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Reclaiming the Narrative: Britney, Paris and Misogyny in the Early 2000s

Following the recent documentaries, Framing Brtiney Spears and This is Paris, we question the treatment of these women in the early 2000s and how they can reclaim their narrative.

Watercolour paintings of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton
It’s Britney (and Paris) Bitch!, Elish Kathleen, 2021

On the 5th February, The New York Times released the one-part documentary, Framing Britney Spears. The documentary aims to follow the #FreeBritney movement by going into detail and hearing accounts from people who were close to Britney’s camp about her conservatorship, and raise awareness of it. The documentary also looks into the cause of her conservatorship and the media frenzy that followed Britney through her early career. The documentary speculates the effect that this had on her and her mental health, suggesting it could have led to the infamous 2007 breakdown – the event that ultimately triggered her conservatorship.

The documentary does not particularly tell us anything new about her conservatorship, and the majority of the research done was actually done by fans, not The New York Times. It is also largely speculation and has very little verified facts that aren’t already out there in the media. But, it does give context to the conservatorship. For example, Britney’s mistreatment from the media seems to fit the narrative that her dad (Jamie Spears) was, and still is, trying to portray: that she is “unfit” to make her own decisions and, therefore, he should make them for her.

While Britney’s current legal battle is obviously devastating, this is emphasised further in the documentary as it takes into account the relationship Britney apparently has with her father, who is of course her conservator. For example, Britney’s ex-record market director recalled, “The only thing he ever said to me was: ‘My daughter’s gonna be so rich she’s gonna buy me a boat. And that’s all I’m going to say about Jamie.”

It is interesting to look at what got Britney here and what perhaps makes us so interested in the documentary. We see more and more documentaries being made now about celebrities of the early 2000s and the impact that journalism and the media at the time had on their careers and them personally. In September of last year, Paris Hilton also released a documentary called This is Paris Hilton. This highlighted the abuse she endured from the media during the early 2000’s and the impact this had, and these themes have a scarily similar tone to those within Framing Britney Spears

While Paris Hilton’s documentary was made by her with the aim to show people who she really is, and to raise awareness about the abuse she endured during her time at Provo Canyon [a school for “troubled” kids], it had multiple similarities with Framing Britney Spears. For example, Paris talks about how her controlling parents are what led to her rebellion and that the pressure from being in a high-profile conservative family was too much for her to handle at such a young age. To combat Paris’s behaviour, her parents would “send her away” to boot camps and schools like Provo Canyon where students are – unbeknownst to parents – abused and drugged to make them behave. Paris recalls in her documentary that this made her want to break away from her family ties even more and she vowed that when she was out of these schools, she would make so much money that no one could control her anymore, not even her parents. In both documentaries, family pressures seem to have a prevalence. Although Britney was from a much more humble background than Paris, her family were still conservative, and she perhaps felt pressure to provide for them by making her fortune. And as we know now, Britney is and has been controlled by her family for the past ten years, drawing more similarities with Paris. 

Paris jokes in her documentary about all the different characters and voices she has adopted over the years, such as her baby voice in The Simple Life. In one scene, Paris is in a full tracksuit, going through all her sparkly gowns, and tells the camera: “I don’t give a shit about any of this stuff, i just see it as costumes for my character that I’ve been playing for the last 20 years”. She explains that she adopted these different personas as a means of protection – so that she wouldn’t actually have to let anyone in and get to know the real her, and to, more importantly, protect herself from the abuse she received from the media. Paris figured if she wasn’t herself, whatever anyone had to say wouldn’t be able to affect her, something she now knows isn’t true. 

This admission also draws parallels with Britney, and Framing Britney Spears. Paris tried to make herself impenetrable, we know nothing about Paris Hilton because she didn’t want us to – seemingly until now anyway. Britney similarly is unknowable. Unlike Paris, Britney started out as herself, with full control over her image and music and her ‘celebrity’. But since the conservatorship, these decisions are made by other people. She is also much more protected now, and her camp is filled with people she has no control over employing. This renders Britney Spears unknowable. Although it could be argued that every celebrity is ‘unknowable’, these factors make it even more so.

