Harriet Fletcher tackles the history of tabloid culture versus unruly women

Framing Britney Spears (2021) has given us our fair share of viral moments, from Diane Sawyer’s sexist interviews to Justin Timberlake’s Instagram apology, but it’s also been a wake-up call.

The documentary explores Britney’s career in pop music: from child stardom to her 2007 breakdown, alongside the legal conservatorship that has been in place since 2008, which sees her father assume complete control of her money, estate and medical care. As a grim retrospective on the treatment of Britney from the press, the music industry and the men in her life, the documentary hits hard because it turns our girlish noughties nostalgia on its head. Beneath the pink crop tops, the bootcut jeans and the body glitter, the Britney era was rife with misogyny, slut-shaming and the invasion of women’s bodies played out in the public gaze.

Only last year, Paris Hilton produced the tell-all documentary This Is Paris (2020), in which she bravely revisits her abusive childhood and rewrites her infamous party girl image through the lens of trauma and survival. This year, it’s Britney’s turn. Framing Britney Spears is one of the most impactful films of the year because it seems to have single-handedly opened a dialogue about the toxic gender politics of the last two decades. Shortly after its release, a video of Lindsay Lohan reduced to tears by late-night talk show host David Letterman resurfaced on social media, provoking widespread outrage due to Letterman’s insensitive questions about her stints in rehab. The former teen pop star Billie Piper has recently spoken about her uncomfortable interviews with Jonathan Ross and Michael Parkinson, who probed her about her eating disorder, her divorce and accused her of being drunk and unwashed.

For the tabloid press, ‘bimbo’ is a misogynistic catch-all term for unruly women. The bimbo doesn’t fit with how celebrity culture wants women to be, so she is shamed for her glamour, promiscuity, partying and mental health issues

Framing Britney Spears has given rise to a cultural shift that befits the #MeToo era, reframing noughties celebrity culture and its treatment of young women stars. Setting the scene of Britney’s life in the spotlight, the documentary begins with a flashback to one of her first TV performances. A powerhouse voice resonates from the tiny ten-year-old. Her talent is overwhelming and she clearly has the makings of an icon in her bones. Then things take an unsettling turn. The presenter, an older man, looms over her with his microphone, telling her she’s got pretty eyes and asking if she’s got a boyfriend, creepily offering himself as a suiter. As the documentary will show, these early days of child stardom set the standard for Britney’s treatment at the hands of powerful men: objectified, stifled and exploited.

The real triumph of Framing Britney Spears is its exposure of tabloid rape culture, which ranges from insulting headlines to intrusive acts. Britney was one of many young women stars who were branded with the ‘bimbo’ label, alongside celebrities like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Jessica Simpson, Katie Price, Anna Nicole Smith… In the tabloid press, bimbo is used as a synonym for ditzy, superficial and immature. It’s a misogynistic catch-all term for unruly women. The bimbo doesn’t fit with how celebrity culture wants women to be, so she is shamed for her glamour, promiscuity, partying and mental health issues.

The bimbo is woven into the fabric of American culture at the new millennium. The term was regularly used in coverage of the notorious Clinton-Lewinsky sex scandal in 1998 – a time when America was publicly talking about sex in a way that it never had before. The documentary acknowledges the impact of this historical moment and situates Britney’s rise to fame in the midst of a sex-obsessed media storm that capitalised on slut-shaming and objectification. Monica Lewinsky was dragged by the worldwide media and treated as a punchline by male comedians. Framing Britney Spears shows an uncomfortable clip of late-night talk show host Jay Leno calling the 22-year-old White House intern a ‘cheap slutty girl’ for even cheaper laughs from the audience. Post-#MeToo, the Clinton-Lewinsky case has been revealed to be less of a salacious sex scandal and more of an abuse of power – a topic that has inspired the upcoming Ryan Murphy drama series American Crime Story: Impeachment. With this kind of dialogue surrounding Monica in the late 1990s, it was inevitable that Britney and her contemporaries would experience similar treatment at the hands of the press.

