We All Owe Britney Spears an Apology
With the documentary Framing Britney Spears causing waves around the world, Britney Spears is long overdue an apology from all who watched her struggle and said nothing.
FEBRUARY 9th, 2021
here’s one subject we didn’t discuss… what was that? Everyone’s talking about it?” asks the male talk show host to a young seventeen-year-old teenage girl.
“What’s that?” she responds – hands clasped on her lap, smiling politely though with an air of confusion.
“Well… your breasts,” he continues. The watching audience at first gasps, mutters and then eventually laughs. The teenager looks to the audience, her smile understandably faltering. “You seem to get furious when a talk show host comes up with this subject.” The girl laughs nervously, looking at her lap as the conversation then shifts to her opinion on breast implants.
The interview continues in a similar vein, brazenly and creepily asking sexualised questions to a young woman who, more importantly, was a minor at the time. To anyone, this conversation reads as a disturbing interview steeped in blatant misogyny and sexism – yet it was mostly ignored, and worse deemed acceptable. Why? Well, the teenage girl was global superstar Britney Spears, and if the new documentary Framing Britney Spears highlights anything, it is that the pop sensation who dominated the world was pretty much fair game.
There are a rare few who have achieved the level of success with which that teenager would go on to do. Not just in accolades, record sales, money and fame, but something deeper, more intrinsic with the thoughts and feelings of teenagers around the world – understanding. Britney Spears connected with her fans on a personal basis, if anything she set a new standard for the types of fan interaction we see so frequently today. But that level of closeness, exposure and easily accessible information created a vacuum which would plague her life and continues to do so today.
Since her first platinum selling record Baby One More Time dominated the charts in 1999, Britney has been pretty much unstoppable. She has toured the world ten times over, become the face of some of the world’s biggest brands, and become the pop princess who outsold, out-famed and undercut the world of the blond-haired, blue-eyed, white shirted boyband. For a time, Britney Spears became the most famous person on planet earth, and in doing so became the music industry’s most valuable product.
But away from the fame and fortune was a darker part of her life, which resulted in a breakdown played out in the public. We watched as Britney shaved her hair, attacked a paparazzi’s jeep (understandably), entered rehab and began to unravel before our very eyes. And yet, most of us simply stood back and observed without any due consideration for the mental and emotional wellbeing of a woman who was obviously under unsurmountable pressure and pain.
With the release of the Framing Britney Spears documentary, we get to look back at that coverage, and the media sentimentality of the noughties with a new lens and my goodness does it make for horrific viewing.
The simplistic response to the documentary – which has been making headlines around the world since its release – is one of shame. Not for its content, but for our former response to what’s featured inside. The sad reality is many of the interviews contained in the documentary aren’t new. Many of us watched them broadcast live. Take the infamous Diane Sawyer interview.
As controversy and scandal threatened to unfairly topple Britney’s carefully carved out public image after the breakup of her relationship with Justin Timberlake, Britney’s team agreed to a “no holds barred” interview with Sawyer where no subject was off the table. What followed was a brutal, direct and uncompromising takedown of the popstar at a time when she needed kindness, compassion and uplifting. Throughout the special, Sawyer effectively throws the gauntlet in the direction of Spears for every possible negative assumption that has been projected onto her.
Her “overhyped sexualisation”, her breakup with teen heartthrob Justin Timberlake – of which was supposedly her fault. “He's gone on television and pretty much said you broke his heart; you did something that caused him so much pain, so much suffering. What did you do?” asks Sawyer, publicly heaping the blame at her feet. Even the fact that she walked off stage on the final night of her tour in Mexico City due to a severe thunderstorm, was somehow moulded into Spears being a diva and problematic. “It was raining, and she says it was dangerous,” narrates Sawyer with a tone of disbelief.
Though, perhaps the most recognised moment from the entire interview was as Sawyer rounds up the popstar’s previous year. Suddenly the mask slips and Britney breaks down in tears, eventually stopping the interview because she was too “embarrassed” to continue.
Looking back whilst living in the climate of the Me Too and Times Up movements, it is almost unthinkable to conceive that an interviewer would now be able to frame an interview in this way towards a woman. Yet this was 2004, and an emotional Britney Spears breaking down on television was seen as nothing more than a ratings hit. Who cared about whether she was unfairly painted as the villain against the saintly Timberlake? What did it matter that the false image of a diva-like Britney Spears was promoted? She wasn’t a human being. We were programmed not to care about her mental wellbeing or emotional stability. Britney Spears was a vessel of entertainment, sexualised fantasy and money-making controversy; a product which sold well, and we as her consumers were neglectful of the reality that she may become collateral damage to our celebrity obsession.