These women have experienced largely similar things just in a different order, and their documentaries shed light on that. While we do not ‘know’ and never will ‘know’ these women, we do know that they are friends, and we all remember that iconic paparazzi shot of Paris, Britney and Lindsay Lohan in the car, but perhaps their similar experiences in life and the media is what has given these two women grounds for friendship. Paris Hilton even features in Framing Britney Spears and sympathises with her because she “knows what she is going through”. This could maybe give the impression that Britney knows this documentary is happening, despite not having anything to do with it officially, and has given the green light for her friend to briefly confirm our suspicions about her Dad and the impact of the media. Maybe, or maybe not. Either way, it’s still fucked up. And the parallels between these two women and their documentaries remain strong regardless. Paris Hilton’s documentary, This Is Paris, was also produced by Youtube and is free to watch, which is interesting in itself. It gives the impression that she feels it is necessary that this information is out there and free to access. Or maybe Youtube just offered her the most to have it air on their platform? Who knows. 

Either way, even with supposed unlimited access via social media, and even after watching these documentaries, we still ultimately know nothing about these women or their situations – especially Britney. This is highlighted further in Framing Britney Spears. It becomes clear that everything we think we know – in everything that is suggested in the documentary about Britney wanting out of her conservatorship and the apparent abuse of power from Britney’s dad – has been derived from fan theory. The documentary gives us very few cold hard facts and the ones they do give are accessible via public domain anyway. These theories surrounding how Britney feels and what she wants are based off of a podcast made by two fans: ‘Britney’s Gram’. The podcast involves two friends analysing all of Britney’s Instagram posts. They use the posts, cryptic quotes, etc., that she uploads as ‘clues’ for an insight into her mind. There is even one instance where ‘Britney’ captioned a photo with an emoticon, and not an emoji, and they were convinced it wasn’t Britney who posted – because Britney ‘always’ uses emojis, not emoticons. There is no way to tell how a celebrity feels or what they think through instagram posts, or that they are even the ones posting. They are unknowable. No matter how much you want to, or think you know them. 

However, just to make it clear I am not saying I do not agree with the fan theory (that Britney is being taken advantage of) I absolutely do, but I believe that because of other evidence. For example: Jamie Spears taking a percentage of Britney’s money as part of the conservatorship; Britney even having a conservatorship when she has worked solidly since 2008 (surely if she’s fit to work, she’s fit to make her own decisions?) and finally; Jamie Spears and his team referring to the conservatorship as a “hybrid business model” in court documents. These are just a few examples, but my belief is not because of an Instagram post. 

This trend of analysis also coincides with a general theme of looking into other public moments with celebrities’ and re-examining their significance. Old videos of interviews are also starting to resurface on social media in which male journalists who are high-up and well-respected in the media (e.g. David Letterman) are seen absolutely tearing down young famous women, such as Britney, Paris, Lindsay Lohan, etc. This is perhaps a measure of their celebrity. While they are not still plastered over tabloids or on TV constantly, they are still mega-famous, thanks to the days where they were plastered all over everything. The notoriety that was given to them in the early 2000’s has solidified their fame, and now we are older and wiser, we look back in regret. Since the #MeToo movement, we refuse to suffer in silence any longer. We will not be abused by those in high powers anymore, and we will not stand for that behaviour, regardless of when it happened. Perhaps this is a contributing factor to these documentaries being made. A post #MeToo world wants justice for young women, and we seek it in these documentaries and by calling out those who abuse/abused their power.

Framing Britney Spears is particularly interesting, because it allows us to travel back in time, and watch footage of Britney from when she was just starting out as a small child, – from the horrific inappropriate behaviour of men acted towards her, to the height of her fame where this behaviour from men and the media did not let up, until now. An article in The Guardian by Lucy Mangan recalls a horrifying scene from the film:

One moment from one of her earliest TV appearances – on the TV show Star Search is revisited in the documentary, Britney is belting out ‘Love Can Build a Bridge’ at the age of 10 with preternatural power, musicality and poise – could stand for the whole. After her barnstorming performance, the sexagenarian host Ed McMahon tells her she has pretty eyes and asks if he could be her boyfriend. You can see bafflement, discomfort and a desire to be polite chase across the child’s face. Politeness wins out. “Well,” she says. “It depends.”

