September 21, 2020
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Culture Wars Redux

Whose Boob Tube?

When Justin Timberlake ripped off the right outer garment covering Janet Jackson's chest during the Super Bowl Halftime Show, more was exposed than Jackson's bare breast with its ornamental nipple ring.

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Whose Boob Tube?
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Whose Boob Tube?
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When Justin Timberlake ripped off the right outer garment covering Janet Jackson's chest during the Super Bowl Halftime Show, more was exposed than Jackson's bare breast with its ornamental nipple ring. Once more the culture wars were revealed with all their sordid contradictions. From the denunciation of the "classless, crass, and deplorable stunt" by FCC Chair, Michael Powell, to White House spokesperson, Scott McClellan's call "for families to be able to expect a high standard when it comes to programming," the Bush Administration mounted its steed of moral guardianship of the airwaves. For an Administration that had favored Viacom and CBS with its corporate policies, the shock that CBS could not police MTV, its subsidiary, to reign in its sexploitation spectacle seemed only too predictable.

Aware of the need to mobilize the puritan sensibilities of its fundamentalist base, the Bush Administration kept faith with Attorney General John Ashcroft's earlier cover up of a statue whose breast was exposed. One wonders what these paragons of virtue would do when confronted with Delacroix's famous 1831 painting of bare-breasted figure of Liberty waving the tricolors while leading the masses to the barricades. Of course, knowing that this was a French painting from the "Old Europe" of licentious attitudes would be enough to censor such ribald exposure.

CBS and Viacom were very accommodating to censoring an earlier scheduled showing of a biography of Ronald Reagan which featured not the exposed breasts of Nancy Reagan but a narrow-minded condemnation of AIDS by President Reagan. Apparently, kowtowing to the political right-wing is part of the corporate culture of CBS. Such sycophantic behavior by CBS towards the right and particularly the Bush Administration was further reinforced when CBS refused to accept a 30 second anti-Bush ad for the Super Bowl paid by the liberal advocacy group, MoveOn. Perhaps CBS was just trying to protect the innocent minds of children who might have been puzzled by the MoveOn ad's portrayal of children laboring at grown-up jobs as an indictment of the profligate deficit policies of the Bush Administration.

Yet, when one considers the ads favored by CBS for the Super Bowl, one is struck by how many of these ads were moronic and offensive. As a New York Times article from the February 3, 2004 business page asked: "Where is the inquiry into the crude, crass Super Bowl commercials celebrating a dog trained to bite crotches, a flatulent horse, a monkey pitching woo to a woman, a man tortured with a bikini waxing and an elderly couple fighting over a bag of potato chips?" Why should the gross-out by Timberlake and Jackson be considered any worse these aforementioned commercials?

In fact, the whole flow of half-time ads and entertainment is representative of marketing strategies for men between the ages of 18 and 34. It would be hard to imagine that many of these men were scandalized by Timberlake's aggressive assault on Jackson or even the rapper Nelly's grabbing of his crotch. Maybe had Nelly pulled off the outer garment of a white woman a layer of residual racism would have been additionally exposed (except if Madonna had been the singer since outrageous interracial posturing by Madonna is an integral part of her act.)

On the other hand, Viacom and CBS should not have been under any illusions that their naughty cable affiliate, MTV, would exploit the sexual boundaries of prime-time television. MTV has been catering to teenage audiences and their sexual fantasies with everything from revealing music videos to the near-pornographic sensibilities of "The Real World." As far back as 1992 MTV prefigured Bill Clinton's own sexual peccadilloes when he was asked by a woman during his MTV appearance whether he favored boxes or briefs. We would only later learn that the real answer was "thongs."

It shouldn't be surprising that the same crew that went after Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky affair is part of the loud chorus of critics of the Timberlake-Jackson stunt. According to the New York Times, the chair of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, Fred Upton, a rib-rock conservative Republican, "introduced legislation last month to increase tenfold the FCC's fines for indecency." After contacting the president of Viacom to make sure that he demonstrated the proper obeisance to right-wing puritan standards, Upton assured the readers of the Times that the Viacom president "was appalled and apologetic."

So far Upton hasn't asked for an apology from President Bush for his appalling behavior on Iraq. Then again, that's a question about state-sanctioned violence, something thoroughly embraced by the right. When he comes to sexual mores and the right to choose (ironically the theme of the Super Bowl halftime show), the boobs of the right seem particularly offended by exposed boobs on the tube and the right of woman to control their bodies.

Of course, Janet Jackson's deliberate manipulation of her own sexuality, absent the "garment malfunction," is part of the larger issue of the co modification of sexuality in capitalist society. What appeals to the male gaze and what sells is certainly integral to the coin of the realm. That's why the contradiction of a corporate conglomerate like Viacom trying to tame its hip sexual sensationalist subsidiary MTV is rather laughable. While the right will prate on about indecency on television, capitalism will continue to consolidate its media control. The boob tube will, when necessary, respond to the political winds, hoping never to expose too much of its own sordid relationship with the master class of mind managers, whether corporate or political. Only when the body politic reveals the bawdiness of capitalism as the real violator of human beings will the boob tube no longer suckle those who would bite the breast that feeds it.


Fran Shor teaches at Wayne State University and is a peace and justice activist.


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