When Do You Confront Your Problematic Fave?

If you were to ask those close to me, they would likely name two things for which they know me best: being an unapologetic feminist and shamelessly loving Justin Timberlake.

It may seem like the two aren’t mutually exclusive, but that’s how it’s been from a young age. (He’s the only person who could make me pay almost $200 for his show and sit in 100 degree weather at Yankee Stadium, which is a cardinal sin as a Mets fan.) Ever since he broke out with *NSYNC on their self-titled debut in 1998, I’ve been charmed by his exceptional talent, bold charisma and blue eyes — despite all the questionable hair phases. That crush quickly set on fire once the former boy bander went solo and released Justified in 2002, debuting as a certified sex symbol.

I hate to admit it, but Justin Timberlake ruined all men for me over the last 20 years. Our society’s systemic negligence of gender equality might’ve had a hand in that too.

Growing up in a household where traditional roles were perceivably switched — my mother worked full-time while my father, who was retired, stayed home to take care of the kids — I found it difficult to believe the opposite was considered the standard. Once it became clear that was the case, I felt it necessary to show how both sexes were capable of the same things. This crusade innocently started in grade school, but I wouldn’t learn until middle school that it was part of a larger movement known as feminism. 

This is also the time when we couldn’t stop talking about the nipple heard around the world. In 2004, pop royalty Janet Jackson was set to perform at the Super Bowl halftime show. During the performance, Janet surprised the crowd by welcoming Justin onstage with a rendition of his song, “Rock Your Body.” They reportedly planned to close out the number with Justin ripping off part of her leather bustier, but instead exposed her naked breast on national TV. (It’s safe to say that people were stunned, including Janet.)


Super Bowl XXXVIII: Halftime Show
The scene of “Nipplegate,” 2004.

Following the incident, Janet was ordered by CBS to record a televised apology, disinvited from the 2004 Grammys and blacklisted from major pop music radio and TV stations. In the decade it took for Janet to get her mainstream career back on track, Justin’s had skyrocketed from an up-and-coming solo act to a global franchise. He publicly apologized for the incident during his acceptance speech at the Grammys that year — to which he was still invited — but it didn’t curb his success in the slightest. (Justin recently claimed in an interview with Zane Lowe that he’s even apologized to Janet in private.)

He had become pop’s golden boy — he could do no wrong, especially in my eyes. 

At the time, I had convinced myself that “Nipplegate” was just a publicity stunt gone awry — given wardrobe malfunctions had become en vogue among celebrities then — sending Janet into cultural exile. (Sure, you could say that it made me a bad feminist, but you can’t deny the savagery of teenage hormones either.)

Now, fourteen years later, I’ve come to question my own choices as our society embarks on a paradigm shift of accountability. Feminism has become widely popularized in an age of social media, offering a public platform for many to advocate for women’s rights. The issue of sexual assault has gained enough attention on the world stage that it has launched multiple campaigns, including the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements.

Since graduating college, I’ve explored every nuance that comes with identifying as a feminist — most importantly how to understand the disenfranchisement of all women — in a way that has ripened my perspective. It feels so validating to witness women today taking their rightful seats at the table and demanding the support of their male counterparts in multiple industries.

Earlier this year, Justin voiced his solidarity with women and donated to the #TimesUp movement in light of reports about rampant sexual abuse in Hollywood. This gesture came on the heels of his starring role in the latest Woody Allen film, which seems quite counterintuitive since Allen has been accused of child molestation for decades. (It has yet to be seen what #TimesUp will accomplish, but it’s doubtful that it will protect men like Allen.) 

If that social faux pas wasn’t enough, Justin announced that he would be returning to headline at the Super Bowl halftime show this year. In the days leading up to the game, it became clear that Janet would not get her redemption onstage, but Justin would instead be joined by a Prince hologram during a tribute to the late icon. Of course, the internet and Prince’s estate wasn’t having either decision. In response to the backlash, he nixed the hologram last-minute for a projection of the Purple One on a giant, dangling sheet. (It definitely wasn’t an improvement.)

As a longtime JT fan, I actually found most of his performance to be unreasonable and messy. (At least he didn’t play anything from his abysmal new album.) Sure, one could argue that Justin faced enormous pressure to not screw up his chance like the last time, but he clearly milked it for notoriety to the point where he disrespected two icons. He could’ve known he had nothing to risk if it all backfired, learning from his last performance at the Super Bowl, so he chose to proceed with desecrating Prince’s wishes and snubbing the woman who broke his fall from grace.

Either way, Janet is probably better off since the NFL is now embroiled in even more controversy, from racial tensions surrounding the national anthem to the ongoing neglect of CTE diagnoses. (Besides, her summer is pretty jam-packed anyway.) It’s almost as if Justin was chosen to perform at this year’s halftime show as a way to gloss over these blemishes and garner more ratings due to his mass appeal.

After years of diehard fandom, I’m realizing now that his impish persona is starting to wear thin. It may or may not be the sign of our “woke” culture, but his goofs are becoming less charming and taking on serious weight. He continues to step on the shoulders of giants so he can maintain his natural-born privilege, however mediocre. It’s hard to watch the downward slump of his fizzling magnetism, but it might just be necessary viewing.

Featured image courtesy of CNN. Inset image courtesy of TIME

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