In the New York Times documentary Framing Britney Spears, now being aired on Hulu, you learn as much if not more about our culture as you do the often-tragic life of Ms. Spears. As USA Today reported, “Viewers saw a gifted female pop star brought to her knees by a sexist culture that never let her freely live.” She was expected to “look stunning but embody the girl next door, act sexy but remain a virgin, be articulate but never opinionated.” This was, of course, an impossible aspiration. The fact that she seemed to initially pull off the impression galvanized a culture to topple her from the pedestal it had, itself, put her on.
On the surface, the documentary would seem to merely chronicle her meteoric success, followed by her mental health struggles resulting in a legal conservatorship controlled by her father that she is now trying to escape. But it’s more—far more. It reveals her systematic takedown at the hands of a culture that had grown men asking her at the ripe old age of 10 about boyfriends (and if she didn’t have one, would she consider him); news reporters asking her whether she was still a virgin; and, oh yes, enquiring about the size of her breasts.
All while she was still a teenager.
Even the so-called “serious” journalists seemed intent on the takedown, such as when Diane Sawyer questioned Spears on what she might have done to upset Justin Timberlake and cause the breakup, or when Matt Lauer relentlessly pursued whether she was a “bad mom.”
When the breakdown in her mental health almost inevitably came (no doubt exacerbated by two babies in one year in a time when post-partum depression was seldom discussed), even the game show “Family Feud” joined in the merciless, relentless pile-on by having contestants list things that she lost in the past year (Answers: “Her hair,” “Her husband,” “Her mind”).
In stark contrast to how we treated Britney Spears was the way we gave a kitchen pass to Justin Timberlake, who not only flippantly announced to the world that she had lost her virginity with him, but then cast her through his next music video as the one who had cheated on him. As if it wasn’t enough to shame one pop star in a way that decimated her career, he then proceeded to rip the covering off of Janet Jackson’s shirt in a seemingly planned act during the Super Bowl halftime show, exposing her breast to the world. Both women suffered greatly as a result while we, as a culture, simply elevated Timberlake’s career even more—even awarding him a repeat invitation to perform at the Super Bowl. Only after the furor sparked by the unlidded eye of Framing Britney Spears did Timberlake issue an apology to both Ms. Spears and Ms. Jackson for his past actions.
Of course, the ’90s were equally unkind, and in similar ways, to figures such as Anna Nicole Smith and Monica Lewinsky. Smith was constantly portrayed as a gold-digger, even labeled “white trash” on a magazine cover. Her mental downward spiral was, akin to Spears, simply fodder for the tabloids. Smith eventually died of a drug overdose. Lewinsky has said that her public treatment following an affair with President Bill Clinton (If it can be called that in relation to her age and his position of power; most would call it sexual abuse.) led to post-traumatic stress disorder. She became a pariah; Clinton continues on as statesman.
So, when Britney Spears was mocked by late-night comedians for things like shaving her head, we now know that they were mocking a horrifically treated young woman for the mental health issues said horrific treatment created. As the New York Times chronicled the relentless pursuit of the paparazzi:
“The tabloids had been obsessed with Spears since her days as a teenage bubble-gum pop sensation, but the coverage reached a new level of intensity during her mid-20s. There seemed 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.”
The verdict is clear. This was not a young woman who needed our derision. This was a young woman who needed our compassion and help. “We’re sorry, Britney,” read a recent post on Glamour’s Instagram. “We are all to blame for what happened to Britney Spears.”
Yes, we are.
James Emery White
Julia Jacobs, “‘Sorry, Britney’: Media Is Criticized for Past Coverage, and Some Own Up,” The New York Times, February 12, 2021, read online.
Glamour Magazine Instagram Apology, view online.
Sarah Ditum, “Pinned Up, Torn Down. How Britney Spears Was Betrayed,” The Times UK, February 14, 2021, read online.
Alia E. Dastagir, “’Framing Britney’ exposes a problem bigger than Britney,” USA Today, February 15, 2021, read online.
Sophie Gilbert, “Why Were We So Cruel to Britney Spears?” The Atlantic, February 13, 2021, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.