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Misogynistic Media On Display in Framing Britney Spears
“Do you have a boyfriend?” Ed McMahon, the 70-year-old host of Star Search, asks an 11-year-old Britney Spears after complimenting her adorable, pretty eyes. “No sir,” she replies. “Why not?” he fires back. “Because all men are mean,” she says.
That telling exchange, lifted from Britney Spears life-changing appearance on Star Search in 1992, sets the tone for “Framing Britney Spears,” the new documentary from The New York Times about Britney Spears, her conservatorship, and the corresponding #freeBritney movement. According to the makers of “Framing Britney Spears” to truly understand the pop culture phenomenon, who wreaked havoc on the hearts and minds of millennials in the early aughts (yours truly included), and the situation she is in now, it’s important to travel back in time — before Spears infamously shaved her head, before she married and divorced Kevin Federline, even before she allegedly broke Justin Timberlake’s heart.
Because before all of that happened, all of this happened: “To many, you are a contradiction. On the one hand, you’re a sweet, innocent, virginal type. On the other, you’re a sexy vamp in underwear,” said one invasive interviewer to a teenaged Britney Spears. “Let’s talk about your sexy Lolita look,” demanded another. On The Today Show, Florence Henderson debated how Spears could both claim to be innocent in a song she didn’t write while also dressing in slutty clothes she didn’t pick out for herself. “It certainly is a paradox, isn’t it?” Henderson wonder allowed as her co-anchors nodded along. “She doesn’t seem that innocent.”
In perhaps the most disturbing clip of all, an unidentified male interviewer says to Spears, “Everyone is talking about it.” “Talking about what?” Spears responds. “Your breasts,” he says coyly. Spears tries to laugh it off and avoid the question. “You seem to get furious when a talk show host comes up with this subject,” the host then condescends. He seems genuinely offended by Spears’ avoidance, as if it should be an honor for her to engage with him in a conversation about her cup size.
The press’s behavior got even worse in 2003 after Justin Timberlake cast Britney Spears as the villain in the couple’s breakup story. “He made it seem rightly or wrongly like she had cheated on him,” says Esquire’s own Dave Holmes in the documentary. “It really seemed like he took control of the narrative.” And the press ate it up, happily engaging in the slut-shaming that helped launch Justin Timberlake’s solo career without ever stopping to ask for Spears’ side of the story (both partners allegedly cheated) “Britney’s Wild Nights” read one headline from that year. “You did something that caused Justin so much pain and so much suffering” said Diane Sawyer to Spears during an interview on ABC’s “Primetime Thursday.” Meanwhile, Timberlake’s revenge porn single “Cry Me a River” won a Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.
By choosing to include all of this archival footage, the “Framing Britney Spears” producers are making an important if obvious point — that the treatment Britney Spears received from the press was overtly misogynistic, and maybe, just maybe, contributed to her public downfall. But the more subtle and troubling truth is that we all had a hand in destroying Britney Spears. As New York Times Critic-At-Large Wesley Morris says in the documentary, “When it’s time for people to come for a woman in a misogynistic culture, there’s a whole apparatus ready to do it.”
By the time 2007 rolled around, Britney Spears had transitioned from pop princess to punching bag, despite the fact that she never got caught in an actual scandal. Unlike Tiger Woods, Bill Clinton, and Hugh Grant, she didn’t cheat on her spouse with a cocktail waitress, an intern, or a prostitute, respectively, then attempt to cover it up. She didn’t have a sex tape leaked like Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, or Pamela Anderson. Did she publicly unravel? Yes, but that was only after the media exploited her for nearly a decade, and the public made a spectator sport out of witnessing her distress. We all laughed as late night television hosts mined her marriage to and subsequent divorce from Kevin Federline for jokes. We cheered every time Perez Hilton posted an upskirt photo of Spears then shamed her for going commando and claimed that she orchestrated the photo shoot herself. We even made fun of the guy who demanded we stop making fun of Britney Spears. Why did we do it? According to Morris, “There was just too much money to be made off of her suffering.”
That we all indulged in and profited off of Spear’s misery is both despicable and unsurprising. In the short history of American pop culture, there’s plenty of stories about the vulturous media and the ways in which we devour our own icons, and it’s far too easy to look back and assign blame for the mistreatment of a certain celebrity. Not all of those failures are worth revisiting; but this one is because it’s ongoing. As of today, Britney Spears is still locked in a restrictive conservatorship that was created after she experienced and sought treatment for a mental health crisis that occurred more than 15 years ago. Since then, she has released multiple successful albums and participated in one of the highest-grossing Las Vegas residencies of all time. Meanwhile, Jaime Spears, who controls his daughter’s conservatorship and almost every aspect of her career and finances, was barred from seeing his grandchildren in 2019 after a “physical altercation” with one of them led to Kevin Federline taking out a restraining order against him. This from the man who is supposedly more capable of caring for Britney Spears than she is for herself.
The sad truth is none of us really know what Britney Spears is capable of because, for the most part, she’s had to live by someone else’s terms — first her managers’, then the media’s, and now her father’s. Despite those constraints, she’s still managed to have a record-shattering career, and when she has been able to define herself, it’s been to the tremendous benefit of her career— both financially and artistically. Her 2016 album Glory is a pop music masterpiece. Now more than ever, Spears deserves the chance to speak for herself. I hope she gets that chance. And I hope this time around we all shut up and listen.
Abigail Covington is a journalist and cultural critic based in Brooklyn, New York but originally from North Carolina, whose work has appeared in Slate, The Nation, Oxford American, and Pitchfork
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