Britney Spears documentary sparks debate about other famous women who deserve apologies

Britney Spears' father defends himself amid ongoing conservatorship battle
Britney Spears' father defends himself amid ongoing conservatorship battle
AFP via Getty Images

A new Britney Spears documentary, which explores the popstar’s treatment by the public and the media, also serves as a significant reminder of what many women in similar situations have endured.

The film, Framing Britney Spears, scrutinises the contentious arrangement controlling her finances as she is currently in a legal battle with his father over his position as ‘conservator’. Although the 39-year-old now has little contact with the press, she posted an Instagram post after it began trending online.

"I'll always love being on stage .... but I am taking the time to learn and be a normal person ..... I love simply enjoying the basics of every day life !!!!" she said.

And while the film has elicited a renewed interested in her life and the #FreeBritney campaign, it has also prompted a re-invigoration of an ongoing discussion about the way young women in the spotlight have historically been treated by the media, fans and onlookers. And most importantly, that they likely deserve apologies of some kind.

The demonisation of women in pop culture – particularly prominent in the 1990s and the early 2000s – have lately been brought to public attention through documentaries and interviews.

In the last few years, TV series and movies have revisited and revised narratives Tonya Harding, Anita Hill and Paris Hilton.

After the spark of the #MeToo movement in 2017, Monica Lewinsky reflected on the humiliation many inflicted upon her decades ago.

And so as the revelations from Britney’s new documentary have washed over social media, many people have also been discussing the wider issue that is represented within the Spears’ history.

“While the media is out here apologizing they need to apologize to these 2 women and their families as well!!!!!” @heyjaeee tweeted on Tuesday, along with two photographs: one of Amy Winehouse, and the other of Anna Nicole Smith.

The 2015 documentary Amy laid out an intimate portrait of the life, career and death of Winehouse – and examined how people made fun of her addiction, (which in the clear light of day appeared as cruel and shocking). Smith, a model, died of a drug overdose after a complex life followed meticulously by tabloids.

“Go all the way back to Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe... and basically every woman ever,” one person commented on the post – acknowledging that while the story of what Britney faced was disturbing, a similar narrative can be drawn through the lives of many female stars throughout history who sometimes struggled with substance misuse or mental health issues.

People threw out other celebrity names like Lindsay Lohan, Megan Fox and Princess Diana – who also faced nasty rumours, were represented promiscuous, 'ditzy and out of control', or received unnecessarily malicious attention at one point or another.

Another person added, “Whitney, too.” (referencing Whitney Houston, a singer and actress who died in 2012). “I was super young when she died but I’ll never forget the endless news loops smearing her, dragging her name through the mud. That’s not how she deserves to be remembered.”

In her book, 90s Bitch: Media, Culture, and the Failed Promise of Gender Equality, Allison Yarrow looks back on that decade with a heightened awareness of the prominent sexism. “The trailblazing women of the 90s were excoriated by a deeply sexist society,” Yarrow wrote. “That’s why we remember them as bitches, not victims of sexism.”

Of course, some people at the time did recognise the problematic nature of mocking vulnerable celebrities. A clip of late-night host Craig Ferguson refusing to make fun of Spears has recently resurfaced, after the singer famously shaved her head in front of paparazzi after leaving rehab in 2007.

Ferguson said at the time, “people are falling apart, people are dying,” in his refusal to join in, referencing Nicole Smith’s recent death.

And so documentaries like Amy or Framing Britney Spears, that are now cringeworthy to watch, are important for helping to see where we went wrong.

But there are certainly still instances similar to these today, so hopefully the experiences of the 1990s and 2000s will serve as a warning on how to treat young women in the limelight today.

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