The Media Today

Britney Spears fills a hole in her narrative

June 24, 2021

#FreeBritney. That hashtag—once derided, in many quarters, as a conspiratorial fan obsession—lit up both social and traditional media again this week, as the pop star Britney Spears prepared to testify in a court hearing about her conservatorship, a legal arrangement that, since 2008, has given guardians led by Spears’s father control over key aspects of her life, including her finances and her career. On the eve of the hearing, Liz Day, Samantha Stark, and Joe Coscarelli, of the New York Times, reported, based on confidential court documents, that contrary to claims that the conservatorship has protected Spears against exploitation with her ongoing consent, it has been even more controlling than was previously known—Spears’s father, she said, even barred her from recoloring her kitchen cabinets—and Spears has often objected privately to its terms. The satirical site The Onion weighed in on the hearing, too: “The nation’s media outlets,” it wrote, “reported Monday that Britney Spears was well enough to be released back into their sole custody”—with the proviso that she could go back into conservatorship “once they drove her into hitting rock bottom again.”

The salience of The Onion’s joke owes a lot to the work of Stark and colleagues at the Times who, earlier this year, released Framing Britney Spears, a documentary about the singer’s treatment, including at the hands of the press, that refocused media attention on grotesque coverage of her early career and mental-health crisis in the late 2000s. “Major news outlets called Spears fat, slut-shamed her, reprinted paparazzi upskirt shots, and mocked her for her increasingly erratic public behavior,” Constance Grady wrote, for Vox; the Washington Post’s Jessica M. Goldstein noted that it “was not unusual to find a teenage Spears fielding inquiries about whether she was a virgin, if her breasts were real or fake, or if she was dressing in a way that made her an unsuitable role model for her young fans.” There seemed, Julia Jacobs wrote, in the Times, “to be a vicious cycle at play: The relentless paparazzi that followed Spears nearly everywhere left her exasperated and helped fuel public displays of frustration, which magazines then covered aggressively, interviewing a host of tangential characters, including the owner of the hair salon where she shaved her head and a psychologist who had never treated her.” Jen Peros, a former editor at Us Weekly, told Jacobs that coverage of Spears was so lucrative that the magazine once sent a reporter to Antigua to scope out a rehab clinic Spears briefly visited.

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Celebrity magazines were responsible for some of the most notorious coverage of Spears: splashy cover images of her half-buzzed scalp next to headlines like “HELP ME” and “INSIDE BRITNEY’S BREAKDOWN.” But media complicity didn’t end at the tabloids’ edge—as Jacobs notes, publications and journalists with loftier self-conceptions joined the free-for-all. In 2003, Diane Sawyer put it to Spears that she had “disappointed a lot of mothers in this country” and upset her boyfriend, Justin Timberlake, who, for his part, gave radio interviews about taking Spears’s virginity. In the wake of the Times documentary this year, Timberlake apologized to Spears; so, too, did Glamour magazine and the gossip blogger Perez Hilton, who, after the actor Heath Ledger died in 2008, promoted T-shirts bearing the slogan “Why couldn’t it be Britney?” (“I was nasty, mean, cruel, inconsiderate,” Hilton conceded.) Many observers pointed to the complicity of news consumers—“Lots of virtuous folks on here pretending they didn’t read Perez Hilton or Us Weekly’s abusive coverage of Britney religiously,” the comedian Billy Eichner tweeted—but as Grady, of Vox, argued, media elites still deserve more of the blame. “All of us bear some responsibility for climate change,” Grady wrote, by way of analogy, but “most of climate change is the result of decisions made by about 100 CEOs.”

As this reckoning unfurled, Spears’s voice remained mostly absent. She hasn’t given interviews. In February, her Twitter account posted “no matter what we think we know about a person’s life it is nothing compared to the actual person living behind the lens”; in May, after the BBC also broadcast a program about Spears, her Instagram account referred to the documentaries as overly negative and “hypocritical,” in that “they criticize the media and then do the same thing.” Much coverage of the Times documentary noted that, since the late 2000s, social media has upended the relationship between celebrities and the press; some observers suggested an empowering effect on Spears, but others remained skeptical. Ahead of this week’s hearing, Stark told Justin Ray, of the LA Times, that it “bothers me” when news outlets report that Spears “said” her criticism of the documentaries, rather than attributing it to her social media channels. “There are so many restrictions on Britney,” Stark said. “It would be questionable to me whether she was running an account that speaks to millions of people around the world herself.”

