What a Show!

Photo: Craig Blankenhorn, HBO

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!)

Photo: AP WideWorld

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!

Though the halftime spectacle certainly seemed like a classic male-on-female ravaging—Justin ripping Janet’s clothes off, presumably as a prelude to having his way with her—the opposite was true. Justin, clearly, was just a victim. So was National Football League commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who testified before Congress last Wednesday that as he “started looking at the halftime show, I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach.” (More violence against men!) Mel Karmazin, president and COO of Viacom (the parent company of CBS, which broadcast the Super Bowl) and MTV (which produced the halftime show), was another victim. He spoke solemnly before the congressional committee about CBS’s internal investigation: The network conducted interviews with some 50 “witnesses” of the events leading up to halftime, as if it were a capital-crime case. The citizens of Harris County, Texas, in whose stadium the crime took place, are victims, too—their local legislators are looking into imposing a “morality clause,” from now on, in the contracts of performers who ride into their town. And the 200,000 Americans who lodged complaints with the FCC were surely victims, as was the Tennessee woman who briefly filed a class-action lawsuit, demanding unspecified billions in damages from the perpetrators of this act.

If Janet Jackson’s breast could do billions of dollars of damage, surely the Sex and the City six-season boxed set, when it comes out, could bring down the world’s economy.

Forget wardrobe malfunction. The key element of the insta-strip-show’s failure was that it was handled with utter, udder seriousness. Janet Jackson in full “Rhythm Nation” regalia, singing a medley of her old hits, and doing those spastic, Paula Abdul–esque dance moves with her nasty-girl and nasty-boy dancers—it had a depressingly retro feel. We were watching an artist whose once vital career has been preserved in amber. It was 1989 again. Then there was the specter of her brother Michael, who is experiencing his own Groundhog Day moment (his 2004 is 1993), hanging over the stage.

And then, because Janet’s strip show became the most TiVo’ed moment in history, her pendulous breast—it pains me to note that it is no longer pert—was typically viewed in ominous, ultra-slow-mo, perp-walk style. (In real time, the flash of her breast hardly registered; it was little more than a “Did I just see that?” moment.) And thus it became perhaps the most parsed few seconds of footage since the Zapruder film. (Justin Timberlake, we’ve all concluded, could not possibly have acted alone.)

The triumph of Sex—what allowed it to triumph—is that it cut its brazen sexuality with humor. In fact, as assiduous as it’s been about sensitively cataloguing the travails of modern gals juggling the demands of life and love and work and shoes, it’s often treated sex as little more than fodder for screwball comedy.

Whereas Janet Jackson’s breast—unleashed on a world that wasn’t expecting it—just underscored the sadness of sex.

Okay, you know what?

There’s an upside here. Our collective temporary insanity—dear G-d, please let it be temporary—about Janet has distracted us from the final episodes of Sex and the City. Which, truth be told, have ended up seeming gratuitously sad—and not just because the show’s drag-queens-at-the-clown-rodeo wardrobe schtick (particularly in regard to Sarah Jessica Parker) has definitively passed from glam to gruesome.

This season, of course, the sex-crazed Samantha character, played by Kim Cattrall, was diagnosed with breast cancer. In a multipart story arc that’s taken her from discovery (she’d gone in to get a boob job) to lumpectomy to chemo, Sex has been uncharacteristically (and awkwardly) saddled with sustained gravitas. The show’s sense of comedy this season has strayed in the direction of be-strong-Samantha gallows humor. Hilarity doesn’t ensue, for instance, when she’s on her knees giving her handsome actor boyfriend head, and while he’s grasping her hair in ecstacy, a clump of it falls out into his hand. (He loses his erection, and then later shaves his blond mane, somewhat predictably, in solidarity with Samantha.)

Janet Jackson’s career has been drooping for years. Sex and the City was hot almost till the end. Then the show had to go all Lifetime on us. (If it had gone a seventh season, what remaining women’s topics could it have possibly tackled? Female genital circumcision? Hermaphroditism?)

Janet Jackson may never have known that sex is funny. Sex and the City always knew—but then, at the very last minute, forgot. Perhaps the final taboo, the one no one needed Sex to try to break, is earnestness.

What a Show!