The New York Times debuted a documentary, “Framing Britney Spears,” on Hulu and FX. Though I rarely watch “celebrity” profile pieces, I decided to watch this because of the buzz it has been generating on Twitter.
Instead of your run-of-the mill piece of tabloid sensationalism, this documentary raises a lot of important questions about how we treat celebrities. More specifically, it shines a light on the inherent sexism, bordering on misogyny, in our society — how young women’s bodies are consumed and controlled by the media and fans — and how mental illness is often the fastest route to a punchline. It’s a sobering watch.
The documentary starts out showing how a young, talented girl from small town Louisiana was given permission to move to New York, under the protection and watch of an “assistant,” so she could take acting classes and go on auditions. Spears had some successes early on: She appeared on “Star Search,” and was an actor/singer/dancer on Disney’s “All New Mickey Mouse Club,” alongside Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, and Ryan Gosling. After performing in malls, she finally got her breakout with the single “Hit Me Baby, One More Time.” The video, in which she’s wearing a sexy schoolgirl uniform — complete with mini skirt, thigh high socks, and a bare midriff — was on regular rotation, and generated a lot of talk. “Was she too sexual?” “Was she a “bad influence” on young fans?” And so on.
From the clips shown, early on in her career Spears seemed flirtatious, sweet, and accommodating. Journalists took advantage of her good nature, by asking her inappropriate questions about her body and her sex life, and she responded by giggling or hiding her face and smiling. The paparazzi essentially stalked her, and she would wave at them and stop to let them get their photos. Spears was an attractive, all-American “sweetheart” who people wanted to date and/or become. She seemed to have it all.
Then things went south. She and Timberlake, with whom she had had a relationship for three years, broke up, and she was painted as a villain; a “slut.” Much of this can be laid at Timberlake’s feet, who made a music video about being betrayed with a look-a-like Spears in the background. Furthermore, he engaged in “laddish” behavior, by confirming in interviews that Spears was no longer a virgin, “wink wink.” At one point, he appeared on the cover of Details magazine. His image accompanied by the words: “Can we ever forgive Timberlake for all that ‘sissy music?’ Hey … At least he got into Britney’s pants!” Wow, toxic masculinity and misogyny in just two quick lines. Nice job, Details.
With the release of the documentary, fans of Spears and of Timberlake took to social media, calling on him for an apology.
And he responded on Instagram:
“I’ve seen the messages, tags, comments, and concerns and I want to respond. I am deeply sorry for the times in my life where my actions contributed to the problem, where I spoke out of turn, or did not speak up for what was right. I understand that I fell short in these moments and in many others and benefited from a system that condones misogyny and racism. I specifically want to apologize to Britney Spears and Janet Jackson both individually, because I care for and respect these women and I know I failed.
I also feel compelled to respond, in part, because everyone involved deserves better and most importantly, because this is a larger conversation that I wholeheartedly want to be part of and grow from …
The industry is flawed. It sets men, especially white men, up for success. It’s designed this way. As a man in a privileged position, I have to be vocal about this. Because of my ignorance, I didn’t recognize it for all that it was while it was happening in my own life but I do not want to ever benefit from others being pulled down again.”
Jackson is included in the apology, because during their 2004 halftime Super Bowl performance, she suffered a much talked about “wardrobe malfunction”; a so-called “nip slip.” She took heat for it and her career was negatively impacted. Timberlake, at that time, remained silent; his career continued to flourish.
Fast forward, Spears pairs up with dancer/bad boy Kevin Federline, they get married, have kids, and are divorced. It is during this time in her life that she has her infamous “head shaving” and “tattooing” meltdown. From that point on, the paparazzi are relentless. One photographer interviewed for the documentary explained that the weeklies were paying $1 million for a good shot. No doubt, the more disheveled and frazzled the better. Spears, who was once so kind and “affectionate” to the photographers, was now attacking their SUVs with umbrellas. Her dignity for quick money.
