The female form has evolved over millennia partly to attract a mate, as is the case with every other animal on the planet, but also to facilitate childbirth. We are an amalgam of the parts necessary to ensure the survival of our species, and yet we are constantly made to feel ashamed and unsure of our bodies. This is a time honoured and highly successful patriarchal strategy – men can maintain power much more easily as long as they keep us second-guessing ourselves. The trick for North American women is to not buy into this bogus perspective, especially considering that where sex is concerned, we actually hold all the cards. The vast majority of men are happy, and even grateful, to have sex with any woman, regardless of how she looks. So don’t compare yourself to other women or some ridiculous manufactured ideal, and don’t let men’s unrealistic expectations and hurtful comments bring you down. Try to be content with who you are and how you look. I know first-hand how extremely difficult such personal acceptance can be, but we will only achieve equality when we are strong in ourselves and can stand together against such disempowering tactics.

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