Justin Timberlake is facing fan backlash after new details about his relationship with Britney Spears were revealed in her recent memoir The Woman In Me – he’s even complained that it’s forced him to postpone his “comeback.” So why are people really mad at Justin, and where do these changing attitudes fit into the larger societal shifts we’ve seen since the early 2000s?
Britney’s Book Bombshells
As we discussed in our recent video unpacking Britney’s new book, one big thing many fans were excited to finally get more details on was her relationship with Justin. The pair had known each other since working together on The All-New Mickey Mouse Club and began dating in 1999 when they were both at the top of the pop world. They were the pop super couple while together and seemed to be happy and in love. Until that is, their relationship abruptly ended in early 2002. A large part of Justin’s album rollout for his first solo record, Justified, later that year hinged on subtly (and, sometimes, not so subtly) dragging Britney – from outing that they had slept together to implying that she wasn’t who she pretended to be. It had long been speculated, especially given Justin’s songs directly implying it, that Britney had broken his heart by cheating on him. But in her memoir, we finally got a fuller picture of their relationship and its end that makes it clear that Justin’s pettiness wasn’t so justified after all.
There had long been rumors that it was in fact Justin who stepped out repeatedly over the course of their relationship, most memorably getting caught on a night out with All Saints singer Nicole Appleton. And in her memoir, Britney confirmed that it wasn’t all just rumors and that he had indeed cheated on her on multiple occasions, saying, “There were a couple of times during our relationship when I knew Justin had cheated on me. Especially because I was so infatuated and so in love, I let it go, even though the tabloids seemed determined to rub my face in it.” Which certainly shines a different light on his campaign to shame her on an international scale for cheating once. Since the beginning, diehard fans had speculated that Britney hooking up with Wade Robson was really just her way of retaliating at Justin’s constant cheating. Guilty, an unreleased song from Britney’s 2003 In The Zone album, seems to suggest as much. But while Britney had her name dragged through the mud and her reputation tarnished, Justin not only got off scot-free but was even hyped up by some for tearing down Britney’s ‘good girl’ image.
The biggest bombshell from their relationship that Britney dropped in her book, however, was that she had actually become pregnant during their time together and he pressured her into an abortion. While she wanted to keep the baby, Justin didn’t want to be a parent and thought that they were too young. She wrote, “If it had been left up to me alone, I never would have done it. And yet Justin was so sure that he didn’t want to be a father.” Because they feared press attention if they got the procedure done at a hospital, Britney had an at-home abortion, which she described as, “[t]o this day, it’s one of the most agonizing things I have ever experienced in my life.” She also detailed how he eventually went on to break up with her via text after growing distant – which she later realized was because he was already writing his album dragging her while they were still together. The breakup devastated Britney. Justin, on the other hand, saw his career take off to new heights after their breakup, with much of the press coming directly from his attacks on Britney. Cry Me A River was bolstered by this interest in his side of their relationship, though he initially refused to admit the song was about Britney, telling MTV, “I’m not going to specifically say if any song is about anybody,” in 2002. Just a month before releasing the video with the Britney lookalike. Justin has continued to make snide comments that seem obviously directed at Britney, only to coyly walk them back and act surprised that anyone would assume he was talking about her – like at a 2013 concert when he intro’d Cry Me A River by saying, “Sometimes in life, you think you found The One. But then one day you find out that she is just some bitch.” Only to later hop on Twitter aghast that anyone would put two and two together, and deny that he was speaking about Britney.
Before we break down the current-day anger being aimed Justin’s way, let’s zoom out for a moment and take a look at why the press and general public in that era were so willing to demonize Britney while celebrating Justin.
Man of His Era
To say that the late 90s and early 2000s era was unkind to women is a massive understatement. As we’ve examined at length, the impossible standards set for women hit a maddening height during this era – no matter what a woman was doing or how she lived her life, lots of people were going to have something nasty to say. And if that woman was at any point held up as beautiful or good? People couldn’t wait to tear her down. America’s pop princess was set up for failure as her team and the media continually tried to portray her as both chaste and innocent and deeply sexual and alluring. Her every move was critiqued, but the vultures were really waiting for something big – a scandal they could really sink their claws into. And Justin and Britney’s breakup, with his rush to paint her as the villain, turned out to be just what they were looking for. But, before this, Justin himself had been mocked plenty by the press for being in a boy band, among other things. The tide shift against Britney wasn’t an accident – Justin knew that if she became the villain, then he would get to be the hero. Even just the implication that a girl was a “slut” was enough for everyone to turn against her. Justin was able to use this environment to his favor, playing the victim to the evil slut that broke his heart, and no one really stopped to ask any questions. But again, this wasn’t something that was just specific to Justin, the entire culture was set up to work this way – to find ways to drag women down for any perceived failure while hand waving away anything guys might have done wrong. And in the same way, Britney was surrounded by managers and handlers telling her how to behave, it’s likely that Justin also had industry people in his ear telling him that this was the way he could finally distance himself from his boy band, Mickey Mouse Club image and be taken seriously as an artist. This of course doesn’t absolve Justin of his own choices, but it does help put them into context.
