It’s been over 15 years since Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake‘s infamous 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, and the world still has a lot of questions about the widely speculated scandal. Jodi Gomes and Mary Robertson set out to answer those questions in The New York Times Presents‘ upcoming documentary Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson, an intense investigation into the who, what, and why of the notorious incident.
When asked by ET’s Rachel Smith why they wanted to tackle the story, Gomes, who helmed the documentary, said they wanted to approach the situation through today’s lens.
“I think because, you know, we wanted to frame the picture and look at everything through a new lens and look at it from today’s lens to find out exactly what happened,” she explained. “It was a massive performance that touched a lot of people and it had a lot of unintended consequences, and we wanted to just look at it from today’s perspective and put it under a microscope and look at the how and the why. One person was treated differently than the other, and I just think it made a lot of sense for me at this time.”
Showrunner and executive producer Robertson shared similar sentiments. “I think one of the many things that we took away from the experience, making and releasing Framing Britney Spears and the follow-up film Controlling Britney Spears, was that there can be incredible value in bringing journalistic rigor to subject matters that others perhaps trivialized, minimized, overlooked in some ways,” she added.
“That was certainly part of the ambition that undergirded this approach and this concept. I think also that much as with the Britney Spears film, you know, we saw then with those films and we see with this film that it can be critical importance to look at an event that we may realize now we’ve misremembered in context to provide context,” she said. “So [we had] to chronicle not just what happened in that particular moment but what was happening in the culture, in the decades, years, months and days leading up to it.”
“And at the time we may not have been so sensitive to the ways in which, in the case of Janet Jackson, the influence of the Parents Television Council and the conservative forces in the culture that were gaining sort of strength and momentum. We may not have been conscious then, in which those forces in the culture influenced what happened to Janet, the way in which the culture responded to her afterward,” Robertson noted. “And now you know with the years between us and that incident, I think we are able to do that, hopefully, you know, the viewer will be interested to see the ways in which we connected the dots.”
Malfunction features rare footage and interviews with people who were behind the controls that night in Houston to reconstruct the moment when Timberlake briefly exposed Jackson’s breast to millions of viewers. According to Robertson and Gomes, the use of multiple accounts is to examine how the incident shook the country and shaped pop culture for decades to follow. With insights from music industry insiders, cultural critics and members of the Jackson family, the duo says they aim to explain how racial and cultural currents collided on the Super Bowl stage and explore how the incident impacted one of the most successful pop musicians in history.
For Gomes, an important element of the documentary’s foundation was showing how Jackson’s image as a sex icon was used against her.
“Showing where she came from and her slow build of becoming an icon was important so that you can see the measurement of when the incident happened and how all those things were used against her, diametrically opposed to what was celebrated in the early half of her career,” she explained. “And again, I think, you know, we live in a time now where the sexual agency in the freedom to be who we want to be in front of the camera and behind the camera is a really big issue, and I think 17 years ago, that was not the standard for Janet Jackson.”
“You can chart [Janet’s trajectory] and her working to achieve more agency through time,” Robertson said, noting that the singer’s work to free herself from the influence of all the professional men in her life — from her father to popular industry figures — was evident in her music.
“She releases an album named Control as she comes into her own as an artist who’s in control of what she’s putting out there into the world and the way she’s choosing to present it to the rest of the country that’s receiving it. We thought it was important to walk through that part of her story too,” she added. “So [with] the aftermath of the Super Bowl, you see the ways in which arguably some of that agency is stripped from her and you understand what may have been lost too.”
Gomes said that she thought it was clear that gender and race played a role in how the public reacted to the incident but felt that ageism had a part as well. “You can’t ignore that he’s younger, he’s a white male and he just kept going with all kinds of energy and power behind him whereas certainly a lot of people pulled the plug on [Janet] fundamentally,” she pointed out. “You can’t ignore those three elements. The culture wars set up an environment that she walked into and ultimately race, gender and ageism were used against her in that final half.”
“You see in the coverage in the immediate and subsequent aftermath of the incident,” Robertson added. “The coverage of the incident attributed all agency in a certain way to Janet. You see language used, like, ‘Janet exposed her breast.’ There’s very little mention of who exposed the breast, it becomes known as ‘the Janet Jackson incident’ colloquially. There’s legislation introduced in Congress that is known colloquially as ‘the Janet Jackson bill.’ So, we’re registering the ways in which, while there were two people on the stage, Justin was somewhat removed from our remembering and understanding of who did what on that stage. And I guess I mention that by the way of saying, let’s let that speak for ourselves when we ask ourselves what role race and gender had to play in this.”
Neither Jackson nor Timberlake have publicly responded to Malfunction but, Robertson stressed that it’s The New York Times Presents’ practice to “extend an invitation for participation” to all who are a subject of attention in the project. And while the absence of the two means that the documentary is “not explicitly biographical in nature,” the showrunner stated that the film is still “an intense and rigorous examination of one moment in our history and [Jackson’s] history… because… we were able to bring so much context and perspective to understand. It feels as though we’re able to do that in a way that’s journalistically sound without participation.”
And when it comes down to the most base question of all — who exactly is to blame for the incident going down — the duo admits that the answer is much more convoluted than naming a single person.
“Our reporting turned up no evidence that Janet planned to have her breast revealed,” Robertson stated. “That said, I think focusing on who may or may not have been responsible for engineering the wardrobe malfunction or why it may have happened can be a bit of a distraction at times… I suppose what I’m really asking is, I wonder whether or not who planned it matters?”
Gomes agreed, saying that it “almost didn’t matter” who planned what. “But I did look at Janet’s own words in the film and her own apologies; she fundamentally says there was a plan of action that day but what happened that night was not planned according to her,” she added. “I was more fascinated with what happened to her after the fact… I really wanted the film to encourage people, again, to have empathy for when people slip or when they fall, that we should understand the situation before we take such polarized positions on it.”
“You know, I think we tried to present the ways in which Justin and Janet responded to the incident in as neutral a manner as possible, and we, you know, we leave it to the audience to decide who or what did what wrong, if anyone in fact did anything wrong,” Robertson concluded. “I think it is very clear that society and culture broadly treated these two individuals very differently. And I’m not sure it’s my place to say who should apologize for what and I’ll leave it to the audience to decide.”
Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson, will premiere on Nov. 19 simultaneously on FX and Hulu.
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