The visibly old man laughs off the rejection from the small child, but it is extremely awkward. It’s half awkward because he is sexualising a literal ten year old before our very eyes, and half awkward because he is rejected and you can you feel his awkwardness at the rejection, which makes it worse for us, the viewers, watching this disgustingly inappropriate and perverted exchange play out years later, when we seemingly know better than to accept this now. In another clip, a teenage Britney is asked if she is still a virgin. What the fuck? How is that any of their business? And also, why do they care? Can you imagine that question being asked to a male pop star?

Adrian Horton wrote of this preoccupation with Britney’s sexuality, stating that:

Britney carried the extra burden of embodying America’s psychotic contradictions over sex for young women – dress sexy but be virginal, convey that you want it but never, God forbid, know what you want, let alone get it; tread as closely to the line of actual sex as possible but never cross it. She rocketed to fame in an era, as the Times critic Wesley Morris astutely points out in the film, when Bill Clinton’s scandalous affair with the White House intern Monica Lewinsky – another big tabloid story whose heroes and villains have been revised with the passage of time and #MeToo – brought the lewd discussion of sex, and the specter of sex panic, back into the public sphere.

But Britney was not the only woman to fall victim to the rhetoric that women were inherently bad people for being sexual. This was perhaps exasperated at the time due to the political climate and attitudes towards women. Most famously, Monica Lewinsky was mocked mercilessly for her affair with the former president Bill Clinton. In her Vanity Fair essay, Lewinsky explained that the Me Too movement has drawn attention to power dynamics, stating:

And yet I don’t believe I would have felt so isolated had it all happened today. One of the most inspiring aspects of this newly energized movement is the sheer number of women who have spoken up in support of one another. And the volume in numbers has translated into volume of public voice. Historically, he who shapes the story (and it is so often a he) creates ‘the truth.’ But this collective rise in decibel level has provided a resonance for women’s narratives.

This is something we know to be true. For example, Justin Timberlake controlled the narrative following his and Britney’s breakup when he alluded to her cheating on him, something that Spears has never actually admitted.

These misogynisitc narratives also revolved around Lindsay Lohan, Janet Jackson, Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton in the early 2000s, the latter’s abuse documented in her documentary. Paris was famous for being sexy – this is what America and the rest of the world loved her for and wanted to see from her. But the second there was proof of her actually being sexual when an ex released a sex-tape (which is now a crime) it began an onslaught of media torment. Torment that, at the time, she says made her suicidal. Paris reflects on this time in her life and admits she felt that she had been “electronically raped” and that, if it happened today, it would be a different story. She feels in light of the Me Too movement, she would not have been made out to be the bad person, but the effect tabloid culture and the media had on her and her family at this time ruined her life. It is no surprise that the same treatment allegedly caused Britney’s breakdown. Paris also recalls how this media torment tore her family apart. Paris was a teenager when her sex tape was released and, as you can imagine, her conservative family were not pleased. This caused even more strain in her already-strained family relationships and left her completely isolated and suicidal. The media and their misogyny is largely to blame for this.

I’m sure we all have hazy memories of seeing Britney and Paris all over tabloids and gossip magazines in the early 2000’s, but their respective documentaries give insight to how dark it actually was. Memories of watching them being chased by flashing cameras and shouted at as they try to do the simplest things, like go to Mcdonalds. Spears’ meltdown was mundane enough to merit a category – ‘What has Britney Spears lost this year?’ – on the game show Family Feud (answers included her mind, her children and her dignity). That detail was probably not memorable enough in 2008; it’s unforgettably crude now.

It’s hard to imagine what it would be like to see that happen to someone now on normal daytime TV because it seems so far removed from pop culture now; we’d find that hounding of people difficult to watch. Obviously paparazzi still exist, but it isn’t broadcasted like it used to be. I’m haunted by that video of North West, who was two years old at the time, screaming “no picture, no picture” at the paparazzi in 2015. This adds to our recent culture’s knowledge that this isn’t normal, and shouldn’t be happening. It is less accepted now than it used to be. This perhaps shows in the fact that it was just one paparazzo taking the photos, instead of the large groups of burly men who’d fight each other to get a look at the celebs of the early 2000’s. Mainly, this may be because of the introduction of social media and that pictures of celebrities aren’t as lucrative as they used to be. But either way, it’s a welcome change.

It’s this narrative towards women, and making a joke of their emotional turmoil the second they are not giving you what you want anymore, that has driven these young women out of their careers and into depressive episodes. Why are we making documentaries about this now though? In an interview with Yahoo! Life, psychologist Anita Thomas says that:

There is a new perspective that oppression has been around but not recognized…it’s always been wrong, but easy to minimize. That’s the stretch of oppression. Young girls and preteens are often sexualized and objectified with no connection to their humanity.

