January 22, 2018

The Malfunction Heard Around the World: Cultural Appropriation, White Privilege, and Misogynoir

12_01446By Angelique Harris

Many college-aged students are too young to remember Super Bowl XXXIX. In fact, I doubt few people even remember the fact that the New England Patriots played the Carolina Panthers in this game (actually, no, maybe a lot of people know this). Nevertheless, it’s likely that this was one of the few Super Bowl games where the halftime show drew attention away from the game.

This was the game where the terms “wardrobe malfunction” and “nipplegate” entered into our popular cultural lexicon. I am not a huge sports fan, so back in grad school, when I was invited to my friend's Super Bowl party, I only went for the free food and to see Janet Jackson perform at the halftime show (these were the days before YouTube and readily available DVRs). Also, having grown up in a family that didn’t watch sports, I was actually looking forward to attending my first Super Bowl party and partaking in this uniquely American tradition.

During Janet Jackson’s halftime show performance, she invited special guest, singer Justin Timberlake, to perform with her. At the end of the song, “Rock Your Body,” when Timberland sang, “I’ll have you naked by the end of this song,” he grabbed Jackson’s costume, tearing part of it off and exposing her right breast. It happened in a flash, but it would have major implications on Jackson’s career.

In fact, it was so fast that, while at my friend’s Super Bowl party, I was one of only two people who even noticed what happened, and we weren’t even sure what we saw until the news cycle endlessly repeated the incident, which Jackson blamed on a wardrobe malfunction.

Nonetheless, punishment for Jackson was swift. In addition to issuing a public apology, she was effectively blacklisted from CBS, MTV (who produced the halftime show), and Viacom, MTV’s parent company, and she was forced to back out of many concerts and tributes, had to resign from a movie deal, and advertising around her newly debuted album was tanked.

Regardless of Timberlake’s role in the incident, he emerged relatively unscathed, so unscathed, in fact, that he was invited to perform at the upcoming Super Bowl LII halftime show, something Jackson will likely never be invited to perform in again, although she is not technically banned. Two years later, when he was asked about the incident, Timberlake acknowledged how Jackson received a vast majority of the blame, saying that he:

Probably got 10% of the blame...I think that says something about society. I think that America is harsher on women and I think that America’s, you know, unfairly harsh on ethnic people. At the time it was happening, it was crazy to me that I didn’t handle it the best way I could have.

Since his Super Bowl LII halftime show performance was announced, critics have reminded people about his role in the wardrobe malfunction and the apparent privilege that’s at the root of the blame attributed to his role in the incident; after all, it was Timberlake who ripped the costume off of Jackson. Timberlake’s performance at the upcoming Super Bowl is even more noteworthy because of the current protests against police brutality taking place during the anthem by professional athletes and the controversy over Black bodies and protest. As a sociologist, when I first heard that he was invited back to perform at the Super Bowl three terms immediately came to mind: white privilege, cultural appropriation, and misogynoir.

Let’s talk about cultural appropriation first. Simply put, cultural appropriation is when people from the dominant group adopt aspects of another, typically more marginalized, group’s culture. When we think about cultural appropriation, celebrities like Eminem, Gwen Stefani, Elvis Presley, and yes, the Kardashian clan, who have been blasted, many times, for profiting off of Black culture, come to mind.

More recently, Stella McCartney and her new clothing line have been accused of appropriating aspects of West and Central African culture in her designs. Debate exists whether or not this appropriation is a show of respect or if it is simply another way in which (usually) whites are able to profit off of others’ cultures and resources, and many have written about the fine line between appropriation and appreciation.

Throughout his career, Justin Timberlake has been accused of cultural appropriation, in particular when he left ‘NSync, collaborated with hip hop mogul Timbaland, and his career further skyrocketed after they went on to produce a number of hits together. As others have written extensively about Timberland and his appropriation of Black culture, I won’t get into too much detail here about it, but the concern here is not simply the appropriation of Black culture and performing at an event that even Jay Z refused to perform at because of the various protests and lack of support for Black athletes.

The real concern here is his role in the “wardrobe malfunction” and how both his privilege as a white, cisgender, heterosexual man helped him avoid any real blame for the incident. When we discuss white privilege, particularly as it relates to this situation, some might be quick to note the role that Jackson may or may not have played in this wardrobe malfunction. Regardless of whether or not she knew, the lack of any real blame attributed to Timberlake is where the problem lies.

As mentioned above, Timberlake himself even acknowledged that he received so little blame for the incident. Nonetheless, just imagine if a Black male artist hip hop artist (Kayne West, possibly) had ripped the costume off of a white female pop star (let’s just say, Taylor Swift). I’m sure the societal response would be very different and I doubt the male artist would be invited back to perform.

This brings me to misogynoir. Sexism is discrimination based on sex and misogyny is discrimination and even hatred targeted directly at women. Misogynoir, on the other hand, specifically targets Black women. This term was coined by Moya Bailey in 2010 to describe the specific misogyny and racism that Black women experience, often based on the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, and class.

Without a doubt, the blame and immediate backlash against Jackson and her career alone was an example of the ways in which society views not just Blacks and the Black body, but more specifically, Black women and the Black female body. Few outside of academia had heard of this term, that is, until Katy Perry tweeted it, calling for support for comedian Leslie Jones, who was facing an onslaught of misogynoir-filled hate rhetoric. The Washington Post explained that Perry introduced people to this “new” term.

Misogynoir provides us with a term to help us understand how Black women and women of color are held to different standards, as Timberlake’s impending performance shows. At this point, there are a number of articles calling attention to the misogynoir and privilege on display. Additionally, many music fans are up in arms about the apparent double standard. In fact, there is even a petition devoted to encouraging the NFL to rescind their offer and cancel his performance.

When I watched my first Super Bowl all those years ago, little did I know that 13 years later I’d be writing about it. That’s the fascinating thing about sociology and society: very little changes.

What’s nice is that, although many, myself included, noticed and may even have written about the issues associated with the Black body, sexuality, privilege, etc., just as “nipplegate” and “wardrobe malfunction” have entered into our public lexicon, so too have terms like white privilege, cultural appropriation, and misogynoir, terms which provide us with a more nuanced understanding of the many issues at play both during and in response to the Jackson and Timberlake Halftime performance.

So as you watch (and chances are many of you reading this will) this upcoming Super Bowl game between the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles, and partake in this uniquely American tradition, other, more unfortunate aspects of traditional American culture, in this case, cultural appropriation, misogynoir, and white privilege, will likely be on display, if not during the game itself, most certainly during the halftime show.


I believe that you are so accurate in the diagnosis of cultural appropriation and misogynoir. This is my first time hearing the term and it isn't shocking. This has been going on, only now it just has a name. I love how you probe us to be more alert and stay woke to the aspects of this year's game, as undoubtedly cultural appropriation will exist.

So quick to assume so little changes, but isn't it our goal to incite thoughtful discussion in pursuit of effective societal change?

What do you propose society do in response to cultural appropriation? Does not the blending of tradition and culture in the "Melting Pot" of America not call for some level of "appropriation" or "appreciation"? I guess I'm curious where you believe the line in the sand should be drawn for societal growth and inclusion.

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