We could’ve avoided this 24 years ago.
In the summer of 1997, the world mourned the tragic death of Diana, Princess of Wales. The beloved member of the British Royal Family perished in a car crash in Paris, ruthlessly pursued by paparazzi who had been tailing her and her boyfriend, Dodi al-Fayed (he and the driver, Henri Paul, also died). A grieving public immediately blamed the photographers and the media that financed their pursuit, accusing them of quite literally hounding her to her grave. Mourners outside of the Kensington and Buckingham Palaces accosted reporters. George Clooney famously lambasted the tabloid machine that made his and other celebrities’ lives hell.
Given that Diana’s death was a global event of unprecedented magnitude, paparazzi and tabloid culture should’ve been consequently destroyed, a swift societal condemnation of the system that robbed two young boys of their mother, and the world of an icon. On the contrary, the outrage didn’t even last to Diana’s funeral. New targets emerged instead: Paul, who was driving while intoxicated, and the royals, who remained at Balmoral and refused to engage a grieving public. Newspaper editors and television producers found their scapegoats. The world had its villains. The tabloids and the paparazzi lived to ruin the lives of public figures for another day.
I couldn’t help thinking of Princess Diana while watching Framing Britney Spears, the New York Times’ documentary about the pop princess, on Hulu over the weekend. While Spears thankfully hasn’t succumbed to her British royal counterpart’s tragic fate, whether her current state can even be considered living is debatable. The documentary explores Spears’ conservatorship, a legal arrangement where her father Jamie Spears has been responsible for all of the decisions related to her well-being and finances. She hasn’t controlled her actions or her wealth since 2007, when she experienced a very public breakdown. Alongside the mechanics of her conservatorship, the documentary outlines in excruciating detail how an unforgiving, relentless society poked, prodded, judged, stalked, manipulated, and abused her to the point that she lost control of her life.
It’s a stunningly uncomfortable watch with the gift of hindsight, allowing viewers who grew up with Spears to watch her career highs and lows with the new context that the #MeToo era afforded us. Seeing Ed McMahon ask a pre-pubescent Spears if she had a boyfriend and if he could be hers is weird when it might’ve been “cute” in the mid-’90s. Listening to countless reporters asking her about her virginity and her breasts at 18 is disgusting. Observing Diane Sawyer’s brazen callousness, Matt Lauer’s masked hypocrisy, and Justin Timberlake’s craven and misogynistic opportunism is infuriating. The terror of watching photographers crowd her car and shove their cameras in her face is devastating. The crass late-night comedian jokes, the exploitative magazine covers and news segments, the outrageous Family Feud segment about “Britney Spears has lost”: it’s enough to make you want to punch a wall.
The response to the documentary has been the virtual version of that. Britney Spears fans and casual observers have expressed their horror and support of the #FreeBritney movement organized against the conservatorship. The masses have also been seeking a culprit for Spears’ woes and have aimed their anger primarily at Justin Timberlake and Diane Sawyer. Fans flooded Timberlake’s Instagram comments demanding that he apologize for how he capitalized on the media’s obsession with their relationship to bolster his solo career. Social media (and talk show hosts) excoriated Sawyer for her 2004 interview with Spears, where she justified murder threats against the singer as mothers being concerned about her public image.
There is no denying that Sawyer and Timberlake bear responsibility for their actions. However, we are perilously close to scapegoating them instead of addressing the real issue at hand. Sawyer was wrong, but several people were involved in producing that interview that didn’t stop once while Spears was sobbing and thought that they had gone too far. ABC and its high-powered executives aired that interview to blockbuster ratings. Timberlake took advantage of his relationship with Spears, but the media’s sexist obsession with her gave him the opportunity.
Timberlake and Sawyer are cogs in a machine that encourages and incentivizes celebrities’ crucifixion, especially women and people of color, for blood sport. The operation is unwieldy, complicated, and needlessly cruel, and its primary purpose is to serve its most critical stakeholders, us, the public. We are the ones who bought the tabloid issues that splashed her crises on their covers countless times. We watched the entertainment shows and news programs that ran banners questioning Spears’ mothering skills, sexuality, and sanity. We demonstrated that the media’s instincts were right: we would never take Britney Spears seriously as an artist or human being, we are unhealthily obsessed with sex, especially regarding young women, and when given the opportunity, we would celebrate her downfall, or at least watch with morbid curiosity. Sawyer and Timberlake and the others who benefitted from Spears’ misfortune could’ve acted in opposition. That display of courage and human decency however yielded no personal benefit, which primarily drives the entertainment industry.
The system worked for us and failed Britney Spears, as it has failed countless other women who dared to be famous, complicated, and didn’t conform to our rigid and contradictory standards. It reflected our worst impulses: our puritanical punishment of sexual exploration and autonomy, our idolatry of celebrities that robs them of their humanity, and our collective cruelty (and before you try claiming that you never cared about Spears or celebrities in the first place, that lack of empathy is cruel in and of itself). Spears’ public mistreatment undoubtedly had a trickle-down effect, teaching young women watching that they too would be punished by society if they stepped out of its arbitrary lines.
We could’ve dismantled core pieces of the system back in 1997 when our celebrity obsession reached its logical extreme. Instead, we let it operate unchecked. The system perfected itself with the rise of the Internet and morphed into the soul-sucking beast that broke Britney, and Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston for that matter. Society has evolved rapidly these last few years, and we now possess the language and knowledge to reinterpret the horrifying ways we’ve treated women in the public eye. Our progress could bear fruit if we did the challenging work instead of taking the easy way out.
We can walk and chew gum at the same time. We can hold individuals responsible, and we should, but we can also accept our complicity and interrogate the systems that have victimized women for far too long. If we don’t, then we will have learned nothing from the documentary, just like we didn’t from Diana’s death. Britney won’t be free, we won’t be free, and we’ll end up having this same conversation in another 24 years.