Podculture: Oops, the media did it again—dissecting Britney Spears’ legacy, nearly 20 years later

Joshua Perry and Erica Davis

With the release of “Framing Britney,” audiences and publications alike are re-thinking the role media plays in the lives of prominent female celebrities. This week, Podculture breaks down how and why the spotlight can mistreat stars like Britney.

ERICA DAVIS: What’s more toxic, the “taste of your lips” or the tabloid photographers following Britney Spears to the gas station, hair salon and on her drive home?

JOSH PERRY: In the early 2000s, at the height of the tabloid media’s power, singer and pop icon Britney Spears went from Bible Belt sweetheart to the poster-teen for anti-Christian values in under a year.

ERICA DAVIS: From Madonna to Amy Winehouse, the paparazzi are no strangers to taking the lives of prominent female celebrities and twisting them into sensationalized cover stories.

JOSH PERRY: Negative media attention has always been a side effect of dealing with fame, but where do we draw the line when it comes to our obsessions with celebrity culture? And when public scrutiny is intensified by systemic issues like misogyny or prejudice, how can we get better at preventing society from burning celebrities under the magnifying glass?

ERICA DAVIS: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Erica Davis.

JOSHUA PERRY: And I’m Joshua Perry. This is Podculture, a podcast about arts and culture on campus and beyond.

ERICA DAVIS: “Bad Girl,” “Unstable,” “Too Sexual.” Britney Spears was a series of adjectives, a clickbait-y headline to drive up the sales of tabloids and even mainstream newspapers in the early 2000s.

JOSHUA PERRY: Now, 14 years later, with the release of the New York Times documentary, “Framing Britney Spears,” the media is finally beginning to revisit the role it played in framing her young adult life around misogynistic stereotypes and provoking so-called “breakdowns” for a front page story.

ERICA DAVIS: I’ll admit it, I love a celebrity scoop as much as the next person. Watching “Keeping up with the Kardashians” and speculating about the relationship status of the members of the Hype House somehow makes my days inside feel a little less boring.

JOSHUA PERRY: I know exactly what you mean. I couldn’t stream “Framing Britney Spears” fast enough.

ERICA DAVIS: “Framing Britney Spears” was eye-opening in terms of understanding the lengths that paparazzi would go to in order to bring a juicy scoop to the front page: from following Britney Spears to her home, sticking a microphone in her face as she begged to be left alone through tears and even interviewing the owner of the hair salon where she infamously shaved her head after her husband refused to let her see her children. Watching Britney try to avoid the camera flashes while photographers asked her invasive questions about her relationships made me feel really icky about all of the celebrity gossip I’ve engaged in.

JOSHUA PERRY: Me too. And the documentary really changed a lot of the assumptions and judgements about Britney that I’d been hearing for years. As a journalist, I felt even weirder about the silent role the media was allowed to play in framing her life. There was so much coverage of Britney crying after being hounded by the paparazzi, going out with trademarked bad boy Colin Farrell and partying, but somehow the tabloids never mentioned how they were both the documenters and the source of her so-called “breakdowns.”

ERICA DAVIS: In the early 2000s, Britney’s every move seemed to be in the public eye. The documentary explores how tabloids had been obsessed with Britney since she began to gain popularity, and how the obsession gained new heights as she “grew up:” aka wearing more revealing outfits and dating highbrow celebrities like Justin Timberlake.

JOSHUA PERRY: Thus began a vicious cycle. Constant media attention left Britney frustrated and incited outbursts, like shattering a paparazzo’s car window with her umbrella, that the media then eagerly photographed. Every major TV station, tabloid, culture magazine and newspaper lent some space to the country sweetheart’s “hysterics.”

ERICA DAVIS: The 24/7 news surrounding Britney’s “unravelling” had a profound societal effect. I remember Britney becoming THE unhinged celebrity; an example for D.A.R.E. officers to say to my 4th grade class, “See, this is what happens when you try drugs,” and a messy celebrity caricature played out on children’s TV, like in the “i Fix a Pop Star” episode of iCarly when Carly, Sam and Freddy have to direct a music video for washed-up singer Ginger Fox, who’s temper and overall disconnected demeanor ring bells of Britney’s 2010 public persona.

JOSHUA PERRY: Her life in those years became one of the biggest cautionary tales in American pop culture.

JAYNA KURLENDER: Yeah, when I was really little, I remember it being like, oh she’s crazy just like Lindsay Lohan went crazy and Paris Hilton went crazy.

ERICA DAVIS: That was SESP sophomore Jayna Kurlender. Jayna grew up hearing all of the typical price-of-fame stories about Britney’s early 2000s era, and for a long time she, like many Americans, took those stories for granted. She says it wasn’t until a few years ago, when her grasp of feminist issues and her understanding of the national media became more sophisticated, that she began to reexamine Britney’s story, and the stories of other women of her time, with a more critical lens.

