When Janet Jackson stood there on the stage of the Super Bowl Halftime Show, for that split-second where her right breast was exposed to the world, she probably wasn't thinking about the controversy it would cause and, if she was, she certainly didn't realize how long it would carry on.
There's no way that she could have predicted that, weeks after the incident, that the media would still be hounding her about her overexposure, that the legal and political ripple effect would be continuing or that pictures of it would still be gracing the covers of newspapers, Web sites and magazines.
The reason for this is because, if you strip away the politicians pounding the table for tougher indecency laws, the lawsuit filed against her and subsequently dropped, the tearful apologies and the ongoing question of “Was it an accident?”, you have one thing and one thing alone left, a breast. Or rather, a brief one-second image of a breast shown on national TV.
It's sad to say, but the wealthiest, most powerful nation in the world has been brought to a screeching halt by the appearance of a woman's breast. A simple piece of human flesh has taken headlines away from the ongoing conflict in Iraq, the emerging election year and countless other real news stories. It's caused politicians to turn their attention away from running the country and focus on how to best prevent another breast from getting on television.
If this doesn't make you feel silly, nothing will.
It's so ridiculous and so inane that it's not worth writing a column over. However, it's not worth any of the other coverage it's gotten either and that is the problem. Not that Janet Jackson may have intentionally shown her breast on national TV, or that we need stricter standards for television broadcasts, but that we're now a nation so deeply offended by a glimpse of a partially nude body that, when one appears at Halftime on the Super Bowl, we shut down.
No other industrialized nation has such an extreme fear of the nude human body. In Japan, topless women frequently adorn prime time television, in Europe, full frontal nudity is allowed on many time slots and partial is acceptable in most others. No one in those countries seems to be offended by it and, if anyone is, they've employed a tried and true tactic of turning off the TV.
However, in America, supposedly the leaders of the free world, we go into an uproar over a male butt on NYPD Blue or a brief flash of a female breast on the Super Bowl halftime show. The only other nations with stricter views of decency on television are Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran and I seriously doubt we want to pattern our concept of free speech and expression after countries with only state-run television stations.
The bitter truth is that, for some reason, in America, we're easily offended by the human body. Though much of this stems from the uniquely American idea that sex is, for some reason, taboo, it also stems from the notion that we should be offended by anything we don't approve of and that we should make television as safe and as non-offensive of an environment as possible.
The result of all of that is some pretty funny rules about what can and can not be shown on television. Scenes involving violence, harsh language and even clothed (or blurred) sexuality have been permitted, but nudity, even non-sexual nudity such as the showing of an elderly woman's breasts on ER, has been blocked with only a few notable exceptions.
The problem with this, as I've stated in other essays, is that we've got our priorities backwards. While gun battles, fistfights and acts of physical abuse are available for daily consumption, a brief glimpse of a woman's breast is enough to get your congressman worked up.
Say what you want about Janet Jackson's motivations or intentions, you still have to admit that the whole thing is not just silly, but downright mindless.
If we're going to progress culturally, as a society, we have to get over some of our odd hangups about sex and the human body. Perhaps the reason our televisions are filled with a mindless dribble of sitcoms , “reality shows” and action shows is that, basically, that's all we can run. When honest storytelling, or even just good fun, is hampered by the ill-conceived notion that the human form is offensive, more than just television suffers.
Indeed, this is a notion that doesn't just affect what we watch on TV, but it affects the quality of life we have in every way. It goes beyond the TV and into every aspect of our lives, our government and even our art.
And that's why we can't let this backwards mentality stand. Not only is it an embarrassment to the United States and it's notion of freedom, especially after something like Janet Jackson's “showcase” creates such an uproar, but it's a very poor reflection on our priorities as a nation and our ideals as a people and as individuals.
After all, when a breast can shut down the nation, one has to wonder how we're going to deal with real problems and real issues. And frankly, I don't think there are any answers to that, at least not any good ones.