When I think of the women catapulted into the public eye during the last few decades, my memories are filled with obscured displays of unwarranted laughter, ridicule, and shame hidden in the background of a room that only makes space for things like beauty, star power, and profit. I grew up, as a young girl, during the height of tabloid culture — the 2000s and onward. As I attempt to recall where these memories first began to take shape in my psyche, it becomes clear that there is no real beginning or end to these thoughts. They’ve always been there, buried deep, birthed from a twisted modern fairytale that girls learn young as a warning: “If you fall out of line, here’s your fate.”
With its initial release on Feb. 5 of this year, the New York Times documentary, Framing Britney Spears, directed by Samantha Stark, follows the media saga and harassment that led to Britney Spears’ 12-year conservatorship. The documentary successfully unpacks the growing “Free Britney” movement, started by fans, that has gradually garnered more and more attention to Spears’ unethical legal status under a conservatorship controlled by her father. What followed in the days after the documentary’s release was more of a reckoning with the culture, rather than a simple reaction. Across social media platforms, resurfaced clips of not only Spears, but other singers, like Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson, to actresses, like Lindsey Lohan and Megan Fox, being subjected to blatant and painful misogyny by journalists and talk show hosts, made their way onto the online timeline of 2021.
Looking back, it’s easy to spot the horror on these women’s faces as their pain, mistakes, and secrets were brought to light for the mere sake of entertainment. No matter the time-frame, what lingers is a media obsession and endless cycle of building the culture’s most talented and bright women up just to watch them brace for their manufactured fall. While it’s a clearer perspective to witness our collective mishaps and unkindness in hindsight, for the women in question, nothing really changes.
Sometimes, I feel thankful that I didn’t have to experience womanhood during the 2000s. Even as a young girl, I clearly understood the stakes that lay ahead for me, as I remember watching Spears’ mental health deteriorate on television screens and magazine pages. Framing Britney Spears carefully dissects the events leading up to this downfall by highlighting the media’s calculated moves into crafting an environment so toxic that, regardless of how you play your cards, there are few options that will offer you an escape from its intense gaze.
In an attempt to shield herself from unwanted sl—t-shaming and ridicule of the 2000s, Spears’ rise to fame was accompanied by a self-branded ‘good girl’ image — a public vow to celibacy until marriage. While Spears’ public image was already beginning to be tarnished by tabloid rumors and a spotlight that was burning too bright, her highly visible ex-boyfriend, Justin Timberlake, announced on public radio that he had sex with Britney Spears while the radio booth boomed with laughter. Just like that, Spears’ protective shield surrounding her public image began to crumble.
To further exploit and profit off this narrative, Timberlake continued to frame Spears as a hypersexualized and unloyal woman in music videos and songs. Despite their relationship ending in the winter of 2002, Timberlake was apparently still comfortable with using Spears as a punchline in his Saturday Night Live appearance in 2013. While to some, this behavior may appear humorous and even entertaining, it’s a fear that women and girls know all too well, and it does damage.
Girls grow up to quickly know their place as products waiting for consumption. We’re groomed into being hypercritical not only towards our outward appearance, but of what we have to offer to everyone. However, the terms of service for ourselves as products, feeling constantly on display, can be skewed and transformed by everyone but ourselves. This lack of control fuels a visceral fear of spiraling because, once you feel your grip on yourself slipping, the momentum may be too strong to resist or recover from.
The other aspect about growing up thinking you’re a product is your image and human function, can be transformed at any moment. Consumer needs change, and so will you. Americans once thought of Spears as a budding talent destined for stardom, the girl next door. Quickly, this image began to fade as her personhood and struggles became more convenient to be consumed as one big, running joke.
As the vitriol for Spears became more rampant and intense, the urge to capture any minor mistake through the lens of the paparazzi became more urgent throughout 2007. Spears became the unfortunate target of endless harassment and stalking by photographers, and an exploitative paparazzi culture that still lingers today. In one of The Cut’s most read articles of 2020, Emily Ratajkowski’s essay titled “Buying Myself Back” shines light on this still-existing paradigm. She recounts being sued by a paparazzi over an image she posted of herself with her own face obscured in the photo taken by the paparazzi themselves. The lengths of Ratajkowski’s encounters with her own image being exploited by men for profit doesn’t stop there; she eventually documents the photography book that was published with the title EMILY RATAJKOWSKI, which included polaroids of herself the night she was sexually assaulted by the very same photographer that published the book. Despite her efforts to stop the book from being published, there was ultimately nothing she could do. The book was still put into print, and people still went to her assaulter’s gallery opening, filled with images of herself that she had no control over.
