As seen in Issue 4, available now!
Back in February, Britney Spears broke the internet, but it wasn’t in the way people expected. No, it wasn’t her viral dance videos (which did raise a few eyebrows) but a heartbreaking documentary that details just how little Spears has control over her own life. The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears shows the world what life is like for Spears, who has been in a conservatorship following her very public mental health crisis 14 years ago. While this documentary raised a lot of questions about Spears’ future, it also allowed the audience to reflect on how the media’s treatment of women like Spears put her in this compromising position.
Since 2008, Spears’ father Jamie has been her legal guardian. Conservatorships are typically for those who are mentally incapacitated or otherwise unable to make their own decisions and many wonder if this type of guardianship is necessary for Spears. Currently, Spears has no control over her finances or medical decisions, cannot marry her boyfriend of five years, Sam Asghari, and her ex-husband, Kevin Federline, has 90/10 custody of their two children, Jayden James, and Sean Preston.
Jamie claims that his conservatorship has worked, stating that Spears is the healthiest she’s ever been, but many wonder if this is just a scheme to get her fortune. Former Jive Records Marketing Executive Kim Kaiman, who helped create Spears’ public persona at the start of her career, mentioned in the documentary that Jamie never seemed to care much for Spears herself, but did have an interest in the money she was making.
"The only thing Jamie ever said to me was 'My daughters gonna be so rich, she's gonna buy me a boat,'" Kaiman said.
If money was Jamie’s only concern it would make sense that he would use Spears’ mental health and the public’s perception of her to his advantage. If Jamie does care like he says he does, why did he only do something after her public break? Why would he not make sure she had adequate mental health support at the start of her career? Was the song Lucky not a big enough cry for help? Instead, he couldn’t care less, until her fortune was on the line. That mixed with the paparazzis’ evidence that Spears was ‘unstable’ was all it took for her dad to take everything right from under her.
Unfortunately, Spears is not an isolated incident. For decades the media has been making young women out to be unstable and reckless when they experience anything that isn’t joy or positivity. It’s a simple formula, the media takes “the next big thing” whether it be in music, movies, or TV, and gives her so much attention. But then, just as fast as she came, she begins to get tired and there’s a new, shinier model on the market. So to keep the old star interesting, they exacerbate every single move. Every fight, every breakup, you name it. The pressure starts to get to them, and then they make a bad decision. Before you know it, headlines pour in about how they are awful, terrible, people.
While Spears was experiencing a lull in her career between her In the Zone and Blackout albums, the media honed in on a new celebrity- Paris Hilton. While Hilton had some notoriety after being photographed for a 2000 issue of Vanity Fair, it was a sex tape leaked by a former partner in 2003 that then catapulted her into nearly every household in America. That same year The Simple Life premiered, answering the question “what if two girls from Beverly Hills had to live and work in middle America?”
What people didn’t know at the time is that Hilton already had her hand at manual labor. As a teen, Hilton was sent to a string of boarding schools due to her wild behavior. She ran away from her first two, but then at 16, her parents sent her to the Provo Canyon School in Provo, Utah. The school later would be exposed for its horrific abuse towards its students, with Hilton being at the forefront of the discussion. However, watching a celebrity who actually knew how to cook and clean made for boring television, so instead, she created a ditsy, baby-voiced character. Unfortunately, not too many people caught on and they believed Hilton actually behaved like that.
The media had a field day. Looking back though, the things that she was targeted the most for- her pink princess wardrobe, obsession with appearance, and valley speak were all stereotypically feminine characteristics. Historically as a society, we are known to punish the feminine. Being too feminine is equivalent to weakness, but being too masculine isn’t desirable either, so no matter women will never win. Women are often more scrutinized for their behaviors as well. When Hilton would go out and party she was seen as a “wild child” and a “slut” but when someone like Spencer Pratt did the same thing he was considered a “playboy” and a “stud”.
After Hilton came Lindsay Lohan. It was the same thing we saw time and time again, child star “goes off the rails.” However, this behavior isn’t exclusive to being a celebrity. All the time young adults go through phases where all they want to do is party and date. It may not always be the right way to handle things, but it’s a human way. Not only were celebrities like Spears, Hilton, and Lohan robbed of those critical years where we socialize, make mistakes, grow up and learn from them, but they also did not have strong support systems. Their parents were either too busy working, or too concerned about their child’s career to notice. That lack of attention, on top of tons of pressure and access to all the parties you could want, led them down this path. Honestly, it’s a miracle things didn’t turn out worse, not every celebrity in their position is as fortunate.
Even the “nice” girls can’t escape the media’s criticism. When Jessica Simpson hit the scene in 1999, she was the wholesome juxtaposition to not-that-innocent Spears. A preacher’s daughter who was proud of her purity ring, what’s not to love? However, the LA Times was quick to throw shade after Simpson’s Wango Tango performance in 2000.
“Simpson won kudos for handling technical glitches with grace but lost points for the blatant sexual tease of her dancing and outfit (skin-tight silver reflective pants made her look like an anorexic disco ball),” the review said.
This was a shocking contrast compared to the rest of the review where the author mentions Sugar Ray and Lenny Kravits’ performance but leaves out any mention of their clothing.
As Simpson entered her twenties, she wanted her predominately female audience to know they can be sexy young adults, without actually having sex. While still keeping her vow of purity, she (a consenting adult) took control of the media’s narrative. The fans were not pleased and one went as far as canceling his subscription to her fan website.
“...Her career has drastically changed. What used to be a Christian paradigm with high hopes of succeeding in the music industry has in very little time managed to hang up her guns, hike up her t-shirts, and hit the tanning bed to sell more records and become the exact type of puppet the media promotes,” he wrote.
If anything, documentaries like Framing Britney Spears reminds us how critical we can be towards young women celebrities. We were so concerned with these women, not once did we think about their male counterparts like Justin Timberlake and John Mayer and the crazy stuff they were doing. Timberlake went on to milk his breakup with Spears for decades while Mayer called Simpson “sexual napalm.” Not a single person batted an eyelash either and they both continue to have thriving careers today. Meanwhile, Hilton was demonized for a sex tape she didn’t release…. But does anyone even remember her ex-boyfriend’s name?
We can’t go back and change the past, but we owe it to these women and all other women to apologize and do better. For too long we have been ruthless to women in the spotlight, and now with the rise of social media, it goes so much deeper than anyone could imagine. Just think about how different these women’s lives would be if instead of judgment, we offered our empathy and support when they were crying out for help.