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Malfunction: The Dressing Down Of Janet Jackson - What We Know So Far

In 2004, an award-winning artist performing at the Super Bowl halftime show suffered a wardrobe malfunction at the hand of another award-winning artist, and television viewers had a collective meltdown after catching a glimpse of a woman's breast for 9/16ths of a second. 

This was a world before Twitter and before Instagram, but not before the 24-hour news cycle. Minor scandals lasted longer, and the individuals at the heart of a given controversy had no real way to interact directly with — or defend themselves — to the public, short of issuing forced apology videos curated by a PR team. "The discourse" and the narrative itself were controlled entirely by those at the top of the media food chain. In 2004, this included then-president George W. Bush, who leaned in to a morality campaign right as Americans began to re-think his "war on terror" and his popularity had begun to wane. What should have been a simple attire mishap — of which the artist herself, not the American public, was the victim — became representative of the looming "moral decline" of society.

That artist was, of course, Janet Jackson, who was victimized all over again when the blame for her breast being exposed fell squarely on her head. In contrast, the white male artist who did the accidental exposing in a dance move — Justin Timberlake — suffered no consequences at all, and was even welcomed back to the show for a third time in 2018. Now, FX and Hulu are teaming up on another "The New York Times Presents" documentary that recounts and explores the event and its cultural fallout, titled "Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson." 

When will Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson air?

FX and Hulu will both premiere the documentary on Friday, November 19th, at 10pm Eastern Time. The film will be the 10th installment of the streaming service and the network channel's "The New York Times Presents" series, which released both "The Framing of Britney Spears" and "The Controlling of Britney Spears" this past year, as well as the equally pop-culture-meets-media heavy "Who Gets To Be An Influencer?" While the Spears documentaries explored the sexism and misogyny in the music industry and how it affected society's and her own father's treatment of the artist, the influencer documentary focused on the racial gatekeeping imbedded in the TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram fame industries. 

"Malfunction: The Dressing Down of Janet Jackson," will investigate what happens when the sexism of the former and the racism of the latter intersect. The release date means the documentary will air just before the holiday season kicks-off, and will have nearly three months of exposure before Super Bowl LVI airs on February 13th, 2022. 

Who can we expect to see in the documentary?

As The Wrap reports, the showrunner for "The New York Times Presents," Mary Robertson, will co-executive produce alongside Ken Druckerman, Stephanie Preiss, Banks Tarver, Sam Dolnick and Jason Stallman. Jodi Gomes of "The Jacksons: A Family Dynasty" will direct, and co-produce the project along with The New York Times and Red Arrow Studios' Left/Right. The documentary will include "rare footage and interviews" with various MTV and NFL execs who took part in the event, and contain "insights from music industry insiders, cultural critics and members of the Jackson family." 

While it doesn't appears as though Timberlake or Jackson herself will provide any new interviews or footage for the documentary, she is slated to star in A&E Network's "Janet," which the network says will provide "full unprecedented access to the music icon" and endeavor to give an "honest and unfiltered look at her untold story" (The A&E and Lifetime joint venture will air in 2022).

What is the plot of the documentary?

It's clear from both the subtitle and the logline for "Malfunction" that the documentary will place an intense focus on the racial and gender biases and cultural disconnects that allowed a wardrobe mishap to completely derail the career of a popular Black female artist. "In 2004," it begins, "a culture war was brewing when the Super Bowl halftime show audience saw a white man expose a Black woman's breast for 9/16ths of a second." The synopsis goes on to explain that while Jackson's "career was never the same," Timberlake's "stardom only grew." 

The documentary will also investigate "former CBS executive Les Moonves' role" in both the incident and its dissonant consequences for the two stars (via The Wrap). In 2018, after Moonves was accused of sexual harassment by six different women, a Huffington Post exclusive shed light on the then-CBS C.E.O's grudge against Jackson. Various CBS insiders told journalist Yashar Ali they "felt strongly that Moonves played a large part in how Jackson was perceived by the public." Moonves had initially banned both Jackson and Timberlake from the 2004 Grammys, but allowed the former NSYNC member to attend after he "tearfully apologized for the incident." Moonves, the outlet reported, was convinced the artists had planned the malfunction in "an intentional bid to stir up controversy," and became fixated on ruining Jackson when the singer didn't make a "contrite apology to him." 

Seventeen years after the incident, Gomes' documentary will investigate not how the malfunction occurred, but why and how an accident turned into a career-crashing scandal for Jackson and Jackson alone — and what the event's fall-out represents and evidences with regard to society's treatment of and attitudes toward Black women.