'Framing Britney Spears': How The Media Has Framed Women In Music

Photo: Felicia Culotta

The must-see documentary “Framing Britney Spears” arrived in the UK last Tuesday on NOW TV and sky documentaries. The documentary unearths iconic and deeply sad moments throughout the pop princess’s career, and most notably, the conservatorship she finds herself trapped in. Since 2008, Her father, who was absent throughout her childhood and with whom she has never had a close relationship with, has had complete control over her money. The #FreeBritney movement has been campaigning ever since for Britney to regain control of her finances, career and ultimately her free will. “We’re sorry Britney” trended on twitter after the documentary’s initial release in the states, this apology encompasses the burden of responsibility the general public feel. We were all engrossed onlookers to Britney’s break down in 2007. Men and women were completely obsessed with the way she dressed and how she acted throughout the late 90s. Disturbingly her virginity was a hot topic of conversation. The beautiful, all-American “girl next door” was placed under a media microscope, her every move was watched. Everybody felt they had the right to comment on her life as she was rendered public property. The paparazzi invaded her personal space and stripped away any privacy she had.

During the 2000s the general public felt, and still do feel, entitled to access all areas of celebrities. During the golden age of trash mags, women were dehumanised to the point of being puppets on a string, strings that were maliciously poked and pulled for our entertainment. The steeper and more dramatic a star’s fall from grace the higher the profit margins for gossip magazines and tabloid newspapers. As a young girl in these times, Heat magazine was my bible. My sisters and I loved the segment where celebrity ‘imperfections’, such as (god-forbid) stretch marks, were circled and where female celebrities wearing the same outfit were plot against each other in a “who wore it best?”. Females were pitted against each other and were fetishized to the point where we thought it was normal to criticise and scrutinise the female body in this ghastly way. Is it any wonder that it is our generation who are now the Instagram generation? The proprietors of filter perfection and a distorted influencer realty. The media fed off this patriarchal and voyeuristic culture, and victimised young, talented female musicians.It is certainly not only women in music that are demonised by the media in this way, but the way they are treated is a microcosm of the patriarchal structures within celebrity and media culture.

Here in the UK, the late Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen were objectified in the same way. The camera caught Amy in moments where she had been abusing drugs and was frighteningly underweight, instead of reaching out to help her or respecting her dignity they unleashed a monster in the form of paparazzi to stalk her every waking moment. Britney’s 2007 moment is so engrained into popular culture that “doing a 2007 Britney” is a commonplace expression. There was no collective movement to step in and rally to help Britney (until the #FreeBritney movement that begun in 2009, that has only recently gained huge momentum). There was no collective movement to help Amy, instead there was a relentless printing of tabloid stories. The public were seemingly in a fixative trance, consuming the pain and suffering of these women. Similarly, Lily Allen was a habitual victim of the British tabloids. She discusses in her book My Thoughts Exactly how the media built a cartoon identity of her, forcing others to buy into this demeaning narrative, that she was a reckless, arrogant, posh-girl. Even in 2018 the Sun criticised her outfit “as leaving nothing to the imagination”. Why are women’s bodies subject to any comment by anyone, let alone media outlets owned by middle-aged men? 

 Photo: Stephane Cardinale/Corbis/Getty Images

Of course, there is no denying the obsession through the ages with boy bands and popstars such as One Direction, but these artists were not destroyed by the tabloids in the same way as females. As Britney stated in the documentary, no one was talking about the way The Backstreet Boys thrusted on stage. Ex, Justin Timberlake, notoriously tapped into the ‘whore’ narrative of Spears and profited from this in his Cry Me a River music video. These double standards notably tore apart Little Mix’s Jesy Nelson, who created BBC documentary Odd One Out, about her experience. She was cast as being ‘the fat’ member of the girl group by the media. Ever since she has battled with severe mental health issues. What differs is that Jesy became famous in a time where social media had taken off and she had to deal with the overwhelming abuse of online trolls who quadrupled the torment originating from traditional media outlets.

Social Media is a double-edged sword for women in the spotlight. I believe that if Britney Spears had risen to stardom in the late 2010s rather than the late 1990s, she wouldn’t have had such a tumultuous experience with fame. The tabloids have lost their monopoly of power over celebrity culture. Celebrities now can write their own narratives through their own social media; no one cares about an intimate photograph of a female celebrity in a magazine when she can take and upload her own bikini picture. However, as Jesy’s experience has shown, social media leaves free reign to sadistic keyboard warriors who can troll and attack whoever they please. One glimmer of hope is that in recent years there is a trend of female empowerment and a collective, massive middle finger up to patriarchal attitudes. Dua Lipa has written songs such as Boys will be boys that question the ever-present patriarchy “We hide our figures, doing anything to shut their mouths/ We smile away to ease the tension so it don't go south”. Cardi B’s iconic, female anthem WAP has opened up a conversation that applauds female pleasure. I am hopeful that things are changing for women at the forefront of the music industry, that is not an apathetic shrug that the situation is improving, it is still a million light years away from where it should be.

In light of “Framing Britney Spears” we as consumers of celebrity culture need to question our own obsession. #WeAreSorryBritney acknowledges the part we played in her demonisation but perhaps we should tap further into this mentality and be self-critical of how much access we expect to have to celebrities, in particular female celebrities. To use a cliché, we are all human beings, and should stop viewing those in the limelight as more or less human than ourselves. The rallying efforts to support Britney Spears and the current condemnation of how she was treated by the media should be the framework applied to all women within the public eye. The #BeKind movement encouraged in wake of Caroline Flack’s death is a stark reminder of the power media has in shaping public opinion that can change and devastate individual human lives. And, not to sound like a “hey hun”, star emoji using, instagram pyramid schemer, women need to support and empower other women. We shouldn’t place the lives and bodies of other women under the same microscope we did Britney nor believe media spun narratives of womanhood.  

Article written by Lydia Patrick

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