The year is 1999 and my sister and I are screaming the words to the Britney Spears song that’s blaring from the car speakers while my parents, the unwitting audience, drive our rental through the winding roads of Hana (in Hawaii). To the right of us, beneath jagged cliffs, royal blue waves crash against palm tree studded shores.
Months later, my dad took my sister and me to see Britney at Union Square in San Francisco. I remember other fans and I bumping arms and elbowing one another for a closer view of the pretty and pristine young star, who was dressed in pink and signing copies of her album Baby One More Time.
In college, gay guy friends and I would blast “Circus” and “Womanizer” in our cars to amp ourselves up before heading in to the gay clubs, and when I lived down in South America after graduating, “It’s Britney, bitch,” was an oft-repeated phrase of my Uruguayans friends (who otherwise spoke minimal English).
When I first heard that this icon for so many ‘90s babies’ childhoods was under a conservatorship, I assumed it was just a rumor. If it were true, why wasn’t the media covering it? And why wouldn’t someone have stepped in and stopped it from happening? It sounded too inhumane to not be fake news.
Years later, news surrounding her predicament resurfaced, with supporters speaking out in droves and the hashtag #FreeBritney ripping across social media like California wildfire. After watching her 2021 documentary, it became clear to me that this wasn’t just a rumor. I was also horrified by what I saw.
Though I largely believe the person responsible for this injustice to be James Spears, I also don’t think he could have carried it out without the help of predisposing conditions. In this case, an insidious blend of patriarchy and a mass media that profits from caricaturing mental illness (particularly when the sufferer is a woman) helped set the stage.
I believe that even we, as fans and consumers of media, collectively contributed to the personal breaking point that led to Britney being put under this conservatorship to begin with.
I say this because a narrative gains no traction and holds no power without an audience to willingly consume it—and the narrative of unhinged Britney was one that many people around me, myself included, seemed gleefully privy to at the time.
Britney’s hardly the first female celebrity to be subjected to such scrutiny. Lindsay Lohan (2007) and Amanda Bynes (2012) are among the many others who have fallen victim to sexist, uncritical, and demeaning representation in the media.
As Emma Gray, Opinion Columnist for MSNBC, wrote: “Popular culture has spent years putting Spears and women like her up on pedestals and profiting from their labor only to gleefully rip them down.”
Back in 2007, as Britney’s personal life imploded, the press was there to pick up those pieces and hold them to the light for the world to see, alongside a mean-spirited side helping of snide commentary. They were there to goad our basest instincts as consumers. They were there to pen headlines drawing un-nuanced attention to her mental instability.
Here’s what I know to be true: Sometimes when people lash out, it’s after they’ve been driven to their breaking point. Sometimes they’ve been mistreated or treated unkindly for considerable time before they ultimately snap.
In the months leading up to Britney “attacking” the paparazzi for example, she was harassed and vultured by them—but this crucial piece of information somehow didn’t make it into most reports. Instead, the focus stayed primarily on crazy Britney’s actions in response to the provoking behavior.
There seems to be an almost salacious thrill in watching the downfall of stars—particularly when they’re women. Maybe it helps us common folk feel validated. Maybe their unraveling grants us permission to be less than perfect ourselves. And so when the media offers us fodder, it’s akin to a friend handing us a well-deserved cigarette at the end of a stressful day.
Beyond merely excoriating James Spears and working to dismantle the prison cell he’s placed his daughter in, I feel it’s important for us to look at the way we treat both women in Hollywood and women in general.
We could have looked deeper after Britney’s “wild behavior” rather than chuckling along with it. We could have delayed our judgment until much later on, after pausing to consider the context leading up to her breakdown.
Aspects of Britney’s narrative are common to many women’s stories—the devaluation and disempowerment. The gaslighting by self-appointed male guardians who masquerade their hunger for control under the heroic guise of doing what’s best for us. Of needing to save us from our own selves.
No woman—no human, celebrity or not—deserves this treatment. I hope that Britney’s painful ordeal can wake more of us up to the importance of kindness as well as our own role in perpetuating systemic sexism.