The Afterword: Framing Britney’ speaks to toxic celebrity culture, race biases

A portrait of Britney Spears with the words #FreeBritney written in cursive above her.
Since the release of “The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears” the pop star has dominated public conversation. (Sara Alvarado | Daily Trojan)

Following the release of the expository and scandalous made-for-TV documentary, “The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears,” the 39-year-old pop star is the celebrity on everyone’s mind.

The documentary follows her rise to stardom and subsequent public downward spiral, narrowing in on Spears’ legal battle with her father, Jamie Spears, over control of her finances, estate and person. The film positions the mainstream media and Spears’ money-hungry father as the architects of her downfall, a narrative that is both plausible and compelling. We see the detrimental effects that paparazzi presence, gender roles and the music industry have on her life and the resulting call to action is easy to get behind: We can all agree, wholeheartedly, that the treatment of celebrities like Spears is ethically unsound and a complete violation of privacy.

In a hearing last Thursday, Mr. Spears lost his bid to retain complete control of his daughter’s finances, a positive first step in a murky legal battle and an indication that the #FreeBritney movement is turning heads. But what struck me about the documentary was not the legal minutiae; it was what the story revealed to us about where we’ve made strides and where there is far more work to be done.

The mainstream media treated Spears in a way that would never fly in 2021. Despite her young age and exceptional talent, she was covered almost explicitly in the context of her sexuality, and gender biases rendered her an easy scapegoat for women everywhere. In an infamous 2003 interview with Diane Sawyer, the broadcast journalist blamed Spears for the demise of her relationship with then-ex-boyfriend Justin Timberlake; Sawyer also chastised Spears’ promiscuous performance style, insinuating that she failed to be a role model for young women. Spears explained that she felt “comfortable in her own skin” and that “it’s an okay thing to express yourself,” but hey, who cares about all that, right? Spears was 22 at the time. 

In another particularly jarring moment captured in the documentary, a European interviewer interrogated a then 17-year-old Spears about her breasts and whether she had implants. Gross, I know. My jaw dropped so fast — I thought I must have heard wrong; there was no way an interviewer would dig his own grave so readily. My reaction to the clip, though, points to an important cultural development: Our collective moral social media compass has evolved, at least to some extent.

Today, there is a fat chance you would get dragged for speaking to a woman artist like that. Probe her love life or sexuality in the place of a career-oriented inquiry and someone is coming for your jugular — expect a Twitter army, resurfaced incriminating clips and prominent public figures ready to denounce your career faster than you can say “misogyny.” 

For instance, when gossip blogger Perez Hilton criticized a then 15-year-old TikTok influencer Charli D’Amelio for dancing to a song in a bikini in March (“Anyone else think it’s inappropriate for a 15-year-old to dance to this?” he posted), the backlash was swift. Hundreds of thousands of fans of D’Amelio, the most-followed user on TikTok, successfully petitioned to have Hilton removed from the platform. Of course, D’Amelio is literally a child, but so was Spears when the media shamelessly picked her apart.

Through this discrepancy, the evolution of our relationship to celebrity internet culture is evident. We now understand the consequences that misogynistic publicity can have on young women in the spotlight and actively work to circumvent these effects. We question biases and incentives; we villainize those who exploit the lives of others for personal gain.

That being said, we still far too frequently see this archaic breed of one-dimensional criticism directed at women celebrities of color, particularly Black women. The past few weeks on social media alone are telling of how we fail to afford Black women the same respect and consideration as their white counterparts.

Rapper Megan Thee Stallion, who was allegedly shot by rapper Tory Lanez last July, has been forced to repeatedly defend herself against baseless rumors. On Jan. 21, in an attempt to dispel false reports that the assault charges against Lanez had been dropped, she tweeted: “AT THIS POINT IM GETTING ANNOYED ! STOP BELIEVING EVERYTHING YOU READ ON THE MF INTERNET. Imagine how I feel waking every day seeing people LIE and turn my trauma into a joke ? That whole team figures out ways to create doubt with my story every week and the media eats it up.”

Conspicuously, no Twitter army backed her up. 

Just last week, a rumor that Lauren London, actress and girlfriend of deceased rapper Nipsey Hussle, was pregnant ran amok on the internet. I can’t even count how many tweets I saw that criticized her decision to have another baby before the story was even vetted for legitimacy. Aside from the obvious fact that how London chooses to move on from her partner’s death is her prerogative, the rumor was also fabricated. London took to Twitter to say, “Woke up to some straight bullshit. Rumors ! Lies ! On a woman trying her best to heal?! Please stop. I’m NOT pregnant.” 

Again, the Twitter army was nowhere in sight.

Lizzo, Black woman artist and Grammy award-winner, has been subject to public scrutiny and judgment as well as fatphobic and body-shaming rhetoric to an extent that no white plus-sized artist can conceive of. This is not an accident. Sure, our collective moral compass may have evolved, but who does it serve? And at what cost? While we watch “Framing Britney” and gasp at the presumptive and misogynistic nature of her critics, subsequently turning to white public figures like D’Amelio as reassurance that we have progressed, it can be easy to forget about those we have left behind.

I want to reiterate that I think “Framing Britney” is an exceptional production, one that I believe will go a long way in righting long-standing wrongs and drawing attention to the implications of celebrity internet culture. However, this documentary, along with the treatment of media coverage in the 21st century as a remnant of the past, comes the erasure of the lived experiences of Black women today. It is worth thinking about why we have failed to keep the same energy across the board and what it will take for us to recognize what is a glaring and discriminatory media bias. 

Rachel McKenzie is a senior writing about pop culture. Her column, “The Afterword” typically runs every other Wednesday.