By Eleanor Antoniou
This article discusses mental health and sexual harassment.
The recently released Framing Britney Spears documentary has sparked strong reactions across social media. It reveals the details of Britney’s ongoing conservatorship which has legally blocked her from making her own decisions for 12 years. A conservatorship is typically used for elderly people, who are unable to safely make decisions for themselves, and involves the legal appointment of a person to manage the personal decisions and finances of another. After Britney’s mental health struggles, her father was appointed as the conservator of her person and estate when she was just 27. Now Britney has stressed that she wants his control removed completely, and is currently facing a court battle against him. The New York Times documentary reported that Britney never wanted her father to be her conservator in the first place. She was denied a choice from the start, even being refused the right to hire her own legal representation. It strikes me that a man in Britney’s position would most likely have never been placed under the same conditions.
It is not only in the courtroom that Britney has had to fight a battle. Since she first appeared in the public eye as a young teenager, Britney has battled against the misogyny of the media and the paparazzi. Her body has been repeatedly scrutinised and objectified, and her mental health became a frequent, tasteless joke during the 2000s, with the media propelling the narrative that Britney was a loose woman gone mad.
The video clips from interviews shocked me the most: a young girl torn apart by the vultures of the tabloids. After a live performance at just age 10, one of these clips shows Britney being asked by the over-60-year-old male host if she has a boyfriend, because of course this is the most important thing to ask a pre-teen. Later, aged 17 and now a newly famous popstar, a male interviewer exclaims: “everyone’s talking about it… your breasts!” Then, during a press conference at age 21, Britney is asked if she is a virgin, a question which fuelled ongoing public debate within the tabloids.
Britney’s breakup with Justin Timberlake revealed just how much media portrayals of celebrities are informed by sexism. The tabloids praised Justin for sleeping with Britney, as if her virginity were a trophy to be won. Britney was painted as a heart-breaker, a girl gone wild and a slut. She was obsessively sexualised yet simultaneously shamed for her sexuality, expected to tread the fine line between ‘sexy’ and ‘pure.’ It is uncomfortable and grotesque to watch Britney facing this hypocrisy, reduced to tears as she is told that one mother would shoot her because she sets a bad example for children. Meanwhile, Justin’s career only seemed to benefit: he even used the music video for Cry Me a River to further vilify Britney.
It is hardly surprising that, after years of enduring the paparazzi’s harassment with polite, sweet smiles, Britney began to experience difficulties with her mental health. Who wouldn’t feel like hitting the paparazzi’s car with an umbrella after being followed and harassed? Not to mention her ex-husband had just blocked her from visiting her children. I’m sure many of us would have shared Britney’s anger at that moment. Yet Britney’s mental health issues and personal struggles became a cruel running joke in the media: she had had a ‘meltdown,’ she had gone ‘crazy.’
This image of the ‘crazy’ woman has much deeper roots than we may at first assume. The very word hysteria originates from the Ancient Greek term for womb, and throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, female hysteria was commonly diagnosed by doctors, seemingly to explain away any mental health condition which made men uncomfortable. These ideas persist to this day in new, more insidious forms.
The list of women who have undergone a similar treatment to Britney is disturbingly long. In the 2000s, Lindsay Lohan and Amanda Bynes were also branded as ‘crazy,’ demonising their mental health issues and struggles with drug and alcohol addiction. Millie Bobby Brown has been sexualised to a horrific extent since the age of 13 in a disturbing echo of Britney’s treatment as a child star. Meghan Markle has been driven from the royal family after constant vilification by the press, a haunting flashback to their treatment of Princess Diana years before, though this time also fuelled by vile racism. Most recently and most tragically, Caroline Flack committed suicide following heartbreaking abuse by the media, who seemed to thrive on degrading a woman who was already vulnerable. The Sun even cruelly referred to her as ‘Caroline Whack’.
The tabloid world is built on criticising, attacking and judging women, tearing apart their actions and their bodies for profit. In Britney’s case, this can only have fuelled the continuation of a conservatorship that she does not seem to want or need. The sad truth is that the press is still profiting off this misogyny today and the list of women who face media abuse continues to lengthen.
Image from Britney’s ‘Oops!… I Did It Again!’