The Material Girl was upstaged by . . . a bird?
Just before the eighth minute of Madonna’s Super Bowl XLVI halftime performance Sunday night, the middle finger of rapper M.I.A. stole the show from the pop icon.
M.I.A., a 37-year-old British hip-hop artist of Sri Lankan descent, flipped her left middle digit toward the camera for 110 million viewers’ pleasure at the end of her verse on Madonna’s new single, “Give Me All Your Luvin’.” The rapper’s accompanying lyrics, “I don’t give a [expletive],” were unclear to the audience.
Eight years ago, during the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show featuring Janet Jackson, guest performer Justin Timberlake ripped off a portion of Jackson’s costume, momentarily exposing her right breast, which was adorned with a nipple shield, on live television. His lyrics: "Bet I'll have you naked by the end of this song.”
Ellen Goodman, a Rutgers-Camden law professor and communications law expert, sees similarities between M.I.A.’s finger in Super Bowl XLVI and Janet Jackson’s, ahem, nipple from Super Bowl XXXVIII. “This is not different from the ‘wardrobe malfunction,’ except that it was intentional, which makes it easier to censure,” says Goodman, referencing the euphemism made infamous by Timberlake’s publicist during “Nipplegate.”
A widespread indecency debate followed the 2004 incident, as did increased Federal Communications Commission (FCC) scrutiny, and a $550,000 fine for CBS, which aired the sporting event.
According to an apologetic statement released by NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy, the league had no reason to believe M.I.A. would make such a gesture during Sunday night’s show. Apparently, she had not done anything vaguely similar during rehearsal. “The obscene gesture in the performance was completely inappropriate, very disappointing and we apologize to our fans,” said McCarthy.
Now, other non-middle fingers are pointing. The NFL blames NBC for the delayed censor, NBC blames the NFL for the show’s content, and the Parents Television Council, a conservative media watchdog group, blames both the NFL and NBC for booking and, thereby enabling, multiple performers with histories of shocking behavior, including Madonna’s other guests CeeLo Green, Nicki Minaj, and party rockers LMFAO.
Considering the plausible repercussions for M.I.A.’s finger, Goodman, who has served as Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the FCC, says the agency has never, to her knowledge, decided whether “the bird” is indecent. “Broadcasters act as if it is and it probably does fall within the ‘fleeting expletives’ policy.”
This uptick in discussion of “fleeting indecency” in broadcasting is certainly timely. Just last month, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments about the FCC’s role in policing the airwaves. The court is currently deliberating whether the FCC’s indecency regulations violate the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech and the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process.
Goodman doubts the FCC will levy any fines for Sunday night’s middle finger until the Supreme Court delivers its ruling on the FCC’s policies. “It will be very close – hard to predict which way the court will go,” she says.
How close? In a 5 to 4 ruling on the FCC’s indecency policy in 2009, Justice Antonin Scalia stated that the government agency was well within its rights to protect the public against what he called “foul-mouthed glitteratae from Hollywood.”