Why did it take us so long to finally apologize to Britney Spears?
We've all been complicit in relishing celebrities' suffering. It's time to take a hard look in the mirror
Anne-iversaries is a bi-weekly column by writer Anne T. Donahue that explores and celebrates the pop culture that defined the '90s and 2000s and the way it affects us now (with, of course, a few personal anecdotes along the way).
Contains strong language.
If you lived through them (or have read anything I've written before), you're aware of how terrible the 2000s were. Super lowrise jeans were uniform. Songs like "Save A Horse, Ride A Cowboy" were celebrated. And we treated Britney Spears and most of her contemporaries like absolute shit by using their struggles with addiction, mental health, and body image as a way to make ourselves feel somehow superior, particularly by enabling the gossip media industry to reach its peak through tearing down celebrities and revelling in their humiliation.
We were all complicit. I know I was. As Britney's star rose higher and higher, I started resenting the attention she got from boys that I liked and the ease with which she seemed to move through the world. Our four-year age difference felt like centuries, especially since I lacked the charisma and allure she exhibited so flawlessly. I'd only just graduated to wearing spaghetti straps and built-in bras; she danced with a snake and exuded pure sexuality. She made me feel like a child.
Which is why it was easy to hate her. Since most media-based conversations focused on her sex appeal, there was a pronounced lack of discourse around why we'd begun sexualizing the singer when she was a teenager and why the status of her virginity was any of our business. So instead of trying to pinpoint the source of my resentment, I began to villainize her. She was everything I wasn't, and I felt that made her wrong. The public role she'd been forced into wasn't of concern to me. She wasn't a "real" musician or a "real" artist, and as far as I cared, her existence in the spotlight made her fair game for any and all criticisms by me and everybody else.
Of course, that was par for the course in the early 2000s. Pop stars like Britney and Christina Aguilera weren't awarded control over their own personas or professional trajectories, and when they broke from the squeaky clean images of their early days (see: Britney's "I'm A Slave 4 U" or Christina's "Dirrty"), they were viciously and aggressively slut-shamed, as if they weren't allowed to grow out of their early teens or begin to embrace their own sexuality. And I was far from the only one who indulged in the perverse speculation and judgment that revolved around these young women. As the decade progressed, so did the prevalence of outlets like TMZ and Perez Hilton, whose payroll hinged on ripping apart famous people in a bid to leave them powerless and to fuel our own resentments. Relishing and exploiting the downfall of young women was a cottage industry — one the majority of us helped sustain.
By the time Britney released her fourth album, 2003's In the Zone, she'd graduated from teen-dream ingénue to a hypersexualized target of judgment and ridicule. As the media circus unravelled over the next few years, she eventually experienced a public and very alarming meltdown in 2007, going so far as to shave her head in the midst of trying to escape the paparazzi. To think of what she must've been feeling in that moment is heartbreaking and rage-inducing — almost as upsetting as it is to remember the way so many of us delighted in her near-demise.
By 2007, I'd grown out of my Britney disdain. I liked her music, and I came to feel guilty about making shaved-head jokes. Whatever she was experiencing, it felt much bigger than the snippets we were being fed by the new blog machine.
But then I'd log onto PerezHilton.com to consume as much celebrity gossip and as many crude drawings scribbled over famous young women as possible. My need to feel in-the-know eclipsed any personal empathy I felt about what was happening to Britney Spears, and I told myself it was fine because famous women weren't real women; that it was okay because they were millionaires and experienced a level of adoration most of us would never know; that it was fair game to comment on the thighs of a teen TV star or the desperate look in Britney's eyes as she hit the hood of a car with an umbrella. How else would I ever feel so close to pop stars or actresses? How else would I be able to sift through their ups and downs to create ideas of who they were as a person? How else was I supposed to learn everything about them in order to judge them?
By now, we've finally started to understand how much damage was caused with the rise of the celebrity blogger across the 2000s and beyond. And we've also begun to grasp the severity of Britney's experience under the sole lightbulb hanging from the ceiling of the media who covered and interrogated her. With the recent acceleration of the #FreeBritney movement and the documentary Framing Britney Spears, we also know that since the events of 2007, she's been trapped under the conservatorship of her father, and continues to be monitored by legally appointed hire-ups who don't allow her the freedoms all people should be awarded. And we know that we were partially responsible for making her life hell. So why did it take us so long to finally start learning from and begin making amends for our shameful behaviour?
Well, we were selfish. And we still are. Recent apologies issued by Perez Hilton and Justin Timberlake for their roles in Britney's story allude to droplets of personal growth, but the amount of time it took for each to be issued suggests they were made as part of a public relations strategy, not genuine concern.
This is, to be sure, still a step in the right direction, even if we're still only changing the game at a glacial pace. Since Britney's heyday, we've learned to be more empathetic to the experiences and mental health of famous people. But we're still thirsty for any kind of spectacle. We still want to know about — and then judge — celebrities' every move. And we especially don't want to register that what we're witnessing may be the mark of some kind of crisis — mainly because if we did that, we would have to feel guilty about making a person's real life our own entertainment.
Social media has only made this dynamic more complicated. The rise of Instagram and Twitter has given us access to celebrities' personal lives, but with each post shared, it's easier to believe this insight is something we're entitled to. There's a level of privilege that weaves itself through fans' comments and interactions, with some commenters going so far as to viciously tear down a celebrity's looks, weight, or romantic choices. Arguably, the current social media dynamic has replaced the traditional blog-and-paparazzi frenzy of yesteryear. And the effects of this toxicity are evident when public figures choose to delete their social media accounts altogether or issue blanket statements demanding change.
I know that I chose to be someone who indulged in the meanness of 00s-era celebrity gossip, and that so many of us did because it made us feel powerful and in control. And that means we all played a part in everything Britney Spears went through.- Anne T. Donahue
The truth is, stars are not just like us. Celebrities — especially women — experience an entirely different reality than the rest of us do, and we can't possibly understand the effects of being dissected in the press and scrutinized for even the most basic day-to-day tasks. We especially could never imagine suffering a mental health crisis and having millions of strangers make it a punchline. It's impossible to wrap our heads around being asked about the status of our virginity by a grown man during a press conference, with the eyes of the world watching. Frankly, in the same way it's still nearly impossible to fathom such levels of wealth and privilege, it's just as inconceivable to imagine grappling with the cruel undersides of superstardom.
But this time, we do know better. I know that I chose to be someone who indulged in the meanness of 00s-era celebrity gossip, and that so many of us did because it made us feel powerful and in control. And that means we all played a part in everything Britney Spears went through. The only way we can begin to make up for it now is to make a concerted effort to act with kindness and empathy. Perhaps it's time we follow the advice of that Chris Crocker video we all mocked back when we were assholes: leave Britney alone.
The documentary Framing Britney Spears is out now in Canada on Crave.