We all remember the meme: “If Britney can survive 2007, you can make it through today.” More than a meme, it was a quote sold on t-shirts, mugs and phone cases. It feels gross now, but at the time few of us batted an eye as a woman’s public mental health crisis was reduced to a joke.
Since skyrocketing to fame more than 20 years ago, the 39-year-old pop star has been mercilessly mocked about everything from her singing skills and her breakup with Justin Timberlake to her ability to parent her two sons, Sean and Jayden. She’s been photographed having her head shaved, tripping on the pavement while holding her toddler son and exiting a car sans underwear. The level of invasive public scrutiny and ritualistic humiliation she’s been put through would wreak havoc on anyone’s mental health. And no one said anything about it. We consumed it as news, gossip, popular entertainment – ignoring the rampant misogyny and metal health stigmas behind it.
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But on Friday, following the highly-anticipated premiere of the New York Times’ documentary, Framing Britney Spears, we all gave our collective heads a shake. Although the one-episode special only aired in the U.S. (a Canadian premiere date is still TBD), fans and celebrities demonstrated a groundswell of support for the struggling pop icon.
We’re visual creatures – and we apparently needed to see the receipts before demonstrating a show of support. That’s the only explanation as to why this documentary is drumming up far more support (and publicity) for Spears than the deep-dive Vanity Fair did into the #FreeBritney movement back in December with their piece, “The Oracle of Brit.” Only two short months ago, people were still scoffing at the idea that anyone would waste energy supporting a wealthy superstar as she wound her way through the court system in an attempt to extricate herself from her father’s 12-year conservatorship. But here we finally are – universally united in support.
Fans and celebrities are no longer questioning the validity of the #FreeBritney movement – initially a small, yet dedicated, group of fans who tried to sound the alarm on her father Jamie’s overbearing hold on her life. (In short, he’s had complete control over Spears and her assets since 2008, following her public crisis.)
Bette Midler and Sarah Jessica Parker both tweeted #FreeBritney over the weekend, while Miley Cyrus gave the pop star a shout-out (“We love you, Britney”) during her Super Bowl pre-game performance on Sunday.
Paramore’s Hayley Williams also tweeted: “No artist today would have to endure the literal torture that media/society/utter misogynists inflicted upon her. The mental health awareness conversation, culturally, could never be where it is without the awful price she has paid.”
Meanwhile, on Instagram, Kacey Musgraves posted the following to her Stories: “Everyone should watch the NY Times documentary on Britney Spears that just came out. Never has one person been so used and abandoned by every facet around her. My heart goes out to her. She has always been such an inspiration to me my whole kid/teen life.”
Talk show host Tamron Hall tweeted: “Finally watched the ‘Framing of Britney Spears’ on Hulu. It’s an understatement to call it heartbreaking.”
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Aside from the criticism of Spears’ father, Justin Timberlake and Diane Sawyer have been called out on social media about their unsettling appearances in the doc. It was a different time, the early 2000s, and behaviour that would have seemed routine then is now called out for exactly what it is: misogyny. The former N’Sync mega-star is being pressured to apologize to Spears for his role in igniting the rumours that she’d cheated on him and for publicly talking about her virginity on national radio. As for Sawyer, many were reminded of how she’d reduced Spears to tears for a 2003 interview about Timberlake.
There will be a lot of fallout from this documentary in the coming days and weeks. Although it remains to be seen what will go down with Jamie Spears, Justin Timberlake and Diane Sawyer, the overwhelming support for Spears will hopefully provide some solace to the pop queen. But the film is more than just a rehash of what she’s gone through over the years – it’s an indictment on all of us and a challenge to do better in conversations around mental health and the treatment of women in media.
The next court hearing for Spears’ ongoing battle for her conservatorship resumes this week on Feb. 11.