As time passed by, that obsession became desperately unhealthy, and as predicted Britney became the collateral damage to a toxic fascination of destroying public figures for the sake of financial gain.
The global fixation with her breakdown in 2007 was bizarre, yet not uncommon. Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson were other public figures maligned by the media, who desperately hoped these stars would fall from their pedestals and crash flat on their faces. With Britney however, her described “downfall” played out for us all to watch, and if we’re honest, barely any of us chose to say “stop”.
Even when a visibly frustrated and emotionally drained Britney shaved her head and later attacked a paparazzi’s jeep, the public digested the news as if we we’re addicts. And ultimately that was the problem. We all wrongly felt that we had the right to judge Britney Spears over every facet of her existence. How she looked, what she talked about, her opinions, weight, behaviour, relationships, voice, dance, her skills as a mother, sister, daughter, friend, celebrity, musician. She was dissected and systemically dismantled with such forensic control, that it is only now in hindsight we realise just how drastic the act was.
Fast-forward to today and that control has penetrated her entire life. Britney is currently in her twelfth year of a permanent conservatorship. Her father Jamie Spears was her main conservator giving him full control over the stars finances and many other elements of her life. He has since temporarily stepped-down due to “health reasons”, though is now attempting to resume his role in the conservatorship. The legal move was made shortly after Britney was placed into psychiatric hold days before she shaved her hair in public. The length of the conservatorship has resulted in lawyers, aspects of the media and the star’s fans lobbying to grant Britney freedom from the legal constraints.
The definition of a conservatorship, according to the Judicial Branch of California’s official website is “a court case where a judge appoints a responsible person or organization (called the ‘conservator’) to care for another adult (called the ‘conservatee’) who cannot care for himself or herself or manage his or her own finances.”
In recent years, the popstar has found some elements of stability in her life – at least on the surface – with her successful work commitments begging the question: does she really need to be in a conservatorship at all? She has been a judge on the American version of The X-Factor, she has performed numerous world tours, launched perfumes, signed a successful residency in Las Vegas. Britney Spears currently doesn’t really fit the description of an “adult who cannot care for himself or herself or manage his or her own finances.”
And even Britney herself has hinted – and in some cases admitted – she no longer feels the need to have so much control over her life. “If I wasn't under the restraint that I am now, I’d feel so liberated.” she admitted in her 2008 documentary Britney: For the Record. “And when I tell them the way I feel, it’s like, they hear me but that they’re really not listening.”
As recent as last year, new court documents showed that Britney is “strongly opposed” to her father’s expected return as conservator and instead “strongly prefers” Jodi Montgomery – Britney’s long-time “care manager” who took over from Jamie in 2019 – to remain in the role, if the conservatorship remained in place. It shows that the 39-year-old mother of two feels that her freedom is being denied in the name of mental health, which is arguably much healthier than in 2008.
But whilst the dramatics around her legal battle to rightly and justly wrangle herself free from the shackles of a draconian conservatorship continue to make headlines, it is difficult not to acknowledge society’s hand in the deconstruction of Britney Spears.
We turned a blind eye to a woman who perhaps needed more of us to see what was truly happening. We basked in the glorious tragedy of her downfall, without realising or acknowledging there was nothing glorious about it, only tragic. We shamed her for struggling, mocked her for her complexities and celebrated the dissemination of her personality by the media. A fan once recorded a video, which in turn became viral, shouting “Leave Britney alone!” He was ruthlessly mocked and laughed at for doing so. In the end he was right, and all of us who laughed at him were wrong.
In the end, Britney Spears deserved so much more from us all. After monetising her image, chastising her sexual exploration – of which was constructed by powerful men and not Britney herself – and revelling in the breakdown of a pop princess, we failed Britney Spears and for that we all must apologise. But we can and must go further.
As a society hooked on celebrity culture, we can prove that lessons have been learned and can offer support to Britney’s sole cause – freedom. So, let’s no longer look away from what is happening. Let’s hold those to task who look to drag her, or any other starlet to the depths of despair and campaign to finally Free Britney.
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