M.I.A.’s Response to the NFL Reminds Us Of Why We Love M.I.A.

With the interminable Justin Timberlake/Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction saga finally drawing to a close last year, the world was bereft of a ridiculous Super Bowl scandal for the first time in a decade. But, happily for the moral “majority,” this wasn’t the case for long — as you’ll no doubt remember from the insane amount of publicity that surrounded it, M.I.A. naughtily flipped the bird to the camera at last year’s halftime show. Now, a year and a half later, the NFL is demanding that she pay them $1.5 million for damage to its squeaky-clean reputation. Thankfully, M.I.A. is having none of this nonsense, and this morning issued a statement on the whole silly affair that is a) 100% correct and b) a welcome reminder of the whole reason we loved her in the first place.

The manufactured “controversy” over a middle finger that would otherwise have been forgotten about three seconds after it was raised is the sort of hectoring moralism that gives this country a bad name, an extension of the curiously American point of view wherein huge amounts of violence are perfectly OK in pop culture, so long as there are no titties. The obvious parallel, of course, is the infamous Jackson incident in 2004, wherein two seconds of exposed breast led to nine years of ongoing court action and the addition of a new phrase to the English language forever after.

In both cases, the pitchfork-waving outrage of our volunteer moral police force has led to a sort of Streisand effect, in which the publicity has led to more people seeing the allegedly offensive image than the original incident ever did. If the NFL was worried about the damage to its reputation as a result of M.I.A. raising her middle finger for a split second, it’s hard to see how this suit does anything but perpetuate such damage, especially since neither the FCC nor NBC, which aired the game, made a fuss about it. The sensible thing to do would have been to let the whole silly business lie.

But no, because faux outrage is what the US’s lunatic fringe tends to specialize in, and the NFL knows who its audience is — so what better way to demonstrate your “moral” credentials than to slap down a woman of color for doing something “outrageous”? It must be said that it’s a peculiar sort of morality wherein a sport whose very nature tends to leave its players with calamitous brain injuries is wholesome family entertainment, but a singer flipping the bird for about half a second is somehow enough to inflict lasting damage on that sport’s reputation. (And I say this as a sports fan, for the record.)

There’s also the point, which M.I.A. herself raises, that “the frame you’re looking for has my middle finger in the foreground, and the larger picture where it zooms out is a row of 10-15 cheerleaders, young black females, that Madonna got from a local high school in Indianapolis, and they were all under 16. If you look at them, they’re all wearing cheerleader outfits, hips thrusted in the air, legs wide open, in this very sexually provocative position.” This, again, is apparently perfectly OK (but the sight of an 37-year-old woman’s uncovered breast for two seconds was a moral outrage of cosmic proportions).

In a way, it’s rather worth hoping this does go to court, if only to see exactly what a judge makes of the NFL’s claim to a “reputation for wholesomeness.” But, of course, it won’t — M.I.A. is most likely correct in saying that “It’s a massive waste of time, a massive waste of money, it’s a massive display of powerful corporation dick-shaking. They want me on my knees [to] say sorry so they can slap me on my wrist.” The $1.5 million figure is an outlandish sum meant to intimidate, accompanied by a statement designed to kick the outrage machine into full effect. Balls to that. Here’s hoping M.I.A. fights this tooth and nail.