On a more sinister level, the bimbo became misogynistic shorthand for ‘asking for it’. While many of these celebrities were shamed for their partying and skimpy clothes in the tabloids, they were victims of normalised intrusive acts that are now legally sex crimes, including up-skirting and revenge porn

Britney was labelled a bimbo at one of her lowest ebbs – a time when she was grappling with issues in her personal life, including her divorce from Kevin Federline and juggling her career with being a mum. A montage of glossy front pages captures Britney on nights out with Paris and Lindsay, including provocative headlines like ‘Out-of-control celebs and online sleaze fuel a new debate over kids and values’ and The New York Post’s infamous ‘Bimbo summit’ from 2006.

Negative tabloid attention about Britney’s partying went up a gear after she had children – the press seemed determined to portray her as an unfit mother. On one occasion, she was photographed driving with her baby on her lap. She later explained in an interview that she was trying to evade the paparazzi who had followed her to her car. These attacks on Britney are as classist as much as they are misogynistic, reinforcing the damaging ‘white trash’ label that plagues underprivileged Americans who share Britney’s Bible belt upbringing.

These shaming tactics have nothing to do with the actions of Britney, Paris or Lindsay. They are a reflection of a wider misogynistic culture that exists around young women in the public eye. There is nothing wrong with women wearing what they want and drinking what they want, but the press frames these women as bimbos, sluts and trainwrecks who deserve public criticism. On a more sinister level, the ‘bimbo’ became misogynistic shorthand for ‘asking for it’. While many of these celebrities were shamed for their partying and skimpy clothes in the tabloids, they were victims of normalised intrusive acts that are now legally sex crimes, including up-skirting and revenge porn. Through such practices, rape culture infiltrates celebrity culture. The BBC documentary Celebrity: A 21st-Century Story (2020), which looks back at the highs and lows of the noughties, exposes how endemic up-skirt paparazzi shots were. In her own documentary, Paris actually refers to the leaking of her sex tape in 2003 as being “electronically raped”. These attitudes breed a dangerous lack of empathy towards women inside and outside celebrity culture. At several points in Framing Britney Spears, the paparazzi’s pursuit of Britney looks terrifying because she is essentially being followed by hordes of men invading her personal space, shouting at her, shoving cameras in her face and, in some cases, brawling with each other in the street. These are violent practices enacted against Britney’s body that normalise varying degrees of violence and sexual violence against the bodies of other women.

Framing Britney Spears suggests that Britney shaves her head in rejection of the hyper-femininity that has been imposed on her from such a young age. It rewrites the narrative around the incident from being an outrageous celebrity meltdown to a feminist reclamation of her body and her personal space

From paparazzi shots to interviews with major journalists, Britney’s body is constantly being probed and policed. The documentary shares various clips of sexist interviews that become even more difficult to watch when edited back-to-back. One male interviewer refers to Britney as “a sexy vamp in underwear”. Another tells her that everyone is talking about her breasts, which she politely laughs off in obvious discomfort. A women’s panel show discusses how “she doesn’t seem that innocent”. These aside, it is the 2003 ABC interview with Diane Sawyer that really stands out, for all the wrong reasons. In a particularly disturbing part of the interview, Britney is blamed for upsetting mothers across America, with one even calling into the show threatening to shoot her. Sawyer seems unfazed by the threat against Britney’s safety and more concerned with blaming her for the breakdown of her relationship with Justin Timberlake. This normalisation of violence is shocking. It not only lays bare the relentless misogyny directed towards Britney, but the double standards of the pop world. In this interview and in media appearances more widely, Justin is treated like the high school quarterback, the promising young man who is applauded for his sexual conquests. Meanwhile, Britney is the silenced and shamed girl in the Principal’s office, asked if she’s a virgin in a press conference, incriminated in Justin’s music videos and eventually reduced to tears by Sawyer’s aggressive accusations.

