Why do we love to watch women fall? This is the question that haunts 2021’s Framing Britney Spears, as we watch the stages of Britney’s fall from grace in fast motion—from the mental health problems gleefully captured, if not triggered, by a predatory paparazzi, to the highly suspect conservatorship that controls her finances and person to this day. So how and why did we let this happen? Here’s our Take on the story Britney Spears’ loss of control told about us, and whether or not we’ve truly moved on from this oft-repeating misogynistic “fallen woman” soap opera.
Why do we love to watch women fall? This is the question that haunts 2021’s Framing Britney Spears, as we watch the stages of Britney’s fall from grace in fast motion — from the slut-shaming to the mental health problems gleefully captured, if not triggered, by a predatory paparazzi, to the highly suspect conservatorship that controls her finances and person to this day. So how and why did we let this happen?
Britney burst onto the scene in the late ‘90s as a new kind of sex symbol — her persona was a contradiction: a hypersexualized schoolgirl, a naughty girl next door, a sexy virgin. And perhaps one reason she captured such global fascination is that this contradictoriness is inherent to teen girlhood.
Interviewer: “On the one hand, you’re a sweet, innocent virginal type. On the other hand, you’re a sexy vamp in underwear.”
Britney Spears: “I wouldn’t say in underwear!” - Framing Britney Spears
But because of this, Britney also became a target of moral panic — as if she were causing young girls to desire to be sexy, rather than reflecting a world that already oversexualized young girls. Britney’s trauma illuminates three factors that converged to produce a strikingly misogynistic moment: the dawn of “famous for being famous culture” with its obsessive focus on celebrity’s private lives; the height of the tabloids’ dark power in a pre-social-media world; and the lie of postfeminism which falsely pretended that systemic sexism had been vanquished. Here’s our take on the story Britney Spears’ loss of control told about us, and whether or not we’ve truly moved on from this oft-repeating misogynistic “fallen woman” soap opera.
Brittain Stone: “The main… thing that people became fascinated with was her sort of unraveling.” - Framing Britney Spears
A New Kind of Poster Girl
To understand why people felt threatened by Britney, we have to look at what she represented to them. The ‘90s pop culture narrative was all about girl power, from the Riot Grrrl Era of the early ‘90s to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to the Spice Girls. Starting with “...Baby One More Time”’s release in fall 1998, Britney channeled that power and embodied striking bodily confidence that drew both male and female fans to her. But the biggest difference between Britney Spears pop stardom and the women who came before her was the specific kind of sex appeal she embodied. Madonna may have sung about being touched for the very first time, and the Spice Girls alluded to practicing safe sex on “2 Become 1,” but Britney was explicitly a kid, and was being marketed toward kids.
Britney’s appeal was not just sexuality, but an emerging or blossoming sexuality, and implicit in that was a youthfulness. She was described as jailbait with a Lolita aesthetic. While the ‘90s feminine ideal was already all about flat stomachs, with the emaciated “heroin chic” fashion trend, Britney took abs of steel to another level. As Taffy Brodesser-Akner writes in Cosmopolitan, “Britney’s abs became the abs we aspired to.” The popularity of this particular body ideal gave rise to fashion trends like crop tops and low-rise jeans, all designed to highlight a young, almost prepubescent-looking body type.
Britney’s records sold because actual young girls (as well as guys) liked her appeal, but at the same time, there was fear and discomfort around kids emulating her. Victoria Sands writes for Bitch Media that Britney and singers like her “were considered fetishistic ploys who blended innocence with eroticism, subsequently corrupting their young audience. And the media capitalized on this fictitious moral panic.”
Diane Sawyer: “Kids made Britney Spears. And then, she remade them in her image.”
Britney Spears: “I can’t help that. And if the parents don’t like them to see it, then change the channel.” - ABC Primetime Thursday Interview
Britney was trapped into paying lip service to a rather puritanical idea of young female purity — what Jezebel’s Hazel Cills describes as the “purity movement” of the time, which was driven by evangelicals and had support in the highest reaches of government. Despite her highly sexed-up music videos, in interviews, Britney was advised to speak about her chastity and virginity, even while she maintained a high-profile relationship with Justin Timberlake.
