Do We Really Need to Give Janet Jackson the Britney Spears Treatment?

These documentaries may have seemed groundbreaking at first, but are they just the same old exploitation refashioned for the 2020s?

Janet Jackson attends the Pre-GRAMMY Gala and GRAMMY Salute to Industry Icons Honoring Sean "Diddy" Combs at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 25, 2020 in Beverly Hills, California.
Are these documentaries revolutionary, or exploitative?
Gabriel Olsen/FilmMagic

Many years ago, a brief glimpse of a woman’s pasty-covered breast sparked mass moral outrage. Unfortunately, this incident and the seemingly antiquated response it elicited did not occur in the notoriously repressed Victorian era or even in the 20th century. Rather, this particular incident happened onstage during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show, when Justin Timberlake tore off a portion of Janet Jackson’s costume, leaving her breast exposed in what has often been referred to as a wardrobe malfunction (though this characterization of events is disputed.)

The incident sparked widespread hand-wringing and pearl-clutching and ultimately stalled Jackson’s career. Now, closing in on two decades later, it seems we’re still not done talking about it. Page Six reports a documentary about the needlessly infamous “wardrobe malfunction” is in the works from Left/Right TV, the production company behind the buzzy Britney Spears documentary Framing Britney Spears, which premiered earlier this year to extensive media coverage and quickly dominated online discourse.

The Britney Spears doc has been credited with sparking a pop culture reckoning regarding the media’s mistreatment of female celebrities, shedding light on the ways in which stars like Spears and her early-aughts contemporaries were exploited. It doesn’t exactly come as a surprise that a Jackson documentary would follow the success of Spears’. After all, both women were the subjects of intense media scrutiny and slut-shaming that threatened their careers, and the Jackson incident was actually referenced in the Spears doc. Not to mention, both narratives share a supporting character/villain in the form of Justin Timberlake, who has been accused of contributing to the slut-shaming that followed Spears after the couple’s highly publicized breakup, as well as benefitting from the “wardrobe malfunction” that trampled Jackson’s career.

Calls for an apology from Timberlake surfaced in the aftermath of the Spears doc, which the star eventually answered. “I am deeply sorry for the times in my life where my actions contributed to the problem, where I spoke out of turn, or did not speak up for what was right,” he wrote in an apology on Instagram. “I understand that I fell short in these moments and in many others and benefited from a system that condones misogyny and racism.”

However, while Framing Britney Spears was initially praised for sparking these conversations and shining a long overdue light on the horrific maltreatment of female celebrities, some have begun to question whether this renewed media scrutiny simply represents another form of the same kind of exploitation refashioned for the 2020s with a veneer of performative wokeness. News of the pending Jackson documentary follows rumors of a bevy of follow-up Spears docs reportedly in the works that surfaced on Twitter last week.

News of the forthcoming Spears docs received swift backlash from fans accusing production companies of turning the rehashing of the star’s trauma into a cash-grab, only subjecting her to more exploitation in the process.

The Jackson doc seems to be little more than yet another example of the media trying to strike while the iron is hot and turn a celebrity’s old trauma into profit. Moreover, the women whose stories are being exploited appear to be left out of this reframing of their own narratives. While Spears remained mum on the doc for weeks after its premiere, she eventually admitted to feeling “embarrassed” by it. Meanwhile, Jackson already has her own two-part documentary in the works, so while Page Six reports it remains unclear whether Jackson will be involved in the new project, sources told the outlet she is “unlikely” to support it.

While ostensibly offering a groundbreaking referendum on the media misdeeds of yore, these documentaries seem to do little more than thrust these women back into the spotlight while cutting their mics, once again exploiting their stories and denying them the right to take agency over their own narratives.

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