With tabloid rape culture in mind, the documentary’s approach to Britney’s breakdown in 2007 is less about mental health and more about defiance. It hones in on her alleged claim that she shaved her head because she didn’t want anyone touching her hair. In Britney’s world, being pretty means getting followed by the paparazzi and sexually harassed in interviews. Framing Britney Spears suggests that Britney shaves her head in rejection of the hyper-femininity that has been imposed on her from such a young age. It rewrites the narrative around the incident from being an outrageous celebrity meltdown to a feminist reclamation of her body and her personal space.

The documentary draws to a close by acknowledging the role of social media in today’s celebrity culture, suggesting that the tabloids are no longer in control of how the world sees Britney.

Social media has certainly added another dimension to the power dynamic of the tabloids versus celebrities. While Britney, Paris and Lindsay had to deal with the lawlessness of the paparazzi and online gossip moguls, celebrities now have a platform to control their own narratives. Social media also allows fans to show their support and solidarity for celebrities. If the fan-led #FreeBritney movement proves anything, it’s that social media can be a positive force when it’s used compassionately.

At the same time, the tabloids still hold sway. The familiar narrative of women being hounded by the media has not disappeared in the wake of Instagram. The death of Caroline Flack has been widely attributed to media intrusion, which has since provoked a campaign for ‘Caroline’s Law’ to bring an end to harassment by the media. Only months after Caroline’s death in 2020, Meghan Markle announced her decision to step down as a senior royal. The decision came after a period of relentless racist attacks from the British tabloid press, with The Daily Mail commenting on her ‘rich and exotic DNA’ or her ‘straight outta Compton’ upbringing. In her 2021 interview with Oprah Winfrey, she admitted that the pressure of the royal role and her treatment at the hands of the media had led to her experiencing suicidal thoughts.

Social media may have given Britney the respite from tabloid scrutiny that she desperately needed, but this has not been the case for every woman in the public eye.

The New Age Bimbo movement on TikTok sees sex workers and online content creators self-identifying as bimbos to satirise capitalism and sexism. The once derogatory bimbo label and hyper-feminine aesthetic has been reclaimed through a political lens. Being a bimbo is not just about being glam, it’s about left-wing politics, intersectionality and women supporting women, while at the same time dispelling outdated, misogynistic myths around the figure of the ‘dumb blonde’.

Beyond TikTok, the bimbo has influenced new feminist approaches to the rape-revenge film. Emerald Fennell’s Oscar-winning Promising Young Woman (2020) clearly takes inspiration from early noughties icons, featuring Britney-style costumes and Paris’ 2006 hit Stars are Blind. The film shows an awareness of what the bimbo look has historically represented and weaponises it to create a dialogue between rape culture and celebrity culture. It’s no coincidence that noughties pop culture and rape-revenge are both having a renaissance – they are practically made for each other.

While the celebrity sex tape has always been salacious tabloid fodder, the upcoming biographical drama Pam and Tommy looks to be a more sympathetic take. The series is set to follow the relationship between Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee after the unauthorised release of a sex tape filmed on their honeymoon, which was stolen from their home in 1995. According to the director Craig Gillespie, it will force audiences to confront their own complicity in the scandal and the emotional impact it had on those involved.

This topic has already been touched upon in Billie Piper’s BAFTA-nominated series I Hate Suzie (2020), which deals with the trauma of phone hacking and leaked intimate photographs. Given the way that conversations are shifting in favour of women who have been on the sharp end of tabloid scrutiny, I’d be surprised if Pam and Tommy doesn’t expose the leaked sex tape phenomenon for what it is: a sexual offence and a gross invasion of privacy.

With the impact of Framing Britney Spears rippling through pop culture and public apologies made by some of its biggest stars, the question remains: how can we begin to atone for the past and make sure it stays in public consciousness rather than simply becoming a flavour-of-the-month discourse?

Framing Britney Spears is available to watch on NowTV.



Images courtesy of IMDb.
Image description:
1. A close up of Britney Spears lit up by flash as she’s giving an interview. Paparazzi in the background attempt to shove cameras in her face.
2. A portrait of Britney Spears in full make-up in a dressing room. A hand adjusts her dress.
3. People attend a #FreeBritney march. They hold up signs, shirts and masks that read “Freedom for Britney” and “End the conservatorship”.