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What a Show!

After six years of Samantha’s Sex and the City exploits, how could the two-second baring of Janet Jackson’s breast spark such a culture war?

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You’d think, after six years of Sex (and the City) education, we could collectively withstand the blunt-force impact of a bare breast.

After all, for months the collective pop-cultural-media brain trust was largely devoted to an extended celebration of bawdy female sexuality. What we were all supposed to be focusing on all through February—what we’d obediently agreed to focus on—was the triumphal final season of HBO’s Sex and the City, which airs its last episode on February 22. But the extended, drawn-out denouement (personally, I wanted to read about a dozen more stories about just how sad Sarah Jessica Parker is) was instantly upstaged by a quivering D-cup (minus the cup). And all the hard work Carrie and Charlotte and Miranda and Samantha (especially Samantha) did to bring breasts—and butts and clits and dicks and even dildos—into the open has somehow been trumped, rendered moot, by Janet’s strip show.

For six years, Sex and the City systematically took on every sexual taboo—from anal sex to what to do if your date’s semen tastes funky—and was celebrated for doing so. It wasn’t just a hit, it was a wedge against the Puritans, the moralists, the religious zealots. It redefined what could get on television—cable and broadcast. It was crude, yes, but wittily crude; it elevated standards for TV-grade titillation. The ever-expanding SATC effect (which affected the public discourse about sex and feminism and fashion) represented the new hegemony of the enlightened creative community (HBO is arguably the dominant force in that community) over the conservative bores. The show took a certain giddy delight in its high-gloss trashiness, in taking the piss out of potential critics. (Remember when Carrie dated a politician who wanted her to urinate on him? Politicians getting pissed on! Lucille Ball shoulda had such material!)


Really, given half a dozen years of Sex, the stage was simply not set for the sort of massive convulsion of righteousness and outrage we’ve seen post–Super Bowl. True, the breast unveiling took place during TV’s equivalent of Thanksgiving. But, remember, the last big, all-consuming media moment before halftime was the Paris Hilton sex tape—and she went on to have a hit prime-time Fox show. Much of America—pretty much everyone with an Internet connection— saw her performing fellatio (an act which is still technically illegal in some states), but we were generally blasé about it. Samantha—the ultimate oral-sex enthusiast—surely paved the way.

Now, bizarrely, the clock is being turned back. The Grammy Awards ceremony (on which Justin offered his sheepish apology on behalf of Janet’s right boob) was broadcast “live” with an unprecedented five-minute delay to prevent any similar displays. The Oscars will be similarly broadcast-delayed. MTV has relegated its raciest videos to nighttime. Madison Avenue is reevaluating campaigns and its advertising commitment to TV’s racier fare. The halftime fracas, in other words, is not just a media creation; it’s having real, tangible repercussions.

And the backlash, it seems, is accruing mostly to the breast—and its owner. Janet Jackson, curiously, is getting most of the blame, while Justin—a gifted, preternaturally mature performer—has strategically regressed, in the Super Bowl aftermath, to his boy-band persona: a sweet little ol’ Nashville boy who is all too easily flustered (shocked, even!) by a blatant display of female sexuality. The spin his people have been putting on his participation in the halftime peep show goes like this: He was attacked by some sort of floppy, pierce-eyed Cyclops. It came after him! It’s akin to how all those 11-year-old girls used to fling themselves at him during his ’N Sync wonder years. He was just an innocent bystander. You know how crazy chicks can be!


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