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

Photo: Valerie Macon/AFP/Getty Images

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 expected to be the ideal American teenage girl, as imagined by middle-aged men: chaste yet desirable, icon of youth culture and flawlessly wholesome role model, a Christian virgin with a prayer journal who was a sex symbol for lecherous dads everywhere. Spears was strictly prohibited from admitting that she’d had sex — virginity was essential to her wholesome image — but she was also expected to entertain the sexual attention of adult men. In Framing Britney Spears, we see footage of late-night entertainer Ed McMahon pestering 10-year-old Spears into saying she would be his girlfriend. By her late teens, she was being presented as a “barely legal” jailbait fantasy. One infamous Rolling Stone photoshoot had her posing in underwear while surrounded by baby dolls, then seductively riding a child’s bike wearing shorts that declared her a “baby.” Steven Daly, the adult man who wrote the accompanying profile, began it with the sentence, “Britney Spears extends a honeyed thigh across the length of the sofa,” going on to speculate on her “ample chest” and “receptive” smile. She was an 18-year-old girl living with her parents at the time. The dolls were her own.

When Spears did have sex, she was, once again, treated as public property. Gawker publicized photos of her having sex with her boyfriend. Cable news channels discussed “upskirt” photos of her genitalia. One anonymous man offered 7.5 million pounds to take her virginity. The men she did sleep with, like Justin Timberlake and (so he claims) Limp Bizkit frontman Fred Durst, mocked her claims of virginity on national TV and radio. In every instance, the person shamed was Britney, who was supposedly inviting the attention by being too sexy: “Britney Spears swirls her virginity about like a tasseled nipple,” The Guardian wrote, after the bid on her virginity, going on to call her a “surgically enhanced, cock-teasing hussy.” At the time of that article’s publication, she was 19 years old.

When Spears did have sex, she was, once again, treated as public property.

How could anyone not experience trauma after this sort of treatment? Britney Spears’ body has never belonged to her, and our deepest cruelty — the army of paparazzi documenting every zit and wrinkle and bad hair day, the outrage every time she ate Cheetos or put on weight or let her hair get messy or wore sweatpants — was intended to punish her for acting as if she was a person, rather than an object to be looked at. Her “craziest” act was to forcibly reject beauty standards by shaving her own head; she reportedly told the staff at the barbershop that “I’m tired of people touching me.” The story of Britney Spears is one woman trying, for decades, to achieve bodily autonomy, and being denied every time.

This is all terrifying, but what’s worse is the fact that Spears was not the only celebrity to get this treatment. She rose to fame at the same time as Paris Hilton, whose ex-boyfriend famously sold a “sex tape” that Hilton claimed was filmed while she was incapacitated and nearly unconscious. Hilton has described the nonconsensual release of the tape as being “like rape,” and says she was suicidal afterward. Contemporaries Lindsay Lohan, Miley Cyrus, and Vanessa Hudgens also had nude photos or “upskirt” photos of their genitalia nonconsensually circulated online. In Cyrus’ case, a hacker posted “wet T-shirt” photos she took for her boyfriend when she was 16 years old. If you recognize the names on that list, it’s because most of them also became famous “train wrecks,” young women acting out of trauma in a culture that framed routine sexual violence and exploitation as the cost of fame.

Britney might differ from those women in having a preexisting mental illness. But that’s not unique, either. Like Britney, Amy Winehouse’s struggles with her body, and seeming refusal to look conventionally “pretty,” became tabloid punchlines, with gossip blogs pouncing on every missing tooth or gaunt shirtless photo. In Winehouse’s case, the changes in her body were due to a lifelong struggle with anorexia. We will never know how the press coverage of Winehouse affected her illness, but if there’s one thing you should probably avoid doing to an anorexic person, it’s publicly speculating on how disgusting their body is. The difference between Britney Spears and Amy Winehouse is that Britney Spears is still alive.

The story of Britney Spears is one woman trying, for decades, to achieve bodily autonomy and being denied every time.

A misogynist culture will always have an appetite for female suffering, and any woman who looks too successful or too happy is an appealing target to be torn down. Famous or not, women are told to be sexually appealing, then shamed for any unwelcome sexual attention — or even sexual violence — that comes their way. Those dynamics are bigger and older than Britney Spears, and they still hurt women every day.

Celebrity media has gotten a bit kinder since the trainwreck days of the ’00s, and celebrities themselves have gotten better at controlling their narratives. Yet the underlying culture has not changed. You can draw a clear line between the sexually invasive photos of Spears’ body (or Lohan’s, or Cyrus’, or, or, or) and domestic abusers who post their victims’ nudes online. Late-night comedians mocked Spears’ distress and turned contempt for her suffering into mass entertainment, but nowadays, we don’t need comedians; women who incite our ire become the target of dozens or hundreds of Twitter trolls who can send their messages and threats directly. Following “bad” women and gender-marginalized people around and tormenting them to get a reaction is a common practice for online harassment campaigns like GamerGate and its derivatives.

Britney Spears has become a sort of patron saint for cultural outsiders, beloved by women and gay men, who know something about having their authentic sexuality policed and suppressed. Britney mattered to me too, as a closeted trans person who, like her, hated pretending to be an all-American teenage girl and just wanted to pull into the nearest barbershop and shave my head. For people with mental illness, Britney is someone who shares their struggle to be taken seriously as human beings and authorities in their own lives. Britney stands in for any person who has tried, and failed, to fit themselves into “normal,” and she’s beloved because the cruelty she’s experienced resonates with our pain.

So, yes, Britney Spears is a myth, our myth, and myths matter because they teach us about our own lives. Commentators often treat Britney’s downfall as a story about a long-ago time when things were worse for women, but in 2021, we still treat female suffering as entertainment. We just do it to women who are more vulnerable, less able to fight back, and who don’t have millions of fans ready to come to their defense. Any unruly or widely disliked woman can be Britney Spears. All it takes is one obsessive ex, one unflattering photo, one ill-judged Tweet. It’s easy to be sorry for what we did to Britney, harder to stick up for the next victim when you see them coming for her, and as long as the culture treats women’s pain as a spectacle, we can guarantee that soon, some woman will step forward to take Britney’s place.

More on Spears, celebrity culture, and the ‘90s

Dive deep into the cultural trappings of the Spears era.

  • Throw it back to the year 1999, when a series of slow-release revolutions mutated our lives and rewired our brains.
  • There’s a wide gulf between celebrity culture and normal life.
  • People reserve their most awful criticism for girls and women. No one knew that better than Niurka Marcos, a Cuban talk-show host who ruled the Spanish-language tabloids in the early 2000s.

Author of “Trainwreck” (Melville House, ‘16) and “Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers” (Melville House, ‘19). Seen at Elle, In These Times & all across the Internet.

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