You might remember Spears from her songs, belted out in tuneless unison by a gaggle of sixth-grade girls at a sleepover, perhaps, or viewed over and over on MTV. Or you might remember her rise and her unraveling, chronicled ad nauseam by professional gossipmongers and bona fide establishment interviewers alike. This chronicle is steeped in nonchalant misogyny.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” Ed McMahon asked her after a performance when she was 10 years old.
“Everyone’s talking about it,” another interviewer asked a teenage Britney. Talking about what? “Well, your breasts!”
The wife of Maryland’s then-governor said in 2003 that she would shoot the singer if given the opportunity. Diane Sawyer played that clip back to its subject, who called the comment “horrible.”
The unraveling came fast and seemed endless. You may remember when Spears shaved her head, or when she used an umbrella to beat on a photographer’s car. The paparazzi pursued her without quarter, desperate to prove the narrative that she wasn’t fit to be a parent, which in turn spurred behavior that fulfilled the prophecy. The voyeurs and watchers lapped it all up, and more than that, they laughed about it.
This was the era of the celebrity-industrial complex, when Perez Hilton made his name following Paris Hilton around. The most interesting thing about artists was no longer their art, but rather their often-messy lives. “Stars … they’re just like us!” chirped the checkout-aisle magazines, introducing full-page spreads of Hollywood’s best grabbing lattes in shlumpy sweatpants.
Celebrities, once distant, suddenly seemed within reach. Everyday folks were no longer satisfied with aspiring to fame; they wanted to relate to the famous. But to really relate, they had to do something that made the powerful seem less powerful — like snickering at a woman with multiplatinum records when her perfectly manicured image started to chip. These jokes were akin to punching up; their aim was to take the venerated down a notch, so that the rest of us could finally touch them.
The harm, people reasoned, was minimal. Could someone who moved and shook the zeitgeist as often as Spears did really be as vulnerable as the rest of us? Impossible.
It seems quite possible now. The New York Times documentary, titled “Framing Britney Spears,” runs through the worst hits of our grotesque treatment of a wunderkind turned Grammy winner — culminating in a court-sanctioned conservatorship. These arrangements, awarding someone stewardship of another person or their estate, are usually reserved for the elderly, or those who can’t take care of themselves or their money. They’re not usually imposed on performers in their 20s, as Spears was 13 years ago when she entered into an agreement that gives her father control of her fortune and everyday existence.
This incongruity spawned the “Free Britney” movement among her fans, who advocate for the liberty of their ride-or-die. She doesn’t want this, they say — and they engage in painstaking biopsies of her Instagram posts that they claim are crammed with coded messages. Example: She says she likes Disney’s animated film “Frozen.” Because its heroine Elsa runs away to a castle? Then she, too, must crave escape!
Fair enough: Difficult as it is to assess her state of mind from scattered social media missives, Spears doesn’t seem to want this, according to recent filings from her lawyer that say she is “vehemently opposed to this effort by her father to keep her legal struggle hidden away in the closet as a family secret.” And she even “appreciates her fans’ informed support.”
This is progress, to a point. Certainly, our attitudes toward mental health have transformed over recent years, and maybe that alone would stop us from snickering if a famous young mother were struggling today. But our protective urge toward this pop star only showed up when she became someone to pity rather than someone to envy. Now that we know Spears is a virtual captive, we want her to be free. All the while, we forget that we helped make her a captive in the first place.
We are as much to blame as she is for what happened to a little girl from “The Mickey Mouse Club” years ago. We treated her like a cautionary tale until she became one. We stuffed her full of the faults we wished she would have, to feel better about ourselves — and our inability to be Britney Spears. We wrote her story for her, when we all deserve to write our own.
Now, no one wants to be Spears, which makes us less likely to repeat these mistakes out of malice. But we risk repeating them out of benevolence. Spears can’t really speak for herself, so her pop-star-whispering fans on Instagram and elsewhere are speaking for her.
Is that really freedom? Spears isn’t allowed to say.