Yesterday, at the hearing, Spears did speak to the world for herself, and her testimony was devastating. She told the court by phone that she didn’t know of her right to petition to end the conservatorship before, and wants to end it now; she also claimed that her guardians forced her into performances against her will, and that they made her take mood-altering drugs and keep a contraceptive device inside her body. She appeared to assert authorship of her social media posts, but pierced their upbeat tone: “I’ve lied and told the whole world I’m OK and I’m happy,” she said. “If I said that enough, maybe I’d become happy.” Spears complained that members of her family are free to give media interviews whenever they want, while she has been told to stay silent; she also said that the “embarrassing and demoralizing” nature of her treatment discouraged her from speaking openly in the past. “I thought people would make fun of me or laugh at me and say, ‘She’s lying, she’s got everything, she’s Britney Spears,’” she told the court. “I’m not lying. I just want my life back.” The testimony stunned many reporters. Coscarelli, of the Times, noted on Twitter that he has covered the conservatorship since 2015. “I truly never expected what we heard from Britney in court today,” he wrote.

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At the hearing, Spears centered her voice in her story, at least for now; when she will next want to speak, and whether she will be allowed to, remain open questions. Her testimony filled a glaring hole in a narrative that has, in many ways, evolved from cruel mockery to horrified sympathy. But the notion of a clean shift—and attendant talk of reappraisal, and a mental-health awakening in coverage—can feel too neat. As Grady notes, it’s not like everyone in the media was okay with the exploitative Spears coverage at the time. And we shouldn’t be so quick, now, to conclude that everything has changed for the better. “We say, ‘Oh we were so horrible to her back then,’ as though we’re not horrible to her now, and as though there aren’t women today to whom we as a society wouldn’t gleefully do it again,” the New Statesman’s Emily Tamkin wrote yesterday. Around the same time, the Mail ran a story about the hearing. It was illustrated with blurry “EXCLUSIVE PICTURES” of Spears out driving with her boyfriend afterward.

Below, more on Britney Spears:

  • Stark realities: Ray, of the LA Times, asked Stark, the director of Framing Britney Spears, how she approached the documentary without Spears’s involvement. “Because of the conservatorship system, there’s been a very tight circle of people around Britney that’s impenetrable, and so even if we wanted… I mean, I wanted desperately to get her consent to do this,” Stark said. “We went through the normal channels: publicists, managers. We went through trying to find people who were friends, family members, neighbors, everybody, and we still don’t know if the message ever got to her. That’s really scary. And it was a huge internal conflict for me.”
  • Fox holes: Last night, on his Fox News show, a bemused-sounding Tucker Carlson notified viewers that the actress and activist Rose McGowan had requested to come on his air. “We’ve never met Rose McGowan before, but we’re completely open-minded,” Carlson said. “We just learned it has something to do with Britney Spears, who we’ve not interviewed since she was literally a teenager, but apparently we have just read she’s been under a conservatorship for the last thirteen years, and this has been in the news—it flew under our radar but it has been.” McGowan told Carlson, “I also have an open mind,” then went on to condemn the conservatorship and “the media machine.” The story “goes to what you talk about, which is the rot in the machine,” she said.
  • Britney’s Gram: Last month, Paige Skinner, of LA Magazine, spoke with Tess Barker and Babs Gray, the hosts of Britney’s Gram, a comedy podcast riffing off Spears’s Instagram account “that turned into a news source when an anonymous individual called in to allege that Spears had been admitted to a mental health facility against her will.” Next month, Barker and Gray will launch Toxic: The Britney Spears Story as a serious crime podcast. “I feel like I’ve just had to become an investigative reporter basically over the last year and it’s been a crazy learning curve,” Gray said.
  • The bigger picture: Many journalists noted yesterday that Spears is the high-profile tip of a huge iceberg, and that coverage should reflect this. “If Britney Spears being forced to keep in an IUD despite wanting another child enrages you (and it should), please hold onto that anger and remember it when you hear about the many disabled people throughout history who have similarly been deprived of their reproductive rights,” Rolling Stone’s Ej Dickson tweeted. Slate’s Madison Malone Kircher called the same development “a fucking grim reminder of how our country treats mentally ill and disabled people on the regular. Ones who aren’t mega famous and rich and stand an even slimmer chance than Britney of ever being heard.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.