Nipples have dominated the conversation for the past 24 hours. Specifically, Adam Levine’s nipples, which were on full display Sunday during the halftime show of Super Bowl LIII. In a moment so brief you’d have missed it if you blinked or got up to get more queso (just me?), the Maroon 5 frontman unceremoniously removed his tank top. And before the garment hit the stage, viewers flooded Twitter with comparisons to another famously nipply halftime show.
Fifteen years ago, Justin Timberlake tore back the leather bustier worn by Janet Jackson (Miss Jackson, if you’re nasty) accidentally on purpose to reveal her pasty-covered breast. Following the “wardrobe malfunction” seen ’round the world, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) fined CBS over $500,000 by for airing “Nipplegate,” and Jackson’s career took a beating.
“Poor Adam he showed his nips at the Super Bowl so now his career will be ruined like Janet’s. OH WAIT Never mind!!!!” tweeted author Glennon Doyle on Sunday; “Super Bowl halftime nipple rules feel inconsistent,” added ESPN+ host Katie Nolan.
I joined the fray myself. Responding to Mashable’s headline, “Adam Levine showed his nipples during the Super Bowl halftime show and didn’t get in trouble at all,” I tweeted, “Didn’t you hear? Male-presenting nipples are A-OK.”
In response, I received a barrage of tweets that laid bare the real issue, and how it is rooted much deeper than Janet versus Adam. “Feel free to show us your tits Abbey. If not, stfu,” a delightful troll told me. Another offered a bit more detail: “I agree Janet was mistreated but it’s not the same thing. If you’re comfortable with losing your bikini top on the beach to #freethenip then your point is valid. But otherwise you’re probably facilitating the societal norm where female chests are more sexualized than male ones.”
Let me tell you, alfrdthegr8, I’m not facilitating that norm; I’m living in a world where it’s the reality. But since you invoked the Free the Nipple Movement, let’s take a look at what it’s all about. Because, to paraphrase my good friends, the cast of Vanderpump Rules, it’s not about the nipples. “Just because our movement is called ‘Free The Nipple’ doesn’t mean we want the whole world to go on a topless revolution. It’s about having that right and that choice,” Free the Nipple founder Lina Esco told Mic in 2015.
“Women’s breasts are not the problem,” activist and author of Rage Becomes Her Soraya Chemaly told Mic for the same feature. “Sexual objectification is the problem. There’s a difference between sexualization and sexuality. Breasts don’t hurt children, breasts feed children, and it’s the sexualization of women’s bodies that’s actually hurting children the most.”
What we’re really talking about when we talk about nipples is power and ownership.
Without going full Feminist Theory 101, sexual objectification (as defined by the researchers Barbara L. Fredrickson and Tomi‐Ann Roberts, in 1997) is when a person’s—usually a woman’s—body parts and sexual functions “are isolated from her whole and complex being and treated as objects simply to be looked at, coveted, or touched.” Which is why what we’re really talking about when we talk about nipples is power and ownership.
Who’s the one deciding how a person’s sexuality should be displayed? Who’s acting as arbiter of acceptability? Is it the individual, or is it The Man? When Adam Levine, People magazine’s 2013 Sexiest Man Alive, declares he’s quite literally too sexy for his shirt by throwing his tank top on the ground and the world responds with a shoulder shrug, it sends the message that he’s empowered to make his own decisions regarding how his sexuality is portrayed. But when Jackson’s breast is exposed (by a man, mind you) and society collectively clutches its pearls, it sends the message that what she’s doing is shameful.
“The shaming of the female nipple is a direct reflection of how unevolved this puritanical country is,” Esco told Time in 2015. “You can pay to see women topless in porn videos and strip clubs, but the moment a woman owns her body, it’s shameful.”
And here’s where I want to shift the comparison away from Jackson and her not-quite-bare nipple and to look instead at Beyoncé. During her Super Bowl halftime show in 2013, Queen Bey remained fully clothed—no nipples on display here, folks!—and she was still lambasted as too sexy for the Super Bowl. “You can have clothes on, and still perform well!” one detractor posted on Today Entertainment’s Facebook page. Hey, guess what? She did have clothes on. So, then, why was Beyoncé’s performance so upsetting for many viewers? She was expressing her sexuality on her own terms, rather than adhering to the notions of woman as object put forth by our patriarchal society (yep, I’m gonna go there). Whether she’s freeing her nipple, getting in formation, or saying no in a situation that makes her uncomfortable, a woman in control of her sexual power is a terrifying thing for the status quo.
As Esco points out, “The normalization of the nipple will take time.” It won’t happen overnight that the United States becomes a place where women can openly “show their tits,” as that Twitter user requested I do. But we can start inching our way toward progress by changing the way we react to how women and men choose to display their sexuality. Of course everyone (the FCC included) thought Adam Levine’s display of sexuality was NBD—we’ve been conditioned to think of it that way. It’s time to begin conditioning ourselves to be equally accepting when a woman chooses to openly display her sexuality.
The f-word—feminism—can be scary, too. Here’s the moment that Ladies Get Paid founder Claire Wasserman decided to claim it for herself. And check out this new Instagram account spotlighting the work of early Black feminists.
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