JOSHUA PERRY: After the release of the documentary, many Americans who followed the Britney saga in the early 2000s also began thinking critically about the way that the “troubled celebrity” narrative which was spun around her fed into sexist typecasts. But this public perception of a girl unhinged didn’t just perpetuate harmful stereotypes — it led to the loss of Britney’s freedom. In 2008, Britney’s father, Jamie Spears, appointed himself as her conservator, legally permitting him to control her money and force her into rehab. Under US law, conservatorship allows another person to make these types of decisions for someone unable to make them on their own due to mental incapacitation. But Britney, as wild as the media made her out to be, didn’t fit this description. So when she lost her agency to her father, it was a completely unprecedented use of the legal process.

ERICA DAVIS: What began as a “temporary” conservatorship to oversee Britney’s health and finances turned into complete control over who she could see and where she could go. And this conservatorship is still in place today. She can’t sign her own contracts, choose her own shows or decide when she wants to leave her house. Legally, she is not her own person.

JOSHUA PERRY: Jayna is strongly opposed to Britney’s infamous legal conservatorship under her father. In her opinion, Britney’s story is less of a cautionary tale about fame and more of a case study on the ways American society scrutinizes and undermines female celebrities.

JAYNA KURLENDER: I mean I think it shows that no one should be on that pedestal to begin with, because we are inevitably going to knock them down, or they’re going to decide that they don’t like being on this pedestal.

JOSHUA PERRY: Today, the dominant narrative about Britney’s perceived downfall seems to be changing, with more and more people recognizing the role that the media played; the New York Times documentary kind of exemplified that cultural shift for me.

ERICA DAVIS: But some believe that the issue is more than just the overwhelming media coverage. Communication sophomore Jonathan Van De Loo believes that Britney’s “tailspin” was a narrative directly encouraged by the media’s slanted and exploitative coverage of the pop star — but it was also coverage that American society couldn’t get enough of.

JONATHAN VAN DE LOO: I think the paparazzi is kind of built on invading people’s privacy, and we as a culture just got really numb to that as a fact. And so, regardless of what’s happening in any celebrities’ personal life, I feel like we’re so used to all of their decisions being caught on camera that we don’t think twice about it.

JOSHUA PERRY: Especially when it comes to female celebrities. Americans have a seemingly insatiable interest in their public images, private lifestyles and actions. Britney was by no means an exception to this obsession.

ERICA DAVIS: While watching “Framing Britney Spears,” I kept asking myself, “Why Britney?” What was it about Britney Spears, the almost-too-traditional small-town Mississippi singer on the “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” to pop star pipeline, that so strongly captivated the tabloids?

JANICE RADWAY: The media, especially — especially since the ‘90s, but this is true even before that — are obsessed with the figure of the girl, and in particular, the celebrity girl. So what you see is you see celebration of these celebrity girls, but then real interest in when they fail, right? So they’re used to hold up this idea of what I would call dominant images of girlhood and womanhood, which is white, cisgendered, thin, straight, heteronormative and middle class, which means bound up with consumption, right? And so celebrities are the sort of quintessential ideal in our culture, partly because they are public. As women are generally, they’re public property, they don’t have much privacy. And as a consequence, the celebrity is the person that they focus on. And if she doesn’t uphold this image, then they become obsessed with her failure, like Britney Spears.

JOSHUA PERRY: That’s Janice Radway, Walter Dill Scott Professor of Communication Studies and the Director of the Gender and Sexuality Studies program. She has spent her career studying women in the media, and she’s seen plenty of Britney-like female celebrities followed by aggressive media through bad boyfriends, teen pregnancies and drug addictions.

ERICA DAVIS: Britney is only one in a long line of celebrity women who have faced appalling treatment by tabloids. She’s just another queen of pop, passed down the throne with the wealth and trauma to boot.

JOSHUA PERRY: One of the main reasons tabloids have been able to abuse the images of female celebrities is by capitalizing on the media-manufactured female binary. Professor Radway explains that there are two types of girls allowed to grace the cover and the screens.

ERICA DAVIS: An idea popularized by scholar Anita Harris, modern women are the vanguard of our society, and thus they are constructed as either a great success: a “Can-Do” girl, or a great failure: an “At-Risk” girl.

JANICE RADWAY: “Can-Do” girls represented in the media, as we just said, white, cisgendered, middle class; she is the person who has all kinds of opportunities before her, she can have it all. She’s going to have a career, she’s going to have children. And, you know, she’s celebrated. The “At-Risk” girl tends to be presented as if all “At-Risk” girls are girls of color. Black women, young women who supposedly make poor choices, right? So that things that are structural impediments in their lives are read as their own responsibility. And so as a consequence, they have failed. And often it focuses on disordered consumption. Right? So it’s women who ingest too many drugs, who have a disordered relationship to alcohol, to consumption, food consumption and all sorts of other things.

JOSHUA PERRY: As a young, white, cis-gendered, middle class woman, Britney began her career painted as the “Can-Do” girl with talent and an up-and-coming name. But the media was ready to pounce when she began to show signs of becoming “At-Risk.”

ERICA DAVIS: The same tabloids that built up Britney as the cute, “Can-Do,” pop singing sensation brought her down the second her skirt came above her knee. Not only that, but they made her downfall look like her fault –– plastering her shaved head on every cover as a threat to women everywhere to smile, look pretty and do as they’re told.

