Article by Samantha Selinger-Morris /
The Sydney Morning Herald /
March 4, 2021 /
Click here to view original /
Can you believe the horrifying questions reporters used to hurl at Britney Spears? How is it that so many middle-aged men, among others, used to ask her, on camera, if she was a virgin, if her breasts were real, if she was a “bad” mother, and what exactly she’d done to “break” Justin Timberlake’s heart? The very same people, in many cases, who once hailed her as a budding superstar?
Framing Britney Spears, a new documentary from the New York Times, is a sobering reminder of this shameful period. It examines how the pop star became trapped under a conservatorship, a complex legal arrangement that, since 2008, has enabled her father to control her finances and much of her personal life. (She is currently fighting in the courts to have this conservatorship removed.)
Spears is just one of countless young female entertainers who have been hailed as superstars one minute by the press and then disposed of once their image shifts in a way that renders them less profitable to the companies that stand to profit off them (Christina Aguilera and Lindsay Lohan suffered the same fate in the mid-2000s, and Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga are more recent examples). In Spears’ case, it came after she lashed out at her media treatment most infamously by shaving her head and bashing a paparazzi’s SUV in the wake of her marriage break-up and a custody battle over her two young sons before undergoing involuntary psychiatric evaluation.
Jessica Ford, a University of Newcastle lecturer in film, media and cultural studies, says the toxic trend reaches much further back to 1920s and 1930s Hollywood. “Probably the most famous example is Judy Garland, who was given drugs at a very young age as a teenager to allow her to continue to perform at quite a high standard and quite a rigorous schedule … and [who was] essentially thrown out towards the end of her career, once she was no longer manageable and no longer profitable,” says Ford.
She notes that Garland’s fame was linked to her being an ingenue, in movies like The Wizard of Oz. Garland, like many stars at the time, was reportedly compelled to have an abortion by the Hollywood studio to which she was contracted because it went against its desired image of her. She was addicted to drugs, penniless and virtually homeless before dying at 47.
So, how much have things changed?
“The culture around how we receive that stuff [the demonisation and disposal of young women in the media] has shifted,” says Ford, who is currently a researcher in her university’s Gender-Based Violence Group.
She compares our current climate, one in which Framing Britney Spears is being hailed for exposing how Spears has been “betrayed” by the press, to an interview that has gone viral in which former talk show host David Letterman aggressively made fun of Lindsay Lohan for her substance-abuse problems and her imminent stint in rehab. “What are they rehabbing? What is on their list? What are they going to work on when you walk through the door?” Letterman asked in the 2013 interview on his one-time eponymous show to audience laughter.
“It’s no longer as culturally acceptable to do it openly,” says Ford. “I don’t doubt that it’s still happening behind closed doors but it’s no longer culturally acceptable to openly ridicule someone for mental health struggles. I think, now, we would characterise that Letterman interview as quite abusive.”
And it isn’t just journalists, says Ford, who are no longer able to get away with (publicly) asking such abusive questions, but audiences, too, who now largely respond differently.
“It’s not just that David Letterman sat on that stage and sort of made jokes about Lindsay Lohan, it was that everyone in the audience laughed,” says Ford. “And everyone at home laughed. What has shifted is that no one is laughing now. ” (The Letterman interview has copped a massive amount of backlash on Twitter and TikTok for being “misogynistic”, “horrifying”, and perpetuating the “stigma” of addiction.)
Partly, says Ford, this is because the current generation of young women — she teaches 18-year-olds — “are more cynical, in a good way, they’re more critical and more aware of the fact that we’re operating within a system that is set up to disadvantage large swathes of the population”.
“There’s a consequences culture [now], and the consequence is if a journalist asks a stupid or sexist comment now, it’ll get called out, and it can go viral,” says Dr Lauren Rosewarne, senior lecturer in the University of Melbourne’s School of Social and Political Sciences. “There’s a counter-narrative that comes through social media, that’s the big difference now compared to when this happened in the mid-2000s, when social media was only in its infancy.”
Indeed, the same day that the Spears documentary aired, Taylor Swift tweeted to call out a joke about herself on the show, Ginny & Georgia, in which one character says: “You go through men faster than Taylor Swift.”
Swift tweeted: “2010 called and it wants its lazy, deeply sexist joke back. How about we stop degrading hard-working women by defining this horse shit as FuNnY.” (More than 670,000 people liked Swift’s tweet.)
Actors including The Good Place star Jameela Jamil and Mad Men star January Jones regularly call out misogynistic treatment of themselves, and other women, on their Instagram accounts.
As Rosewarne points out, there is still no “male equivalent” to the young women who are “framed as a slut”, as Swift, Spears and other young female stars have been in the media once their singing-and-dancing Disney star days are over. While NRL stars who become embroiled in scandal because of drug or domestic abuse, says Rosewarne, are “framed as someone who has made a poor decision… it’s very different to the ‘damaged goods narrative’ that women get.”
And, for all the reports that young women growing up now are better equipped than their late-’90s counterparts to call out abuse and exploitation, they are still – especially in the entertainment industry – operating within a system largely aimed at depicting them in a sexual way, and then punishing them for that image.
“The more we empower young people, irrespective of whether they’re celebrities or not, to have authority and agency over their own bodies, their own lives, the more we can prevent exploitation,” says Ford.
She knows, though, that that’s a long game. So, until then, she has another idea. “It might be a start to not let 15-year-olds go on The Voice,” she says. “I mean, you can’t play in the NRL unless you’re 18.”