But the contradictoriness of Britney set her up for failure — there was no way she could successfully continue to portray both a madonna and a whore archetype in one package. Some of her contemporaries got off lighter because they more decisively picked a lane: Christina Aguilera — whose sexy teenaged debut single was even less ambiguous than “...Baby One More Time” — said that her saving grace was never claiming virginity. Jessica Simpson went the other direction, leaning further into the chaste, virginal “anti-sex appeal” persona. Still, these other stars never quite matched Britney’s heights of fame and influence, which inevitably made her a target.
Looking back on the ‘00s it’s clear that this was an exceptionally misogynistic era — and we can understand what happened to Britney through the intersection of three key phenomena:
- First, as reality TV became mainstream, audiences became more used to peeking behind the curtain and increasingly expectant of the intrusive coverage tabloids provided. In this time, we saw the birth of “famous for being famous” culture, exemplified by Paris Hilton (who became a household name without a traditional entertainment career).
- Secondly, in a climate where the internet had growing, influence but social media hadn’t allowed celebrities to take some control of their narratives, the dark power of the tabloid press was at its height. Gossip blogger Matt James called it a “perfect storm,” when the internet, gossip magazines, blogs, and the tabloid press worked together to create “a society that was fixated on celebrity in a way that it had never been before.”
- Third, the treatment of Britney, and those who followed soon after her, reflected the aftereffects of Postfeminism being popularized in the ‘90s. In the Postfeminist view, the women’s movement was declared to have achieved its goals in the ‘70s and ‘80s. The inequality women previously faced was declared to longer exist, which made it pretty difficult to have tools to confront misogyny when it still happened — which it obviously did. In the ‘90s and ‘00s, slut-shaming was so taken for granted that a woman couldn’t call out this practice — she could only defend herself as an individual by trying not to get labeled in this way.
Brittain Stone: “There was always a little bit of a hunger for the unposed photographs. [...] As we had more of that kind of material in the magazine, you know, sales just went up.” - Framing Britney Spears
A Loss of Control
Framing Britney Spears challenges the prevailing narrative that Britney was just the mindless product of a pop music machine, reminding us that her success as an artist came largely from her personal drive and agency. In fact, it was Britney’s control that was precisely what fans sensed in her and wanted to emulate.
Wesley Morris: “It isn’t the sex part that seems cool. It’s the control and command over herself and her space that seems cool.” - Framing Britney Spears
Entertainment Weekly’s oral history of “...Baby One More Time” reveals that the concept for the iconic video was Britney’s idea. The video’s director Nigel Dick recalls thinking, “I’m being told by a 16-year-old-girl what I should do… [But] this girl is 16 and I’m a grown man; perhaps she has a better perspective on her audience than I do.” It’s striking that the “...Baby One More Time” video also isn’t mostly focused on a girl trying to be sexy for a guy; it’s full of sequences of Britney leading groups of her peers in advanced choreography and impressive athleticism.
Yet while she may have had more control than many assumed as Britney the Artist, Britney the Sex Symbol, and Britney the Celebrity was another story. As the focus turned increasingly on the superstar’s life and womanhood instead of her work, we can see how control was stripped away from her. This culminated in her eventual conservatorship — where control of her life, her finances, and her decisions, was concretely taken away from her.
Liz Day: “The court gives someone else special powers to make decisions for them. [...] It’s unusual because Britney is so young and productive.” - Framing Britney Spears
On the other hand, in The Cut story “Britney Spears Was Never in Control,” Tavi Gevinson argues that Framing Britney Spears overstates the amount of control Britney started with to serve its narrative arc. Gevinson writes, “it is absurd to discuss her image from that time as though there was not an apparatus behind it, as though she existed in a vacuum where she was figuring out her sexuality on her own terms.” She observes that the documentary is “eager to characterize Spears’ early image as an expression of female power rather than the corporation-sanctioned sexualization of a 16-year-old.” And in the article, Gevinson’s friend Laia identifies Britney as a commercially manufactured reaction to the Alanis Morissette “angry woman” persona of the ‘90s — who arguably better-empowered girls to explore their own feelings and be less male-facing. So as tempting as it is to view Britney simply as an extension of ‘90s girl power who was punished for being openly sexual, that’s also oversimplifying. It overlooks that she was a naive underage girl, being marketed as a sex symbol and “tricked” into photoshoots that sent a message she didn’t understand when she was 16 and quote, “didn’t really know what the hell I was doing.”
