Recognizing a person’s traumatic humiliation one moment and blaming them for it in the next breath requires a stunning cognitive dissonance. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what former MTV senior Vice President Salli Frattini does at the climax of Malfunction: The Dressing Down Of Janet Jackson, the latest installment of FX’s The New York Time Presents docuseries.
As she recounts the events that culminated in the now-infamous wardrobe malfunction at Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004, the former exec notes that Jackson appeared visibly upset as she exited the stage, then chose to leave town before facing anyone. Frattini never takes a moment to consider why the pop star may not have felt comfortable facing a potential inquisition mere moments after her breast was exposed to millions on national television. (She does, however, reserve enough time to hypothesize that the moment was, at minimum, partially manufactured by the “wardrobe stylist and artist.”)
Instead, Frattini praises Justin Timberlake, the pop fixture and collaborating performer directly involved in the incident who stuck around after the performance to offer a shaky apology. “He manned up,” she says without offering any additional insight.
Frattini is joined by former senators, the Parents Television and Media Council, NFL big wigs, and Super Bowl production members to exhume a narrative that has effectively blocked Jackson from experiencing the same busy, legendary career that has been afforded to her similarly autonomous contemporaries. Family members, pop culture analysts, former record label execs, and journalists temper that judgment with the same support and insights that faithful fans have offered for almost two decades.
What is notably missing is an account from Jackson herself—a development that production can’t possibly control, but one that ultimately affects the final product in a deeply noticeable way. And while some moments offer enlightening context, Malfunction still leaves the viewer with shards of a story that only the artist can reasonably glue together. It ends up serving as more of a platform for Timberlake’s potential redemption (yes, even with the inclusion of some apt criticism), which feels like an especially egregious outcome that raises questions about who this documentary is for.
The new hour-long deep dive bears a few similarities to its high-profile predecessor, Framing Britney Spears, including the glaring absence of the subject. Just as Spears declined to comment for reasons likely linked to her then-active conservatorship, a title card at the end informs the viewer that Jackson declined to participate through her publicist (who also happens to be Timberlake’s). Jackson is also currently busy with her own documentary, Janet, which will air on Lifetime and A&E in 2022.
Additionally, both installments provide critical context that paints a clearer picture of what drove the culture-wide response. This is especially necessary in understanding how Jackson’s gaffe—an incident that would have likely fizzled after a brief tabloid blitz had it occurred today—yielded a domino effect of lasting consequences driven by a longstanding culture war.
More importantly, both documentaries detail the ways that Timberlake not only benefited from the misogyny that hindered the success of these women but also stoked and repeatedly prospered from it. In both cases, the artist was able to evade consequences and scrutiny from those in power. He even benefitted artistically, whether it was through music that vilified Spears or a return to the Super Bowl in 2018, where he got to glibly reference the disaster in his halftime performance. In both works, it’s clear that these women suffered unearned consequences and are still rebuilding to this day.
Framing Britney Spears distilled the complex matter of Spears’ conservatorship and positioned itself as the start of her long-awaited vindication. There was a clear sense of purpose, an effort to hold an unforgiving mirror up to a public that participated in the pop star’s downfall. With Jackson, there doesn’t appear to be a similar sense of urgency. There is no paparazzi or conservative pundit to show marginal remorse for their role in her descent. There is no high-level network exec to admit that such vociferous backlash was unnecessary. To Malfunction’s credit, it never claims to offer redemption for Jackson. But the difference in tones between these two approaches within the same documentary series is jarring.
Urban One Inc. founder Cathy Hughes, journalists Jenna Wortham and Touré, and author Shannon Holland offer essential insight on the ways race and gender greatly impacted Jackson’s prolonged exile from many sects of the industry; they save Malfunction from being a total wash. Still, there’s a pervasive need among the doc’s more vocal talking heads to blame Jackson for her own downfall. Though there are multiple references towards Jackson’s various apologies, there are still implications that she didn’t apologize enough, which led to her absence from the Grammys, years of jokes, flat record debuts, and a lasting grudge held by Les Moonves, then-CEO of CBS, who, in 2018, was ousted in the wake of multiple allegations of sexual assault and harassment.
There’s just a distinct lack of empathy: In a documentary already rife with conjecture from those far removed from the issue (or close enough to it to only center on themselves), there’s little consideration from those still opposed to Jackson—or even from those seemingly neutral—that asking someone to repeatedly apologize for their own trauma might be inhumane.
To add insult to injury, Jackson isn’t even granted the last word in her own story. That honor essentially goes to Timberlake in the form of a questionably timed apology to her and Britney Spears. Of course, there’s no time to unpack it. Instead, it becomes another missed opportunity to offer just a little more grace to the woman who suffered the most.
What makes such oversights perplexing is that the Malfunction team has demonstrated a keen understanding of what’s at stake for Jackson. In a recent interview with Vanity Fair, Gomes and Robertson both acknowledge the uneven retelling of events by the media, how Jackson’s identity as a sexually free Black woman was weaponized against her, and how such a topic needed to be approached responsibly as to not retraumatize her.
An ostensibly well-meaning Gomes tells Vanity Fair they felt it was important to show “both sides of the equation in order to tell a fair and balanced story.” While that’s understandable from a journalistic point-of-view, Jackson’s absence ultimately accomplishes the opposite effect. When, for instance, you air Frattini’s supposition of what transpired behind the scenes without having Jackson there to confirm it or defend herself, this only provides a breeding ground for more speculation. This doesn’t create balance, just additional harm.
Malfunction better serves future generations of pop culturalists who have little knowledge of the events that led to the induction of the term “wardrobe malfunction” into our modern-day lexicon. For the Janet fan looking for an overdue call to action, it’s best to find solace in the online communities that have been educating and advocating for years. Better yet, just wait until Ms. Jackson is ready to tell her own story.