JOSHUA PERRY: Even as the queen of pop, with money and connections at her fingertips, Britney never really had any power in the world of pop culture. Her fame, her body, her relationships –– they were all used as clickbait to make the tabloid companies rich.

ERICA DAVIS: As soon as she gained fame, she lost control of her own narrative, though really, she never had any control of it to begin with.

JANICE RADWAY: Even posing it as, “How did she lose power?” is to misconstrue the situation, right, because the situation constructs her from the very beginning as Miley Cyrus or Lindsay Lohan was constructed. And so to assume that they had power that they lost is the mistake. They were already implicated in the system where they didn’t have a voice, they didn’t have power.

JOSHUA PERRY: Jayna has seen this pattern of the systematic exploitation and objectification of women play out in American pop culture over and over again, from Judy Garland to Billie Eilish. It takes a toll, she says.

JAYNA KURLENDER: I think that there’s this preoccupation and this fixation within American culture on hypersexuality that is forced upon nearly every celebrity, but especially young girls and women that I think is like, you can’t expect someone to develop in a healthy way when that is being forced onto them, even someone that gets famous as an adult. You can’t really expect them to then have a healthy relationship with their own sexuality when so much of their lives are speculated upon and are criticized for things that they may or may not have done and they may or may not have had agency in doing.

ERICA DAVIS: Jonathan agreed that the media has a nasty habit of being hypercritical and disparaging towards female celebrities at the first sign of controversy. The media honed in on Rihanna once her abuse at the hands of Chris Brown became public knowledge. Kesha, an icon of the 2010s, went through a similar ordeal during her legal battle over the abuse she described experiencing while working with music producer Dr. Luke. Female stars have too often been reduced simply to objects of scandal, Jonathan says.

JONATHAN VAN DE LOO: I feel like for such a long time, like all these women were defined by their mistakes that they made publicly instead of their insane amount of accomplishments.

ERICA DAVIS: More than a decade later, US Weekly, People and Glamour magazines and even other celebrities, like Justin Timberlake, are issuing apologies to Britney and owning up to aggressive coverage on Britney’s marriage, children, substance abuse and mental health issues. But have these magazines really changed?

JOSHUA PERRY: In our age of democratized social media, the #MeToo movement, and significant advancements in social justice, it would be nice to think that this kind of shallow media treatment is a thing of the past. But it doesn’t seem like that’s the case. Was it not only a few years ago that Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato were being stalked by paparazzi and villainized for going to rehab?

ERICA DAVIS: And just a few months ago, Charli D’Amelio’s face covered Snapchat news headlines guessing at her relationship status with fellow Hype House member Lil Huddy and berating her for being spoiled when she wished for 100 million followers on TikTok. The media’s obsession with celebrities –– especially young female celebrities –– hasn’t fundamentally changed, it’s just transitioned.

JOSHUA PERRY: In a way, the tabloid frenzy of the early 2000s never went away. Stan — or “stalker fan” — culture has taken over platforms like Twitter, TikTok and Instagram. Candid shots of pop stars taking out the trash, singer-songwriters with cringey middle school-era haircuts, actors smoking cigarettes in Starbucks’ parking lots — all of this information is online if you’re committed, or obsessed, enough to find it.

JAYNA KURLENDER: The luxury of privacy is something that we don’t afford celebrities in the current age, if that makes sense.

ERICA DAVIS: So, what needs to change to keep the media from continuing to prey on girls and women living in the public eye? Jonathan believes the media isn’t solely responsible: in a way, American society, with its voracious appetite for scandal and speculation, was equally guilty of Britney’s character assassination. The only way Jonathan can imagine celebrity culture becoming less toxic is if media consumers collectively refuse to let their worst instincts get the best of them.

JONATHAN VAN DE LOO: The media provides what there is a demand for. So if we as a society, address, okay, what is it about us that we wanted and got enjoyment out of watching Britney go through that meltdown and paid to read about what was going wrong in her life what is it in our culture that made us feel entertained by that and made us feel like it was something that we had to spend money on learning about.

JOSHUA PERRY: But Jayna thinks that deep down, the true roots of the exploitative media coverage of figures like Britney lie in issues like misogyny and racism that Americans have lived with for generations. And in her view, there’s no clear path to overcoming those sources of hostility.

JAYNA KURLENDER: Yeah, I think that hating anyone that deviates from the standard of white, cisgender, straight, Christian, male — I think that hating those people is so ingrained into American culture that the amount of work needed to undo all that is immense. And I think that we’ve made good progress, and we’ve started to do that work but I don’t, I don’t know if it’ll ever be like a good time for women in this country.

ERICA DAVIS: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Erica Davis. Thanks for listening to another episode of Podculture. This episode was reported and produced by me, Erica Davis, and Josh Perry. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Madison Smith, the digital managing editor is Haley Fuller, and the editor in chief is Sneha Dey.

Email: [email protected] and [email protected]

Twitter: @EricaCDavis1 and @joshdperry

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