From the traces of Spears being followed by hundreds of paparazzi, unable to even see in front of her, to Ratajkowski’s harrowing and brave retelling of her own exploitation with her image, these are the workings of a culture bent on destroying your image before you can even claim it as yours. Maybe this is also what prepared girls for the rise of Instagram — an appealing double mirror to take part in as you watch your own image become rendered, giving you the illusion of consent and control. The feeling of being followed and watched never really fades completely, even when you put your phone down.
The notion of women fulfilling their role as the surveyed while men possess their lasting power as the surveyor dates back centuries, beginning, and more visually prominent, in the 18th century art world. The lasting implications of women as objects, while men in society uphold the upper hand in the subject position, has spun into a narrative that has transformed the overall human rights of women. Women in visible media wear this burden most heavily.
However, the amount of misogyny fueled into the women we watch on screen, or read about in magazines, trickles down and invades the psyche of young girls everywhere. Women have been subjected to a slow and painful transformation from human, to art, to mere product. In conversations that attempt to tackle sexism, even more currently, there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding of where responsibility lies when young girls lack the confidence to be taken seriously, have equal rights and treatment as their male counterparts, and are able to openly speak about abuse. The accumulation of the stolen agency from women, starting from girlhood, is felt as a societal slow burn, unaware of what’s even really occurring on in your brain while growing up. The images of Spears’ fate, which sparked the recent recollection of how difficult it is to bear the brunt of misogyny in the public eye, have reinforced what the limits of womanhood are, as they have always been restricted.
It’s important to also point out how other factors, such as race, can also amplify the amount of misogyny targeted towards women. Timberlake is not only partially responsible for Spears’ demise, but Janet Jackson’s as well. During their 2004 Super Bowl Halftime Show Performance, Timberlake ripped off a piece of Jackson’s costume, revealing her breast during the broadcast. The backlash subjected Jackson to immense amounts of blame and blatant misogyny after the performance. After the beloved Whitney Houston’s struggles with addiction became more public, the questions thrown at Houston during interviews became solely focused on framing her in a way that relies on racist stereotypes surrounding Black women and substance addiction.
In 2018, Kanye West, the main producer on rapper Pusha T’s album DAYTONA, purchased the license to use a photograph of Houston’s bathroom filled with drug paraphernalia for $85,000 to use as the album cover of DAYTONA. Once again, under a much more exploitative gaze, the superstar image of Whitney Houston was quickly purchased and rendered in a way that sought out her most private moments as a mere marketing and aesthetic ploy, without a second thought as to what this could represent.
After years of speaking out about her objectification and hyper-sexualization, while underage and under the direction of big name directors like Steven Spielberg and Michael Bay, the unnecessary amounts of sexism and backlash hurled at Megan Fox also recently resurfaced. With the premiere of Framing Britney Spears, Fox, now 34, recognized the attention that was garnered surrounding her own experience in the entertainment industry as a target of blackmail and overall mistreatment. She recently released a statement on her Instagram account attempting to clear up any misinformation or confusion that was being spread. The resurfacing anecdotes she told on Jimmy Fallon in 2009, involved her describing being sexualized as a teenager, only to be met with laughter by the studio audience at the time. Yet, Fox claims she was never sexually preyed upon by Bay or Spielberg, despite their mistreatment of her. In her statement she writes, “There are many names that deserve to be going viral in cancel culture right now, but they are safely stored in the recesses of my heart.”
On Fox’s right shoulder blade, there’s a tattoo in gothic font that says, “We will all laugh at gilded butterflies.” Taken from the Shakespearean play King Lear, the original text reads:
No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.
The notion of a “gilded” butterfly is to essentially wrap the fragile butterfly in gold. Whether metaphorical or literal, this process of drenching an already beautiful and fragile creature in gold practically renders them useless, unable to perform the function they were born to. Growing up, I had always been fascinated with Fox’s tattoo, wondering what it meant. During the current reckoning of a society forced to face their role in the perpetual destruction of women, I can understand things more clearly now.
Featured Image: Sage Amdahl / Quaker Campus