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The Blinding Breast

The investigation of last week's halftime show demonstrates laughably misplaced priorities


Shock value has become commonplace in American popular culture—as evidenced by the licentious acts that continue to find their way onto the small screen. There was the female-on-female kiss exchanged between two of pop’s biggest super stars during the MTV Music Awards—a program geared toward preadolescent fans. There was J. Lo’s green Versace dress barely held in place by double-sided tape. And now, of course, there is Janet Jackson’s notorious “wardrobe malfunction” during the Super Bowl halftime show a little more than a week ago. In recent years, celebrities have pushed the proverbial envelope, never failing to capture countless US Weekly covers and top story honors on Entertainment Tonight. The recent Super Bowl performance by Jackson and fellow pop idol Justin Timberlake was yet another publicity ploy—it is of course no coincidence that Janet has a new album due out. Yet somehow, despite the predictability, inevitability and plain stupidity of these events, according to Federal Communication Commission (FCC) Chairman Michael K. Powell, this one performance warrants an extensive investigation.

The one briefly exposed breast—its nipple coyly shielded by a solid silver sun—apparently caused severe emotional trauma to millions of Americans all across this fair nation who were inappropriately exposed to this intimate part of the female body. After the performance, the FCC received hundreds of thousands of complaints for the display. One Tennessee woman has vowed to sue both parties involved because the act caused her “serious injury.” But while the performance was clearly in poor taste, it certainly does not merit such a serious outcry—and certainly not such a strong response from the FCC. At a moment when there are serious concerns regarding America’s media—such as the ever-troubling problem of deregulation and increasing conglomeration—a fading diva’s bad attempt to generate publicity should not be the FCC’s primary concern.

Furthermore, the laws that govern these television broadcasts are ludicrous in their arbitrary application—to the point of absurdity. The traditional few-second delay of live performances allows for only verbal indiscretions to be deleted, while more flagrant displays of inappropriate behavior are left for public consumption. As for the words deleted, the determination of what can and cannot be said (and when) on network television is bound by complicated legal codes. Due to this strange condition, for last week’s Grammy Awards telecast, CBS employed an astounding 5-minute video delay to preempt any “indecent” or “obscene” material from finding its way into living rooms nationwide. In the wake of the silly Super Bowl controversy, NBC deleted a brief scene from the Feb. 5 episode of “ER,” which revealed the breast of an elderly woman. With the FCC looming overhead in loco parentis, the airwaves are submitting to ridiculous self-censorship.

If the FCC wants to curb indecencies on television, perhaps it would be more useful to place limits on some of the outrageous reality-TV shows that feature men and women in overtly sexual situations wearing nothing more than skimpy swimwear. And, if not, they should realize that primetime television will continue to cross the line unless they pursue some uniformity and prudence in their disapprovals. Until that time arrives, they should leave it up to the NFL to decide what performance acts should grace the stage at halftime.

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