The scenes in Framing Britney Spears, and This is Paris Hilton, highlight the disgusting behaviour directed towards these young women in interviews and the media in general. For example, ten year old Spears being asked if she has a boyfriend. Similarly, a resurfaced clip of David Letterman badgering Paris Hilton about her three week prison sentence, despite her being there to promote a new perfume, and this question not being discussed with her or her team prior to the interview.

When questioned on this resurgence, Los Angeles-based therapist Bethany Marshall says that the media’s treatment of women can be ascribed to the cultural norms being set by powerful, white men: “Asking the ‘tough questions’ became a power trip and a rationalization for humiliating people for ratings, but now you have people on social media with a voice.” She continues that Me Too’s impact has began the “breaking [of] our collective denial.”

This provides the reasoning for why we are witnessing celebrities such as Paris Hilton and prestigious publications such as The New York Times, rewriting the narratives surrounding themselves/women in the media in hopes of breaking our collective denial and holding those at fault accountable. Social media also has a huge part to play in the resistance against the narratives that huge media outlets who hounded young women in the early 2000’s produced. Paris Hilton in her documentary spoke of how social media now allows her (and many others) to create their own narratives online and allows her to project the image she wants to project to her fans and people in general, rather than unflattering images with untrue headlines that she was a victim of in the early 2000’s.

It is important to note that at the height of these ladies’ fame tabloid culture was rife. And at the time, a paparazzi photo of Britney Spears of Paris Hilton could sell to a publication for anything between $50,000 and $1 million dollars. So it’s no surprise that paparazzi would hound them so aggressively, and make their own story lines to sell with it, when the stakes are that high. These women were a victim of exploitation by the media. In Paris Hilton’s documentary, she says that at first she welcomed the attention  because it helped her break away from her controlling conservative family, but in the end, it has changed who she is completely because of the experience. Her account sounds eerily similar to Britney Spears’s case right now.

One paparazzo was interviewed in the Framing Britney Spears doc. He takes no accountability for his actions: he said he doesn’t feel bad, and that she loved the attention. He thought she needed him as much as he needed her photos, which is obviously outrageous. He also recalls the infamous night Britney shaved her head and tried to bust in his car windows with an umbrella, saying that he was about to leave her alone (after hounding her in a fast food parking lot) but then she “lost it” – but that it worked out better for him anyway, because he got the money shot. This really highlights the attitudes of these men. He gave off major “if you just give me what I want this will be easier for you” energy, and still has no remorse to this day, since those photos are what started the shit-storm that caused Britney to lose her kids (her ex-husband used them as evidence in court) and her independence.

He recalled that through this event, when Britney was shaving her head, she kept screaming for people to “stop touching” her. Britney’s shaved head and this event act as a symbolic break up with the media, with her sexiness and, ultimately, with her identity as ‘Britney Spears – the pop star’. The media pushed her to this breakup with their incessant misogyny and bullying.

Unfortunately, they do not seem to have stopped. Just one week after this documentary aired, a Daily Mail article’s headline reads: “Britney Spears and her ‘Villains’ – Singer seen with Justin Timberlake and her dad – both demonised in new documentary.” I didn’t read it, so I have no idea what it actually said, but the headline alone made the words, “literally fuck off” flash through my mind. How are they still trying to defend both of these men? The inverted commas on ‘villains’ suggests they are not actually villains and that they’ve been ‘demonised’, when the documentary is simply questioning their behaviour. I suppose misogyny will not end overnight! But I hoped it would. 

Thankfully, we are – overall – realising and we are starting to hold these gross men accountable. And thankfully, social media has started to change the way women are portrayed in the media, because they are now able to create their own narrative.

So hopefully soon, these women will get the apologies they deserve – and no I don’t mean that pathetic insta from JT – a real decent and genuine apology. And hopefully soon, these men will not work in media and paparazzi culture, although it is already dying out, will die completely and become obsolete.

In the words of Chris Crocker… Leave Britney (and Janet Jackson, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Amanda Bynes, Nicole Richie and The Olsens) Alone!

Written By

Elish is co-founder of The Culture Sift.

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