There are a lot of horrifying moments in the New York Times-produced documentary Framing Britney Spears, but there are three that really stand out.
An interviewer tells the then-teen singer, “Everyone’s talking about it”. When she asks what ‘everyone’s talking about’, he says, “Your breasts”, referencing the rumours that Spears had gotten an enhancement.
In a press conference another journalist asks her if she is a virgin (she’s clearly taken aback but then says yes and then thanks him for the question because she has no choice but to be polite). A still from Framing Britney Spears.
In a 2003 interview veteran journalist Diane Sawyer confronts Spears about what she ‘did’ to break former boyfriend Justin Timberlake’s heart. This was followed up with a particular cruel sound byte of the wife of the then-Governor of Maryland saying she’d shoot Spears if she ‘had an opportunity’. Sawyer doubles down on Spears almost as if she’s in pursuit of getting the entertainer to break down, which she does.
While the documentary is ostensibly about the #FreeBritney Movement and the origins of Spears’ controversial conservatorship which has given her father control over her career and her person since 2008, it also shed a light on the overt and systemic misogyny young female performers like her face both inside and outside the industry.
Revisiting Britney Spears' career with the post #MeToo lens makes the sexist public discourse around her all the more appalling.
The ‘Toxic’ singer was slut-shamed as a teen pop icon and demonized when she became a mother. Her struggle with mental health – which in retrospect seems to be the result of this relentless scrutiny – was used to sell tabloids, and as a punch line by late-night TV hosts. In the documentary, Hayley Hill, Spears’ stylist from 1997-2000, says that she worked with all the big boy bands at the time and not one of them underwent the same level of scrutiny that Spears was under.
While the documentary highlights how Spears was hunted and bullied until she cracked and even then the cameras didn’t stop rolling, it’s important to note that this isn’t limited just to Hollywood or to that particular time period in the 90s and early 2000s.
Female celebrities have been made to endure relentless public humiliation that is rarely encountered by their male counterparts. In the years after her divorce from Prince Charles, British tabloids grew even more obsessed with Princess Diana, documenting her every move. After her death in a Paris underpass in 1997 while being pursued by paparazzi, her brother Charles Spencer described her as ‘the most hunted person of the modern age’. In a documentary titled Dicing With Di, two paparazzi, who routinely photographed her, compared themselves to ‘big game hunters of another age’.
Closer home, Parveen Babi, at the beginning of her career in the early 1970s, was asked during a Stardust interview about pre-marital sex; in the July 1976 issue of Time Magazine’s European edition that featured the actor on the cover, the writer described her as ‘another (un-Westernized) local Valkyrie, who is as soft and clinging as Benaras silk”; and, film magazines described her character in Majboor as a ‘call girl’ and ‘sleazy’.
Just last summer, the whole country watched young Rhea Chakraborty being vilified, slut-shamed, accused of drugging and murdering her late boyfriend and stealing his money. News channels painted her as a wily seductress who manipulated and brainwashed a simple, innocent man with black magic and drugs and eventually killed him. On a daily basis Chakraborty was called a gold digger, vishkanya and dayan. Headlines like ‘Sushant par Rhea ka kaala jaadu' and ‘Rhea ke jhooth par kya kehta hai India?’ was fodder for dinner table conversations for months.
After a string of interviews Chakraborty did, Shobha De wrote a column dissecting them and only further perpetuated the misogyny. “Rhea played every card in the book, and went from vamp to victim in ten easy lessons. She discarded the sati-savitri, head-covered, white salwar kameez, grieving girlfriend look for a more contemporary and casual girl-next-door appearance. Her meticulous recreation of any and every turning point of the tragedy, complete with dates and an assurance that she can produce proof to substantiate her stories, made one marvel," wrote De. In the two decades that I have been a journalist, I don’t recall a single instance when a man’s clothes were so closely scrutinised.
Almost every time Chakraborty stepped out in public, cameras and mics were thrust at her from all sides. In stark contrast, in the past the media always kept a respectable distance when the likes of Salman Khan or Sanjay Dutt made court appearances. The two men might have been mega stars but Chakraborty was seen as a softer target. This pattern repeats often. While star kids like Alia Bhatt and Sonakshi Sinha got death and rape threats online after Rajput’s death, the intensity of hatred faced by male actors from film families was nowhere close. After Sridevi’s untimely death in 2018, mainstream new channels lost no time in speculating about the late actor's plastic surgeries and whether she was on fat-burners or steroids. On the other land, when Rishi Kapoor passed away last year any mention of his abusive behaviour online was met with ‘respect the dead’.
Respect it seems is solely reserved for male entertainers while women are merely objects – to be desired, worshipped or vilified.
The documentary on Spears comes on the heels of another Noughties phenom Paris Hilton’s documentary This is Paris, that also puts the tabloid culture that hounded female celebrities under the microscope. Framing Britney Spears’ examination of how callously the media handles Spears’ mental health problems is especially telling and heart wrenching. It reminded me of Asif Kapadia’s brilliant Amy Winehouse documentary Amy, a tragic chronicling of public life and death. Winehouse transforms from an artist in her prime to a lonely young woman struggling with addiction under the glare of global surveillance and as fair game to public ridicule.
Since Framing Britney Spears has sparked conversations about fame and misogyny in recent weeks, a clip from a 2013 interview of Mean Girls actor Lindsay Lohan by late-night institution David Letterman has been circulating on social media. The then 26-year-old Lohan, whose struggles with addiction and mental health had been subject of media scrutiny for long, was promoting her film Scary Movie 5. Instead, Letterman was more interested in her time in rehab and her struggles with substance abuse. “Aren’t you supposed to be in rehab,” he asked her before joking about some headlines concerning her. Even as she reluctantly answers his questions he continues to press, “What are they rehabbing? What is on their list? What are they going to work on when you walk through the door?” By the end of the interview, Lohan was in tears, prompting Letterman to condescendingly remark, “she’s tearing up a little, God Bless you”, as the audience laughs and claps.
This brings me to the third but incredibly important part of this conversation – we, the audience. For too long we’ve been complicit in this feeding frenzy. We are held up as reasons for this intrusive public glare – ‘people want to know’ or ‘people laugh at these jokes’. It’s time we asked ourselves – are we okay with lives being destroyed to feed our voyeuristic curiosity or because we need a laugh? During a recent appearance on chat show The View, Priyanka Chopra who like Spears became famous as a teenager, said, “People think that when you are famous you don’t bleed but we do.” And, this is what we, the audience, need to remember.
(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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