I remember one day my mom called me over to her desk to show me something. I approached her blue Apple Macintosh and saw a photo of someone smashing a window with a green umbrella. It was 2007. I was 6.
“Do you see this?” my mom asked me as she pointed to the photo. “This woman was a famous singer and one day, she shaved her head and smashed the window of some guy’s car.”
I couldn’t take my eyes away from the picture. The woman looked so angry.
My mom showed me the next slide, which featured the singer using an electric razor to shave off her own hair. At the time, it was unfathomable to me that a woman could be bald.
She went on, explaining the woman’s name was Britney Spears and that she was going through a rough time. I think it was the first time I ever heard about Britney.
In the photo, Spears was a new mother who was on the verge of divorce from her then-husband Kevin Federline. She was also one of the world’s biggest stars.
After making her “comeback” in the industry, following the incidents of 2007, Spears reestablished herself as a pop princess and overall icon complete with a Las Vegas residency and four more studio albums. However, Spears’ comeback also came with a conservatorship, with her father Jamie Spears as the conservator. Typically, a conservatorship allows a “guardian” to take control of an elderly person’s finances and legal affairs when they are incapacitated. Spears told her court-appointed lawyer that she vehemently opposed her father as her conservator. Spears was put under conservatorship following concerning incidents including the window-smashing and mental health struggles that were heavily documented by the press.
On social media, Spears’ strict conservatorship has been criticized by fans and the media, culminating in the #FreeBritney movement. The movement initially began in 2009 with the blog FreeBritney.net and has now evolved to media and in-person protests centered around Spears’ ongoing legal battles.
I had been following along online, bearing witness to attempts by her sister, Jamie Lynn Spears, to be involved in Britney’s estate, but only got the full picture in a New York Times documentary titled “Framing Britney Spears,” which premiered on Hulu Feb. 5. The documentary revealed a consistent lack of support from her parents and those around her. She was entirely alone and is now even more isolated through her conservatorship. To me, the whole film told a story of a woman undermined by patriarchal and capitalist forces. Spears fell prey to a terrible industry and was punished by the media and subsequently, her own family.
At the age of 6, I did not understand the damaging ways in which women in entertainment were covered by the media, much less the larger, more sexist implications of Spears’ alleged breakdown. Now, I can see the ways in which the industry used and exploited Spears — juxtaposing her Disney-star beginnings with her Playboy cover — perpetuating the idea that being sexy is wrong. Feminists who grew up in the early 2000s must make amends for the tabloid exploitation by taking her case seriously and advocating for the removal of her conservatorship.
Since my tabloid introduction to Spears, I grew to love her music and her star power. I danced along to “Toxic” on the Wii game Just Dance. For Halloween in high school, I dressed up as Spears from the “Baby One More Time” video, complete with pigtails and a grey sweater. She was an eternal icon; a symbol of Y2K and the rebirth of pop music. Given my fond memories of Spears’ music and presence in popular culture, I feel a responsibility not to be complicit in her dehumanization.
My mom and I had a long discussion on the phone after we both watched the documentary. She was mortified that she had shown me tabloid images of Spears as she underwent a personal crisis. At its core, Spears’ story was that of a mother, sister and family member struggling to maintain perfection. My mom said everyone in the early 2000s felt as though they were living in a post-feminist world amidst the popularity of media sources like PerezHilton and Gawker.
Spears’ journey forced me to rethink other tabloid narratives involving women and young stars from the early 2000s. As consumers or lovers of pop culture, we have a responsibility to not buy into headlines and instead view our favorite stars as fully human. Spears’ tabloid peers such as Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, Janet Jackson and even Monica Lewinsky were brutalized by the media as their characters were attacked in the most sexist ways.
Meanwhile, Robert Downey Jr. struggled with drug addiction and was arrested in the late 1990s on drug and weapons charges. His story was sensationalized in the media as well, but it wasn’t dehumanizing. Once Downey was sober and working again, articles documenting his “redemption story” appeared in mainstream media. His story is an example of how male celebrities who underwent personal struggles had the luxury of humane media coverage and people buying into their improvement narrative. All the while, female stars were forever branded with sexist, trolling language.
We do not know what Spears is going through day-to-day, but we have seen the toll that constant, negative attention has on those in the limelight. Many public figures, including Meghan Markle and Demi Lovato, have become more open about their horrifying struggles with fame and living under intense public scrutiny. Changing the sexist ways in which public figures are perceived can set the tone for the rest of society. No one should view Daily Mail Snapchat stories or click on tabloid articles with problematic titles that reduce women to their bodies and shame them for making understandable mistakes. We should be shutting down falsehoods and paying little attention to fabricated narratives that dehumanize celebrities.
Both the documentary and the #FreeBritney movement as a whole are about mental health and autonomy. Spears’ case has surpassed the world of gossip magazines and is really about a woman regaining control of a life that she should not have been forced to let go of in the first place.
What happened to Britney Spears should never happen to anyone, famous or not, and I hope we can one day end the legacy of sexism that runs through the media and entertainment industries. We should no longer buy tabloid magazines or share social media posts based in sexist gossip. Instead, focus on coverage that advocates for Spears’ autonomy, something all people deserve, even celebrities. Stand up for her in conversations and understand her pain as you listen to her music. While we can’t necessarily help Spears’ legal battle, the least we can do is give her our empathy. #FreeBritney.