Jessica Simpson can’t watch it. Jennifer Love Hewitt said it “hurt my heart.” Paris Hilton suggested it clarified her own mistreatment. Drew Barrymore said it was familiar – when the world thought her crazy, she was stripped of autonomy, too.
“Framing Britney Spears,” a New York Times documentary that examines the pop star’s court battle to regain control of her life, was released in February but many female celebrities are still publicly talking about it. “Framing Britney” not only exposed the media’s mistreatment of Spears, but also the toxic culture for all high-profile women in the late ‘90s and 2000s.
The documentary is part of the trend of content revisiting big stories from the past with women at the center (“I, Tonya,” “Truth and Lies,” “The Price of Gold,” “The Clinton Affair”). Many of those women are now speaking about the misogyny they faced and the sexism they internalized. Hewitt said she was “hopeful” things were changing. Are they?
“In some ways, absolutely it’s better. In other ways, it’s perhaps worse,” said journalist Allison Yarrow, author of “90s Bitch: Media, Culture, and the Failed Promise of Gender Equality.”
Analysis:‘Framing Britney’ exposes a problem bigger than Britney
Experts in media, gender and pop culture say there is acknowledgment that many women who dominated the spotlight a couple of decades ago were far more dimensional than the media wanted us to believe. There’s recognition now that there are certain questions which are inappropriate to ask, including whether someone is a virgin – a question Spears, Simpson and other young teen stars repeatedly faced. It’s no longer acceptable to remark on the size of a woman’s breasts in an interview, at least not without the Internet erupting in outrage.
But female celebrities are still on the front lines of the nation’s culture wars, balancing their own aspirations with their audience’s desires and society’s expectations. They are trying to navigate success in a culture that still demands access to their bodies and in many cases their private lives. Grammy Award winning singer Billie Eilish is known for wearing loose-fitting clothes to avoid sexualization and scrutiny, and people’s preoccupation with her style shows what an anomaly she is.
Experts say there is also far more demand for content now than decades ago, making celebrities more vulnerable. While a rise in social media means public figures no longer need to be mediated through traditional mainstream news outlets, newer platforms come with their own perils: audiences feel an even greater entitlement to access and women become easier targets for online abuse. Last week, Chrissy Teigen left Twitter, saying “This no longer serves me as positively as it serves me negatively.”
While we debate past culpability, experts say we cannot ignore how the public continues to treat high-profile women in the present.
More:Britney Spears doc reminds Jennifer Love Hewitt of ‘gross’ interview questions she faced
“In each case, the shameless shaming that was aimed at these women when their stories were breaking is being retroactively revisited, rethought, and reframed with new insights that came from #MeToo, anti-bullying campaigns, and a general – I hope – increase in enlightenment about gender in America,” said Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. “Although some of the discussions that have been catalyzed by ‘Framing Britney Spears’ invite a sense of optimism, I’m not quite so sanguine about the countless other cases that don’t get to be argued on Hulu.”
‘Horrifying’ sexist questions
Much of what makes people gasp at the Spears documentary are the media questions she fielded: Ed McMahon asking a 10-year old Spears after a stunning performance on Star Search, “do you have a boyfriend?” Diane Sawyer asking Spears to react to the First Lady of Maryland wanting to “shoot her” for being a bad influence on her daughters.
Hewitt said it took her years to understand that the questions she was expected to answer, especially about her body, were wrong.
“For some reason, in my brain, I was able to just go, ‘OK, well, I guess they wouldn’t be asking if it was inappropriate,” she said in an interview with Vulture. “Now that I’m older, I think, ‘Gosh, I wish that I had known … so I could have defended myself somehow or just not answered those questions.’ I laughed it off a lot of the time, and I wish maybe I hadn’t.”
For years, the mistreatment of Spears and her peers was invisible. Experts say these questions were completely normal at the time. No one thought otherwise – not the interviewers, not the audience and as Hewitt demonstrates, sometimes not even the women themselves.
“People look back and they want to sort of point fingers and blame, acting as though they would have known better at the time, which they wouldn’t have, because it was the time. Those were the types of questions that were asked,” said Kristin Lieb, author of “Gender, Branding, and The Modern Music Industry: The Social Construction of Female Popular Music Stars.” “Are they horrifying? Absolutely. Did most of us recognize them as horrifying? Some did and some didn’t. Now we’re much better at knowing where those lines are.”
Social media changes the rules – for better and for worse
When Spears rose to fame, the mainstream media was far more powerful in shaping public narratives. There were fewer options for celebrities to create alternatives.
Now, most celebrities and public figures have millions of followers on Twitter, Instagram and TikTok, platforms which allow them to tell their stories in unadulterated ways – or, at the very least, better control their messages.
“Monica Lewinsky … can speak directly to more people now than the magazines and newspapers who pilloried her in the ’90s,” Yarrow said. “There is something better about the ability of women in public to speak directly to their audiences and to their fans.”
At the same time, a 2017 report from the Pew Research Center found women are about twice as likely as men to say they have been targeted online as a result of their gender.
Entitled to women’s lives and bodies
Lieb said there is now more intense pressure for female celebrities to overshare in order to compete and satisfy audiences. A pop star, for example, who doesn’t share as much of their life may receive less coverage “for not wishing to overextend themselves in increasingly personal ways.”
When a female celebrity chooses to share the most intimate parts of herself, she also risks punishment. When Teigen suffered pregnancy loss earlier this year, she posted a picture of herself in the hospital in the throes of grief. Some social media users accused her of exploiting her own pain.
Experts say part of the public’s entitlement extends to women’s bodies. Hyper-sexualization was a feature of the ’90s, and continues to persist.
Simpson, who was frequently body shamed at the height of her fame, said in an interview with People magazine she “spent so many years beating myself up for an unrealistic body standard that made me feel like a failure all of the time. … I don’t think people always realized that there was a human being, a beating heart and working eyes with actual feelings behind those headlines and that words can hurt and stay with you for a lifetime.”
A conversation about women, fame and sexism that must go further
Experts say it’s a useful cultural exercise to think critically about the ways in which the public let many female celebrities down. But these reflections are just the start.
Yarrow said much of the conversation has focused on the mistreatment of white women and needs to expand to include women of color. After the Spears documentary, attention was paid to Justin Timberlake’s past behavior toward Spears, but Janet Jackson fans also said he owed her an apology after their infamous Super Bowl halftime show performance in 2004. He eventually apologized to them both.
“The Britney Spears documentary opens up a conversation for the way that women were treated in the ’90s, for conversations about fixating on body image and little else. And it is exciting to hear these other folks who experienced the same treatment speaking about it publicly. But it’s only really the beginning,” Yarrow said.
Yarrow cautions women who feel complicit in these stars’ mistreatment against blaming themselves. It’s much bigger, she said, than any one interviewer, comedian, fan or troll.
“Let’s look at some of the structural misogyny and racism that allowed women to be covered in the news media in this way,” she said, “that allows them to still be covered in the news media in this way, and that has produced this next stage of public identity in social media that allows women to continue to be harassed and abused.”
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