It is around this time — 2008 — that Spears’ father, Jamie, who was, by all accounts was an absent opportunist, became conservator of her estate. And it remains that way to this day. Spears, who is nearly 40 years old, doesn’t control the money she earns. She can be told to get out there and perform, which she has done — a lot. And media access to her is carefully managed. She is, more or less, a puppet on a string.
The documentary is bookended by footage of her fans, who show up at her conservatorship court hearings holding “Free Britney” signs; quite a few of them are fighting for her online. One podcast exists solely to “decode” Spears’ Instagram account; the women who run it think the singer is sending coded messages and cries for help through her videos and photos. Spears never once speaks directly about her situation. All footage of her was previously filmed.
There’s more “intrigue” in the documentary, but I’ll let you watch it if your interest has been piqued. My take-away was how horribly and unprofessionally various public figures have been to Spears. It’s nauseating. After she had performed on “Star Search,” the host Ed McMahon, best known now as Johnny Carson’s cackling sidekick, told the maybe 10-year-old that she was pretty, and wondered if she had a boyfriend. When she said she didn’t, he asked her if maybe he could be her boyfriend. I realize this was in 1992, and apparently old men being creepy like this was perceived as being “funny” and “cute”, but today with #MeToo very much in mind, the clip has not aged well. In fact, most of the interview clips are cringe-inducing. Questions about her virginity and her body should never have been asked. Not to a teenager, not to a 20-something, not to anyone at any age. A person’s sexuality, and certainly their body parts, is no one’s business.
As mentioned, the documentary shows how a woman’s body is consumed by the media and by the public. When Spears was young and virginal, she was desired; when she became a mother — meaning she was sexual — she was reviled. Both instances are grotesque. How dare this young mother go out and “party” with her socialite friends? How dare she wear clothing that’s too tight, too short, too revealing? Isn’t it her duty to remain a virgin? One female politician actually said that she wanted to “shoot” Spears because she was a bad role model. Seriously? I would challenge anyone to find this level of scrutiny of and continual negative commentary on any male performer, alive or dead.
What’s worse is that many mocked and denigrated Spears after her mental breakdown. Late night comedians couldn’t get enough. Jay Leno is one particular parasite who filled his wallet by exploiting her misery and sexuality. (Leno traded in misogyny. Look online for his monologues about Monica Lewinsky. He fixated on her to a sickening degree.) But he’s not alone, you can add so many people to that woodpile. Why did Spears have her breakdown? It occurred right after she had had her second child, and while she was going through an acrimonious divorce and bitter child custody battle. Post-partum depression? Stress and constant scrutiny? Being stalked with no break in the pursuit? Spears coped by shaving her head, which, by the way, is a common way to grieve and to signal a rebirth. But rather than show Spears compassion and understanding, and give her some time alone, she was pursued even more; she was made a laughingstock. And yet she’s not unique; it happens all the time. Whitney Houston is another who was mocked, bullied, and shredded in the media.
Many, many people are to blame for the tragedy of Britney Spears. In addition to those already mentioned, you can add Perez Hilton, a leech who suckled on celebrity misery; TMZ, another purveyor of tabloid “journalism,” and magazines such as People and US, which ran photo after photo of Spears walking down the street in sweats, hair unbrushed, and decrying how she was such a “Train Wreck.” But also all the people who bought those magazines, gossiped about this person they didn’t know and had never met. It is the American way.
Sadly, in 13 years, our culture hasn’t changed all that much. Many mentally ill people still don’t have access to the services or accommodations they need; we still make fun of celebrities who are no longer popular or who have drug addiction or mental breakdowns. For some reason, we enjoy kicking those who are down. We also still try to control and consume young women’s bodies. Young performers know that “sex sells” so they dress as provocatively as possible. They say they are “empowered” but It’s not true. No one looks at them, dressed in g-strings, and barely there bustiers, gyrating and thrusting their pelvises, and think “wow, I can’t believe how empowered this person is.”
And as soon as that performer gets married, has children, falls out of popularity, the hyenas will gather; the vultures will pick their bones clean. And the cycle will begin again. There’s always a new, nubile ingenue served on the sacrificial altar of celebrity. Spears can attest to that.