While his relationship with Britney is currently back in the headlines thanks to her book, what he did to her certainly isn’t the only time he’s been willing to throw others under the bus for the sake of his own career. There was notoriously bad blood between Justin and the rest of the group when he split from NSYNC, and in his memoir, Lance Bass revealed that Justin (surprise!) attempted to blame the breakup of the band on everyone else even though he was the one leaving to start his own solo career. According to Lance, Justin implied that Lance and Joey weren’t putting the band first because they did a movie together (2001’s On The Line)- even though Justin had starred in Model Behavior the year before. “According to Justin the whole reason for the breakup of ‘N Sync was everyone else’s fault? That was crazy! All of us had done nothing but wait around for him to feel he was ready to start work on a new ‘N Sync album… It pissed me off that Justin’s life got set up perfectly before he came back to the rest of us… Justin’s time to become a solo star had arrived.`” Justin had kept mention of the NSYNC at arms length since he went solo until news of Britney’s book started making waves and he all of a sudden found time to connect with the band for another song – surely just out of his own desire and not in a desperate grab for goodwill before Britney unveiled her story.
And then of course there was the infamous Super Bowl incident with Janet Jackson. Justin was invited to perform a duet version of his song Rock Your Body with Janet during the 2004 Super Bowl Halftime Show, and everything went well until the final line of the song. Viewer outrage began pouring in immediately – but while Janet was forced to apologize multiple times and had her entire career thrown off course for years, Justin got to just laugh it off even though he was literally the one who ripped off her clothes. But, yet again, everyone but Justin was to blame and he got to move on completely unscathed. The misogynoir and complete double standard was especially made obvious when Janet was disinvited from that year’s Grammys but Justin was still able to attend.
All of the rehashing of Justin’s many misdeeds has also opened up a conversation around how long we should hold bad choices against people, and if an apology only after you’ve been called out is still enough to make things right.
What Goes Around Comes Around?
The current blowback against Justin post-Britney’s book actually isn’t the first time he’s been called out recently for his past behavior. Back in 2021, many began publicly reassessing the way both Britney and Janet were treated by Justin and the press at large. While Justin blew off requests for a public apology only a few years before, by 2021 the calls had become much louder and he finally eked out a notes app apology that at least seemed to hit all the right notes – directly apologizing to the people harmed, owning up to his own privilege, and promising to take accountability and do better going forward. And in the years that followed, it seems that he had made amends with those that he had wronged. Janet publicly defended him, saying, “Him and I have moved on, and it’s time for everyone else to do the same.” Lance Bass has come out in support of Justin recently as well, telling TMZ. And even Britney doesn’t seem to hold any ill will against Justin – as we discussed in our video on her book, if anything, it seems like she still cares for him quite a bit.
It is important to take into account that Justin’s so-called “missteps” went down on the world stage – sometimes literally – and so more than just harming the people directly involved they also helped normalize this type of behavior in the wider culture. And so many people’s reactions of anger aren’t just at what he did to Janet or Britney but at the entire era his behavior represents. What’s really important now is that we all work together to create an environment free from the rampant sexism that seeks to drag women down and reward men for doing so. Justin’s actions in the early 2000s didn’t happen in a vacuum – they were part of a larger structural failure within society. And as much as we’d like to think we’ve fixed things, many of those same problems still linger today. So while it might feel cathartic to drag Justin online, it’s more important that we’re taking away the real lessons of his and Britney’s stories and making sure we don’t let things like this continue to happen. And it’s critical for people like Justin to work towards undoing the harm they helped contribute to and normalize. Instead of just having a “source” say he’s “distancing himself” from the issue and then jetting off to Cabo, Justin should really do what he said he was going to do in that 2021 Instagram apology: take accountability and begin taking real, concrete steps toward changing the industry for the better – both because it’s the right thing to do and because it could actually help shift the behavior of the media and men in the industry in a better direction.
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