Perhaps the deepest truth about the moral panic around Spears is that she got blamed for being a victim who reflected (rather than caused) the routine sexualizing of underage girls which was happening in her culture. What’s clear is that — whatever creative control Britney did assert over her music, her image, her performances — this was chipped away at every step of the way. Her artistry was devalued. Accusations of lip-synching followed her throughout her career. In their review of 2004’s Greatest Hits: My Prerogative, NME wrote Spears “does artifice far better than she does soul,” and that her “major talent is that of self-objectification.” The part of her life where she did feel like she had control was undermined, as the part of her life where she didn’t became everything.
Britney Spears: [Crying] “You have to realize that we’re people and that we need… we just need… privacy, and we need our respect.” - NBC Dateline Special Interview
Why Do We Love to Watch Women Fall?
The cycle of building a woman up only to very publicly kick her off her pedestal predated Britney and continued after her. Psychologist Joanna Konstantopoulou argues that part of our desire to tear celebrities down is to do with the rarefied position they occupy, saying, “People with fame shift into a different realm for us culturally, and this causes us to believe that it’s okay to treat them differently.”
Adelaide May: “Critics, they’ll put you on top for a minute, but then they’ll drag you down. They’ll get sick of you, and they’ll destroy you. They hate you, see, because you made them love you.” - Dickinson (Season 2, Episode 6)
This is especially true of famous women. As author Sady Doyle writes, “As long as they also live out impossible female ideals [...] they’re useful, as something that other women can aspire to and fail to become. But if they’re remotely unruly, if they’re flawed, if they’re in any way recognizably human, all of our discomfort with female visibility comes to the surface.”
The fallen woman trope goes all the way back to Eve in the Garden of Eden, and from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter to Verdi’s La Traviata to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, we can easily see a common theme: the fallen woman breaks with her society’s sexual norms. In the Victorian era, The British Library writes, “‘Fallenness’ was associated with a downward spiral that began with sex and led to loss of social position, ruin, and death.” Likewise, one of the major catalysts for Britney Spears’ fall from grace was Justin Timberlake’s reveal that while they were together, she was not a virgin, as well as his casting her as the immoral woman through his implication that she had cheated on him.
Wesley Morris: “The way that people treated her — to be very high school about it — was like… she was the school slut.” - Framing Britney Spears
If Britney and other “fallen” stars in recent decades could be accused of anything, it’s breaking the rules of their contract with the public — by revealing that they were more complicated than whatever trope they were initially cast as. Britney Spears can’t be the sexy virgin if she’s not a virgin. Winona Ryder can’t be the fresh-faced ingenue when we see her caught on a department store camera stealing sweaters.
The revelations of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have made us look with horror at the tabloid press and confirmed beyond any doubt that the whole idea of a post-feminist society was a damaging myth. It’s imperative that we learn from this history and don’t let it keep repeating itself. But how far have we really come? The reactions to Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” mirrored the same moral panic that followed “...Baby One More Time.” The tragedy of former Love Island and X Factor presenter Caroline Flack taking her own life revealed that the tabloid press remains a vicious, damaging institution, one now aided and abetted by online trolls. The UK tabloids have given Meghan Markle the same old treatment: building her up in order to gleefully tear her down while adding racism into the picture.
Laura Whitmore: “Anyone who’s ever compared one woman against another on Twitter, knocked someone because of their appearance, invaded someone else’s privacy, who have made mean, unnecessary comments on an online forum, need to look at themselves.” - EKA News
For all the bad social media has added to the climate, there’s a lot of good, too — not least because it’s taken power away from the tabloids. Celebrities can at least attempt to control their own narratives and speak directly to their large followings. And the #FreeBritney movement has shown that fans truly do have the power to be a positive force protecting a celebrity’s wellbeing. In the end, the biggest lesson in Britney’s story is that we owe it to everyone — even the most supernatural of stars — to see them as people, and make sure they’re treated that way, too.
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