What we learned from Britney Spears
Britney Spears’ legendary music career was largely before my time. When she dropped the song “Baby One More Time” that launched her to stardom, my parents were getting married. When she made her return to pop music in 2008, I was only six years old, so the controversy and chaos of her career have gone largely unnoticed by me until this year.
It’s hard to miss the #FreeBritneySpears trending every few weeks on Twitter, and now, with the “Framing Britney Spears” documentary on Hulu her life, career and legal struggles were depicted for people who would otherwise not know what she was going through.
The thing that stuck out to me most was the over-sexualization of a young Britney Spears. The media fixates on women and their bodies so much that their careers almost always take a back seat to their achievements and record-breaking successes.
While there are other parts of Britney’s story that are very troublesome, like her conservatorship, the tenuous relationship she has with her father and that she doesn’t have access to her finances, I want to look at her story as a case study of the way media talks about women.
In the interviews included in the documentary, a television show host asked Britney at around age 10 if she had a boyfriend and if she could be his boyfriend. In interviews about her after her break up with Justin Timberlake, men asked the male star if he “got into her pants.” In a QA someone asked her if she had lost her virginity yet. At every turn, people were quick to forget about her music and ask her about her love life.
When researching for this article, I found an article from the American Psychological Association that indicated that women are sexualized and objectified far more than their male counterparts. They are depicted in more sexual positions, made to give facial expressions and in male magazines, they are objectified 76 percent of the time.
Britney Spears was seen by many as a “sex symbol.” When she cut off her hair she was called crazy and people asked what was mentally wrong with her. When asked about why she did it though, she simply said she was tired of people touching her all the time.
In the context of her life as a whole, it makes sense. When she went berserk and beat a paparazzi’s car with an umbrella, she was actually followed from her ex-husbands home, denied access to her children and had people filming her and recording her the entire time.
Yet, she is still depicted as the villain of this story. People at the time made headlines out of her outburst calling her crazy instead of recognizing that her actions were understandable given the circumstances.
The media used her body, her image and her suffering to capitalize on her fame and generate a profit without giving a second thought to her mental health. Nobody stopped to ask if they were part of her “downfall,” and those who did question it were quickly dismissed.
And history continues to repeat itself. The young singer and songwriter Billie Eilish has worn baggy oversized clothing for the majority of her time in the public eye for a similar reason. She has stated that she doesn’t want to be oversexualized or slut-shamed for what she wears.
A few months ago a photo surfaced of her wearing a tank top in LA and the prophecy immediately fulfilled itself of people calling her fat, shaming her and making fun of her for wearing a normal everyday clothing item.
Not only does this toxic behavior affect the stars but it affects the readers too. It has been linked to eating disorders, low self-esteem and the avoidance of experiences due to shame regarding body image.
When women try to break the mold and pressure reporters and journalists to ask different questions other than what they are wearing or if they have lost weight, they then are called bitchy, man-hating feminists.
At the very same time, we have women doing nude photoshoots on the cover of magazines with bodies that have been retouched and edited. Then we turn it around and call those same photoshoots empowering, sending the message that it’s empowering to be proud of your body only when you have made changes to it.
We advertise makeup products to girls at younger and younger ages. We tell people to post photos of themselves on social media to use face tune and retouch them and as a society. We never stop and think of the ideals that we are pushing on girls and the unreachable standards we hold women to.
We have to do better. We need to teach our sons and daughters a better way. When fathers talk about celebrities in front of their kids and call them sluts, or make fun of their weight, children internalize that. When we allow publishers to treat women the way they do right now and have been doing since before I was born, we will not see a change for the better.
We need to start holding the people that push these standards on people accountable. The publishers, the filmmakers, the stars, our friends, our family—we can’t keep letting the slight comments and content go unnoticed. Because we can’t keep going in the direction we are headed.
Back to Britney Spears, where is she now? Currently, she is in a legal battle to remove her father, Jaime Spears, as her conservator. Her father did step down as conservator of her health. This is supposedly due to an altercation he had with one of the pop star’s young sons.
He does still have control over her finances but because of continued pressure to end her conservatorship and awareness spread by dedicated fans, it is unclear if he will be removed further because her legal struggles are ongoing.
But the documentary is still a cause for hope as people become more informed as to the star’s issues and protest to give her back her due rights. People who have wronged her in the past are also being held accountable for the things they have done. Justin Timberlake released an apology just a few days ago.