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Why Justin Timberlake Apologized to Britney Spears
On Friday, Justin Timberlake posted an apology to Britney Spears and Janet Jackson to his Instagram account. In a written statement, Timberlake said he was “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,” and added that he understood he “benefitted [sic] from a system that condones misogyny and racism.”
Most of the apology is trash (more on that later), but Timberlake is right about one thing—that he benefited from an era in pop culture when fans, critics, and the media, happily condoned misogynistic and racist behavior from pop stars. Grab your frosted tips and butterfly clips and travel back in time with me to the early ‘00s. I ask you this: Who among us at the time was wise and enlightened and defiant enough to call Justin Timberlake and all the people who enabled him out on their bullshit? Not Barbara Walters, nor Diane Sawyer; not even Oprah. I’d love to say I was ahead of my time and out in the streets protesting Justified in the name of feminism, but I thought “Cry Me a River” was a bop, and given that it spent over a dozen weeks at #3 on Billboard’s Top 40 chart, millions of other people clearly did too. We all danced and partied at Britney’s expense.
It’s so tempting to blame Justin Timberlake and the media for mistreating Britney Spears while absolving ourselves entirely, but doing so would be both disingenuous and dangerous. At the same time, the roles that the public, the media, and Timberlake had in the Britney Spears saga are not equal. Yes, anyone who bought a copy of US magazine during the Bush years was essentially taking a swing at Britney Spears, but Timberlake is the one who strung her up like a pinata in the first place. He produced, wrote, and starred in the story that the media hounded Spears about for over a decade. He purposefully kept her name in the news and outwardly relished her nervous breakdown. Put another way, he is, in part, directly responsible for Spears’ being in the position she is in now.
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As we’ve previously discussed here at Esquire, it all started when Timberlake released his revenge porn anthem “Cry Me a River.” That alone would be cause for apology, but it’s the way in which Timberlake continued to reference Spears in the years after their breakup that’s truly shameful. For example, in 2007, Timberlake used his acceptance speech at the Brit Awards—5 years after the breakup—as an opportunity to publicly shame Britney Spears. Looking directly into the camera he said with a laugh, “Stop drinking. You know who you are. You’re going to get sloppy.” That same year he went on the Oprah Winfrey Show and innocently claimed to have no idea what was going on with Britney Spears after Winfrey informed him that people were speculating she was in the midst of a nervous breakdown. In 2008, at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction, Timberlake went out of his way to publicly call Spears a Madonna wannabe and remind the world he dated her. Then in 2009, Timberlake appeared on “SNL” and bragged again about taking Spear’s virginity while laughing at the fact that she was forced to lie about it because famous do-gooder Matt Lauer would’ve slut shamed her if she fessed up to being sexually active in her *gasp* twenties.
What a rotten way to treat someone you claim to “care for and respect.” What a damaging thing to do to a person who, in terms of the court of public opinion, is already at a severe disadvantage simply because of her gender. It doesn’t matter if Timberlake meant to harm Spears or not. It doesn’t matter that “the system is flawed.” What matters most in terms of apologies is that the person offering one understands, in totality, his own culpability, and Timberlake clearly does not. At the tender age of 40, all Timberlake seems capable of understanding is that “he didn’t speak up for what was right.” What he remains blind to is the fact that he’s the one who did wrong, and yet despite that, it’s his ex-girlfriend who has been forced to deal with the consequences of his many mistakes.
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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