The Way We Treated Britney Spears Was a Sign of What Was to Come
The misogyny that took the down pop icon more than a decade ago still affects countless women to this day
Britney Spears is a contemporary myth. She’s the Girl We Wouldn’t Leave Alone, the all-American blonde who became the greatest train wreck of her generation. We remember her in a series of deteriorating images: She was the teenager dancing in a sexy schoolgirl outfit, who became the madwoman shaving her own head and whaling on a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella, who was, finally, the exhausted woman barely getting through her new single at the VMAs, culminating in her being placed under a strict conservatorship by a father she had previously described as “emotionally abusive,” and whose control she resists to this day.
That conservatorship is the subject of a New York Times documentary, Framing Britney Spears, which has seemingly inspired legions of people to rethink Spears, and the misogyny that shaped her media narrative. Spears likely does have a mental illness — she’s undergone psychiatric hospitalizations — but a woman who can raise two young boys while holding down a demanding full-time job as a pop star is not incapacitated to the point that she requires an adult guardian. Labeling Britney a madwoman seems to have been, in the words of former co-conservator Andrew Wallet, a “business model,” a hostile takeover of her life and finances by people who sought to profit off her. It worked largely because the public was willing to believe the worst of Britney Spears.
I’m glad people are rethinking Britney. Yet, as someone who’s spent a lot of time writing and talking and thinking about her — she was one of the major subjects of my first book — I worry that we still haven’t put Britney in context. Britney Spears isn’t a formerly happy pop star who “lost control,” she’s a woman who never had control in the first place, and the media’s demonization of her was only the most famous example of something that happened to many other celebrities, and still happens to less famous women every day, with disastrous results.
Even the early, “happy” teen Britney was being manipulated and controlled in deeply harmful ways by adults who didn’t have her interests at heart. She was…