Of Nips and Cultural Crit

Super Bowl halftime show nipples inspire discourse and memes

Taylor Kleine-Deters, Contributor

With an event that was shrouded in social and political undertones from the get-go, expectations for Super Bowl LIII drama were high. What was not anticipated was the intense chatter about nipples and the societal distaste for them being visible on women versus being considered inoffensive on men.

From New Orleans Saints fans and allies of Colin Kaepernick who boycotted the event, to NFL fans who were tired of seeing the New England Patriots play, there were fewer viewers for this year’s event coming in around the 100 million viewer mark – one of the lowest ratings for the “biggest game” in recent history. Of course, apart from the sport and the commercials, there are typically hundreds of thousands of people who will view the game simply for the halftime show. This year, not so much.

The viewers that did watch were subject to a performance by Maroon 5 that was objectively not bad, but definitely lacked some of the more zany excess that has become standard fare for the Super Bowl halftime. The one thing that got people talking about Maroon 5, apart from the ‘white dad-dancing’ that frontman Adam Levine did while standing alongside Travis Scott and Big Boi, was Levine’s shedding of his many layers of clothing. By the end of the 13-minute set, Levine was bare-chested and heaving with exertion. His nipples and full array of tragic flash tattoos were the central focus of prime-time television for approximately three minutes.

Immediately the Internet was abuzz recalling the incident from the 2004 Super Bowl in Houston, Texas when Janet Jackson’s right breast was exposed by Justin Timberlake in what was cited to be a “shocking” wardrobe malfunction. The split second that Jackson’s breast and embellished nipple were exposed on television cast a black cloud upon her reputation. She was forced to issue an apology for the incident immediately and was reportedly banned from the 2004 Grammy Awards. Some people believe that her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was pushed back for years due to the incident as well as the consistent blacklisting that she received because of it.

In the age of streaming music, Maroon 5 stands seemingly unaffected. Boring performance and topless “controversy” aside – the band’s entire discography is reported to have experienced a 488 per cent sales gain. The only lasting impression that Levine’s shirtless halftime antics seems to be that he became an instant meme.

In a time of banning female-presenting nipples and the rise of politicized feminism, it seems inevitable that nipples would be the lasting impression from a lacklustre and crushingly middle-of-the-road performance. Jackson being vilified for something as innocuous as a nip-slip 15 years after it happened seems even more absurd when Levine can willfully expose his chest and get yawned at. There seems to be a double standard at work here.

So, with an incredibly musically talented woman of colour’s reputation still being maligned 15 years later for a slight that in any other context would be considered assault, the question becomes: why is a white man’s PG-rated strip tease worth talking about? This is worth considering because it is incredibly easy to observe cultural happenings and forget about them in favour of the next shock-value culture piece of news. As consumers of mainstream media, it is an invaluable skill to recognize societal, racial and sexual inequalities as they are presented. Critical consumption and awareness will lend itself to making much of this world a more comfortable place for all humans to thrive in their diversity. Simply asking questions and analyzing privilege is a good starting platform for the race toward equality.

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