“You have the most adorable, pretty eyes,” a 70-year-old Ed McMahon, host of Star Search asks Britney Spears. “Do you have a boyfriend?”
Only 10 at the time, a visibly uncomfortable Spears politely responds, “No sir.” But that wasn’t enough for McMahon, forcing the young singer to explain that “all men are mean.” The television host just couldn’t stop: “Boyfriends? You mean all boys? I’m not mean … how about me?”
This is just one of many cringeworthy moments in The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears, an FX documentary that premiered on Feb. 5. The special mainly breaks down the origin of Spears’ court-approved conservatorship (which was established in 2008 after a series of custody battles and mental health evaluations), how her father Jamie Spears and lawyer Andrew Wallet were in charge of her finances and professional decisions (Wallet later resigned in 2019, making Jamie the sole conservator), and the ongoing fan-led #FreeBritney movement. Recently, after years of Spears relinquishing control of her life, a spark of hope arrived when her father’s bid to be the sole delegator of her estate was dismissed by a Los Angeles judge.
But throughout the documentary, there are also harrowing insights into the artist’s tense relationship with the paparazzi and the sexism she faced by the media. It is not presented as new information (longtime fans of the pop icon have been aware of her rocky journey for decades), but a stark reminder of how the media continuously attempts to shake down women.
Spears’ appearance on Star Search in 1992 was supposed to be an exciting moment. Instead, McMahon reduced her to an object. This has carried on throughout Spears’ career, where her supernatural talent was often eclipsed by the media constantly questioning her purity, her body as she went through puberty, and her mental health.
Misogyny in media doesn’t start nor end with Spears, though. It has been an insidious leech ever since Hollywood’s Golden Age, beginning with 1934’s Motion Picture Production Code that was established by studios’ white male executives. The code required films to be moral and pure, and prohibited scenes that featured nudity, suggestive dances, discussions of sexual perversity, and more. Women actors were then stripped from their professional agency, a notion that was later solidified by film critic Laura Mulvey in 1975. Coining it “the male gaze,” she explored how directors presented women as objects to be looked at while men solely did the looking.
As the popularity of tabloid media rose, that very gaze transitioned from the big screen into reality. Both male and female reporters mocked prominent women in pop culture, continuing Hollywood’s rigid cycle of disempowerment. Millennials remember it best in the ‘90s, with singers like Madonna being ridiculed for 1992’s Sex book and Monica Lewinsky being presented as a “trampy” White House caricature who was shamed for her weight. And there was the late Princess Diana, who couldn’t escape the media obsession and hounding paparazzi that led to her fatal 1997 car crash.
“It is a point to remember that of all the ironies about Diana, perhaps the greatest was this,” her brother Charles Spencer said in his eulogy. “A girl given the name of the ancient goddess of hunting was, in the end, the most hunted person of the modern age.”
The cycle continued in the ‘00s era with the rise of the “It Girls”. As the Framing Britney documentary reveals, Spears was subject to many interviews that focused on her body and not her talent. In 1999, Dutch TV presenter Ivo Niehe pressed the 17-year-old singer about breast implant rumors.
“There’s one subject we didn’t discuss. Everyone’s talking about it. Well … your breasts,” he proclaimed as the audience laughed. Just like Star Search, Spears remained polite as young women pop stars are expected to be. But Niehe continued with a condescending tone: “You seem to get furious when a talk-show host comes up with this subject.”
The misogyny Spears faced wasn’t solely from older male journalists; women also victimized her. In a 2003 interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer, the veteran reporter prodded the star about her still-fresh breakup with Justin Timberlake. “You did something that caused Justin so much pain and so much suffering,” Sawyer said before bringing her to tears. Spears’ proclamation of “I’m not that innocent” on 2000’s “Oops!… I Did It Again” was used against her as reporters like Sawyer used her as the sole reasoning behind the breakup — not Timberlake. In an unexpected turn of events, Timberlake shared an Instagram apology on Feb. 12 to both Spears and Janet Jackson (who took the fall after Timberlake exposed her breast at the 2004 Super Bowl, which led to the blacklisting of Jackson’s Damita Jo album on radio and television).
Spears’ peers also faced scrutiny, with Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian being slut-shamed for their respective leaked sex tapes, Christina Aguilera branded as “the world’s skeeziest reptile woman” following her “Dirrty” video, and Lindsay Lohan’s every court appearance being documented for naysayers to critique. Following Framing Britney Spears, the phrase “We Are Sorry Britney” was just as prevalent of a Twitter trending topic as #FreeBritney. The flood of apologies alludes to those same people who poked fun at these women coming to terms with their guilt.
“We wanted to look back at the media coverage of her,” Framing Britney Spears director Samantha Stark told Vanity Fair, “realizing how differently we think of women, sexuality, and mental health. We started watching all this stuff from the early 2000s and it was very shocking now post–Me Too and post this mental health revolution.”
The early ‘00s was the era of a tabloid takeover and the gold rush of the paparazzi, who shot crude upskirt photos of nearly every female star and provoked Spears to hit their car with an umbrella following her infamous 2007 head-shaving incident. Celebrity blogs like Perez Hilton (which gained notoriety by crudely drawing atop photos of aforementioned women) and magazines like Star, National Enquirer, and US Weekly that plastered unflattering headlines of Hollywood starlets played a damning role in how society viewed them. The paparazzi’s dominance may have died down once the 2010s came along, but the sexist media remained strong.
Once again, the cycle continued with singers like Amy Winehouse, who up until her death in 2011 was the target of a media circus surrounding her substance abuse. Lady Gaga and Ciara were subject to hermaphrodite rumors, and Rihanna (who was previously blamed for 2009’s domestic violence incident with Chris Brown) was constantly met with questions about her dating life. In 2012, Rihanna shot down a reporter during a London press run for Battleship. “I just wondered if you are as happy in your private life,” she asked the singer. “Will we be seeing a certain Mr. Kutcher perhaps making a trip over here?” Rihanna quipped: “Wow, how disappointing was that question. I’m happy and I’m single, if that’s what you’re really asking.”
In 2017, the thought of dismantling the vicious media cycle became more of a reality with the rise of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. Founded by Tarana Burke in 2006, #MeToo was later co-opted by actresses like Alyssa Milano, Rose McGowan, Gwyneth Paltrow, Ashley Judd, Jennifer Lawrence, and Uma Thurman following the Harvey Weinstein sexual misconduct allegations. In response, the Time’s Up initiative was created to fight against systematic gender disparity and sexual harassment in Hollywood.
As we’ve entered a new decade and new presidential term, living in a post-Weinstein and post-Trump society has only seemed promising on the surface. Yet the sexism women face still hasn’t changed. With the rise of social media, the misogynistic commentary that was once allotted for reporters has been traded for online trolls. Last July, Megan Thee Stallion was — similar to Rihanna a decade prior — the butt of cruel memes and jokes after being reportedly shot by Tory Lanez. And in January, singer Chloe Bailey was on the brink of tears after being accused of seeking attention with her provocative Instagram posts.
More people are coming to terms with just how frequent Britney Spears was subject to relentless sexism, but society is still far from breaking a cycle that is so deeply embedded in our historical fabric. It’ll be implausible to expect a media reckoning to happen so quickly, especially as America remains trapped beneath capitalism’s thumb. But if there are continuous efforts of apologies that aren’t half-assed (like Timberlake and Sarah Silverman’s) and publications holding themselves accountable for past news coverage (like Glamour magazine), the days of misogynistic voices warping media narratives could be that much closer to diminishing.