February 13, 2019

Nipplegate 2.0: Privilege and the Construction of the Body

author photoBy Angelique Harris

I can’t believe that I am discussing nipples, privilege, and the Super Bowl Halftime Show for the second year in a row, but here we are. While performing during the Halftime Show for Super Bowl LIII, Adam Levine, lead singer of Maroon 5 took off his top, exposing his bare-chest, and not one, but both of his nipples. Remembering Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” in 2004 during the Super Bowl XXXVIII’s halftime show, there was a quick and immediate backlash to the obvious double standard that allowed Levine to expose his nipples, while penalizing Jackson when it was Justin Timberlake, her guest performer, who ripped off part of her costume exposing her breast.

This begs the question, why was Levin able to expose his nipples while Jackson was not? Although a relatively simple question, the response is pretty complicated and is rooted in the ways in which we as a society construct the body and the privileges associated with these constructions. However, it’s important to note that this wasn’t just any Super Bowl halftime show, before Maroon 5 even took stage, their performance was steeped in controversy.

The Super Bowl halftime show is one of the largest stages in the world for a performer. A little over 100 million people tuned in to watch the Super Bowl and its halftime show. Throughout the years, such notable stars and performers have included Beyoncé, Bruno Mars, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Lady Gaga, Missy Elliot, and Katy Perry.

This year, however, Super Bowl organizers had quite a bit of difficulty finding an artist. To show support for unsigned NFL backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the protests he led to bring attention to police brutality, a number of well-known performers turned down the gig when approached by organizers. This is when Maroon 5 stepped in and agreed to perform the event and invited a number of (Black) artists to guest perform, including rappers Big Boi from Outkast, Travis Scott, and a gospel choir, a choir (which many argue, awkwardly upstaged Levine).

In fact, in response to an online petition, show organizers even provided a (far too brief) tribute to the late Stephen Hillenburg, the creator of the cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants. And although the performance was generally panned by critics, it seems as if Maroon 5 tried their best to circumvent the controversy of the performance by donating half a million dollars to the Big Brothers Big Sisters of America while Scott donated the same amount to the non-profit Dream Corps. As much as Maroon 5 tried to address the concerns about their performance, 12 minutes and 23 seconds into the song “Moves Like Jagger” Levine took off his tank top, tossing it into the crowd. He spent the last minute of the performance topless. 

Now back to nipples; according to Wikipedia, “the nipple is a raised region of tissue on the surface of the breast from which, in females, milk leaves the breast through the lactiferous ducts to feed an infant.” That’s it. Based on all of the controversy surrounding nipples, one would think they would have a different purpose.

Almost all mammals have nipples and, of course, both women and men are born with them. Although the primary purpose of a nipple is to provide a way for an infant to suckle, among humans, particularly those in Western cultures, nipples have also been heavily sexualized and eroticized, but this wasn’t always the case. For most of human history, there wasn’t a stigma concerning exposing one’s breasts or nipples. Historically, and for many cultures around the world, breasts meant fertility and they were celebrated but not necessarily sexualized.

However, Ancient Greeks and Romans often displayed the naked male body as a sign of virility, strength, and power, but the female body, when not suckling a child, was often draped or covered. Fast forward to the Victorian Era, while others around the world, particularly in warmer regions were not shamed into cover their bodies, those in Europe and the U.S began to cover up. During this time, it was taboo not only for women to expose their chests, but also for men to be topless as well. (Hence all of the old photos of men covering their chests at the beach that you may have seen.)

After a considerable amount of protesting, American men gained the right to go topless in public in 1936, a right that women have yet to achieve at a national level. Now with social media, displays of the body and what is considered “acceptable” have been called into question. The Free the Nipple movement has called attention to the double standard that prevents posting pictures online of nipples belonging to women identified women (cis and trans women), however, cis and trans men are allowed to do so. Although nipple exposure is an obvious example of male privilege, it also provides a great example of how societies construct the body.

Social constructionism argues that social and cultural factors influence how we perceive, experience, and interact with the social world. Importantly it explains how sociocultural forces construct what we see as socially acceptable and what is not, as these forces provide us with a shared sense of reality.

There are many cultures and regions around the world where women frequently go topless, and there is less stigma surrounding women’s nipples. And even though 36 states in the U.S. allow women to go topless, few do because of social backlash. Even breast-feeding mothers have to be reminded that feeding their infants in public is legal.

For women of color more specifically, their bodies (hair, complexion, and even body size) face added levels of scrutiny and marginalization, hence the backlash against the double standard that allowed for Levine’s nipple exposure while chastising Jackson for hers. Now it is important to note that many are accustomed to seeing Levine topless as he regularly performs bare-chested and has even reportedly said that he “spends most of his life naked,” so the fact that he took off his shirt during the show should not have been a surprise.

And that’s exactly the point. Society has constructed male bodies and chests in such a way that men, even those known for their sex appeal, like Levine, have the privilege to display their body in a way in which a woman never could and face completely different repercussions.

This is why understanding privilege is so important. Privilege allows for those with social power and advantages to socially construct realities and social norms. Importantly, privilege helps us understand how we construct and view bodies, what parts of our bodies we are allowed to show in public, and why some are allowed to show certain body parts where others are not. I certainly wonder what next year’s Super Bowl halftime show has in store for us and what privileges will be on display.


Hi,I am in love with the topic of your article. Privilege and social power is an everyday tpoic. Seems like it will never go away. There will always have something others are okay with one person doing and not the other. You stated you point great.

Hello, I'm really passionate about the topic of your article. Privilege and social power are subjects that continue to be relevant in our daily lives. It seems like these issues are here to stay, as there will always be disparities in what some people are allowed to do while others are not. You've articulated your point excellently.

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