The year was 1999, and my dad was driving our rental car through the winding roads of Hana, Hawaii, while my sister and I screamed the words to a Britney Spears song that was blaring from the speakers.
Beneath jagged cliffs to our right, royal blue waves crashed against palm tree-studded shores. My parents simply listened, the unwitting audience that they were.
Months later, my dad took my sister and me to see Britney at Union Square in San Francisco. I remember bumping arms with other fans and elbowing one another for a closer view of the pretty and pristine young star, who was dressed in pink and signing copies of her album “Baby One More Time.”
“Overprotected” was my personal anthem as a teen who felt rebellious against her perceived sense of being coddled and sheltered. Once it finished playing on my discman, I’d play it again. Then again. Then again.
In college, gay guy friends and I would blast “Circus” and “Womanizer” in our cars to amp ourselves up before heading in to the gay clubs, and when I lived down in South America after graduating, “It’s Britney, b*tch” was an oft-repeated phrase of my Uruguayan friends (who otherwise spoke minimal English).
When I first heard that, for so many 90s babies’ childhoods, this icon was under a conservatorship, I assumed it was just a rumor. If it were true, why didn’t the media mention it? And why wouldn’t someone have stepped in and stopped it from happening? It sounded too inhumane to disregard it as fake news.
Years later, news surrounding her predicament resurfaced, with supporters speaking out in droves, and the hashtag #FreeBritney ripping across social media like California wildfires. After watching her 2021 documentary, it became clear to me that this wasn’t just a rumor, and I was horrified by what I saw.
Though I largely believe the person responsible for this injustice is Jamie Spears, her father, I also don’t think he could have carried it out without the help of predisposing conditions. In this case, an insidious blend of patriarchy and a mass media that profits from caricaturing mental illness (particularly when the sufferer is a woman) helped set the stage.
I believe that even we ourselves, as fans and consumers of media, collectively contributed to the personal breaking point that led to Britney being put under this conservatorship to begin with.
Consider that a narrative gains no traction and holds no power without an audience to willingly consume it—the narrative of unhinged Britney was one that many people around me, myself included, seemed gleefully privy to at the time.
Britney’s hardly the first female celebrity to be subjected to such scrutiny. Lindsay Lohan (2007) and Amanda Bynes (2009) are among the many other Hollywood women who have fallen victim to sexist, uncritical, and demeaning media representation.
The only man I’ve seen portrayed in this way (excluding Harvey Weinstein and all the men who were rightfully called out and held accountable for doing heinous things to other human beings) has been Aaron Carter—and what’s fitting about the mockery of him is that most of it seems to stem from his “not being enough of a man” or conforming to masculine standards.
As Emma Gray, Opinion Columnist for MSNBC, wrote: “Popular culture has spent years putting Spears and women like her up on pedestals and profiting from their labor only to gleefully rip them down.”
Back in 2007, as Britney’s personal life imploded, the press was there to pick up the pieces and hold them to the light for the world to see, alongside a mean-spirited flow of snide commentary. They were there to goad our basest instincts as consumers. They were there to pen headlines drawing unnuanced attention to her mental instability.
Here’s what I know to be true: sometimes when people lash out, it’s after they’ve been driven to their breaking point. Sometimes they’ve been mistreated or treated unkindly for considerable time before they ultimately snap.
In the months leading up to Britney “attacking” the paparazzi for instance, she was harassed and “vultured” by them—but this crucial piece of information didn’t make it into most reporting. Instead, the focus stayed primarily on crazy Britney’s actions in response to the provoking behavior.
I don’t remember there being any wider conversation about mental health or the pressures that young women in Hollywood face.
“We wanted our beautiful girls to remain pretty objects,” wrote Gray. “Their messy humanity was much more painful to contend with.”
I wonder if some of this comes from our tendency to judge others based on our limited knowledge of their true lives. We look at a person, glean a few random details about their life, then come to a conclusion—even if done privately in our own heads. We think we know all there is to know about them. We stop seeing them for all that they are.
There seems to be an almost salacious thrill in watching the downfall of stars, particularly when they’re women. Maybe it helps us—common folk—feel validated. Maybe their unraveling grants us permission to be less than perfect ourselves. And so when the media offers us fodder, it’s akin to a friend handing us a well-deserved cigarette at the end of a stressful day.
Beyond merely excoriating Jamie Spears and working to dismantle the prison cell he’s placed his daughter in, I feel that it’s important for us to look at the way we treat both women in Hollywood and women in general.
We could have looked deeper after Britney’s “wild behavior” rather than chuckling along with it. We could have delayed our judgment until much later, after pausing to consider the context leading up to her breakdown.
Aspects of Britney’s narrative are common to many women’s stories—the devaluation and disempowerment, the gaslighting by self-appointed male guardians who masquerade their hunger for control under the heroic guise of needing to save us from our own selves.
No woman—no human, celebrity or not—deserves this treatment.
I hope that Britney’s painful ordeal can wake more of us up to the importance of kindness, while shining light on our own role in perpetuating systemic sexism.