Our treatment of Britney Spears shows little has changed for women in the public eye

The recent documentary, Framing Britney Spears, has unearthed a disturbing normalisation of sexism, and regressive attitudes towards mental illness

“Name something Britney Spears has lost in the past year.” To raucous laughter and applause, the answers “her hair,” “her dignity” and “her husband” were called out on a 2008 episode of the popular game show, Family Feud. This succinctly captures the callous disregard and ridicule Spears was subjected to in the wake of her public mental health crisis. The fact that her distress was not only mocked, but used on national television as a punchline, unwittingly reveals the cultural normalisation of Spears’ persecution at the hands of the paparazzi, tabloids, music industry, and those around her. By extension, it also illustrates the limited vocabulary we had associated with mental health just 12 years ago, as well as the ruinous effects of the pressure on those in the public eye to reconcile the contradictory pressures of modern womanhood. The infamous photos of Spears wielding an umbrella at a paparazzi’s car after shaving her head, served as a meme and punchline for years to come, despite portraying a moment of great personal tragedy. The recent New York Times (NYT) documentary, Framing Britney Spears, has engendered renewed media scrutiny around the pop star, and most notably, the controversial conservatorship she was placed under after her publicised meltdown in 2008.

“After shooting to fame in 1999 with the release of  ‘…Baby One More Time’, Spears was subjected to tabloid scrutiny and lines of questioning from media representatives which would be considered grossly inappropriate today.”

After shooting to fame in 1999 with the release of “…Baby One More Time”, Spears was subjected to tabloid scrutiny and lines of questioning from media representatives which would be considered grossly inappropriate and unthinkable today; Framing Britney Spears shows clips not just of the aforementioned Family Feud scene, but of middle-aged male presenters quizzing a teenaged Spears on her breasts, her virginity and her sex life with then boyfriend, Justin Timberlake. In 2021, a time when liberal feminism has largely won the mainstream culture war, it is easy to forget that in the early 2000s, the front page of popular magazines were more likely to feature invasive paparazzi shots of Spears, or speculations about her weight loss, virginity, and relationship status. Today it is the case that, due to the mainstreamisation of left-of-centre ideals in popular culture, the front page of Teen Vogue reads “Teen Vogue’s Guide to the Climate Crisis,”  “Six Women Who Changed History” or “Young Black Leftist Are Creating Their Own Space on Tiktok.” A significant proportion of the discourse surrounding the NYT documentary, and the “Free Britney” Movement (composed of loyal fans calling for the end to Spears’ conservatorship) is concerned with asking “How could we have allowed this to happen?” or speculating on the regressive nature of our attitude towards women just over a decade ago. “This wouldn’t happen today” is undoubtedly an understandable and largely true sentiment, but it is an oversimplification to look at values from a decade ago and deem their dated nature as indicative of how far society has progressed. While there may be a growing opposition to public elements of misogyny in the media, such as invasive lines of media about a woman’s body, the material reality of misogyny persists. Similarly, we may balk at the sensationalist language used to describe Spears’ public mental health crisis; it was undoubtedly cruel and indicative of our collectively poor understanding of mental illness. However, while more well-intentioned, the renewed scrutiny surrounding Spears, due to the “Free Britney” Movement, features the same invasion of privacy, and reduction of somebody’s personal struggle, to a public spectacle.

“The fact that Spears was deemed competent enough to release several albums, complete a world tour and judge The X Factor, but not competent enough to control her own finances has garnered justifiable scepticism.”

While a cultural shift in how we discuss mental illness has undoubtedly taken place in the last decade or so, the material benefits of this remain more ephemeral. The dominant narrative is largely centered around awareness and reaching out to family and friends. While state institutions preach the importance of “reaching out” and “breaking the stigma,” the reality is that when one does so, they’re met with insufficient support. Breaking the silence around mental illness is important, but is no replacement for state-funded therapists, doctors and mental health experts. While Spears’ famous breakdown where she shaved her head and attacked paparazzi was sensationalised by tabloid media, who deemed her “psycho,” and her meltdown as an embarrassing personal failure, to many retrospectively, it appears to be a rational response to the repeated invasion of her bodily autonomy at the hands of the press.

A stint in rehab was followed with the well-known and controversial conservatorship placed on her to this day, with her father, Jamie Spears serving as conservator. This particular type of conservatorship is typically reserved for those with severe dementia. The fact that Spears was deemed competent enough to release several albums, complete a world tour, judge the X Factor and a complete a residency in Las Vegas, but not competent enough to control her own finances or personal life more broadly, has garnered justifiable scepticism about the motivations of her father and the validity of the conservatorship. Again, while many fans including the author, doubt the validity of the conservatorship and believe it should be removed, the widespread trivialisation of the “Free Britney Movement” is a harmful continuation of the public inserting themselves into Spears’ affairs, and making a spectacle out of her suffering. Like many fans, I was struck, when watching Framing Britney Spears, at how down-to-earth, kind and likable she was. While there is no harm in this observation, it is deeply wrong in any circumstance for narratives of victimhood to focus excessively on the moral character of the victim.

“It is deeply wrong in any circumstance, when narratives of victimhood focus excessively on the moral character of the victim.”

The manner in which Spears was treated was disgusting; the NYT documentary has sparked a public apology from Justin Timberlake, as well as endless think pieces on how we allowed a woman to be treated in such a way. While I agree wholeheartedly, my question is not how did this happen, but rather, why is this still happening? While we may pat ourselves on the back over our more extensive vocabulary with regards to mental health and feminism, I remain unconvinced that the pressures that drove Spears’ to a public breakdown are really any better today.

Grace Gageby

Grace Gageby is the current Assistant Editor of Trinity News. She studies English and Philosophy and was previously Deputy Comment Editor.