It’s November 2002, and Justin Timberlake is doing a radio interview with Star and Buc Wild, the shock jocks who hosted Hot 97’s morning show at the time. It's a big deal for the former *NSYNCer—as a member of a boyband, he would never have scored coverage by the station, which had been an influential force in hip-hop and R&B since the early 90s. But he had a Neptunes-produced solo album, dance moves appropriated from Michael Jackson and a new haircut that didn’t look like ramen noodles at all, really, so the station now saw a fit. And he saw an opportunity to set the stage for a whole new level of stardom. Even better, the price was low: just Britney Spears’ dignity.
I was 17 and still very much a fan of boybands, but I don’t remember hearing about the interview at the time. It’s only now, thanks to Framing Britney Spears, that I know what he said. Samantha Stark, the documentary’s director, included the clip to support her argument that media has consistently shaped narratives around Spears, rarely to her benefit. And it’s breathtakingly callous: “Did you fuck Britney Spears?” one of the DJs asks. Timberlake laughs, then says, “Okay, I did it!”
I can’t stand Timberlake so I definitely don’t want to absolve him of any responsibility here, but to me, what’s most stunning about this exchange isn’t his behaviour. It’s the fact that he was allowed to get away with this frankly transparent PR strategy for so long. Because that’s exactly what it was. Timberlake had released “Like I Love You,” the first single from Justified in August of that year and it did… fine, reaching number 11 on the Billboard Hot 100. His existing fans liked it, and he was even invited to perform at the MTV Video Music Awards that year. But he, or perhaps his team, understood that none of that was enough to launch the kind of solo career he wanted.
So: Britney. He gave sad TV interviews about the demise of their relationship, painted her as a villain and a “horrible woman,” made a music video starring a Spears lookalike and continued to reference her in magazine profiles, his book and even on stage for 14 years after they broke up.
And not a single journalist called him on it.
To understand why this happened, you have to understand the sexist double standard Spears was operating under. Up to that point, much of the media coverage she’d been subject to fit neatly into one of two competing narratives: either she was sexy and would hopefully soon be sexually available (but not too sexually available), or she was sexy and it was harming America’s youth.
An example of the former: When Spears was 17, Dutch journalist Ivo Niehe asked her about her breasts in a live interview, a clip of which is included in Framing Britney Spears. It’s hard enough to watch the obviously uncomfortable teenager try to demur as he keeps pushing her to discuss her body, but there’s one line that I find particularly gross: “You seem to get furious when a talk show host comes up with this subject,” Niehe says, in a clearly calculated attempt to shame her for being uncooperative. Because if you can’t get someone to freely discuss their breasts on live television, why not leverage the way young women are socialized to obey their elders, I guess? (He now says the clip that was included in the documentary was taken out of context and that his goal was a respectful conversation about her thoughts on plastic surgery. Which… sure 🙄.)
An example of the latter: a year later, Spears and her mom, Lynne, appeared on The View to promote their book, Britney Spears’ Heart to Heart. After Spears performed Oops… I Did It Again, the pair sat down with Lisa Ling and Meredith Vieira for an interview that was supposed to be about their relationship and the project, but instead quickly zeroed in on the singer’s appearance, and especially the revealing outfits she wore. "Often you see that with women who are older," Ling says at one point in the interview. "It was just kind of a shock sometimes to see some of the revealing outfits on someone as young as you are." It may have been the gentlest slut-shaming ever, but it was still very much slut-shaming.
With that context, it’s easy to see why Spears and Timberlake publicly claimed to be virgins for the duration of their relationship—she was already receiving so much criticism that any actual confirmation she was having sex could have been professionally devastating.
But even that decision played into the media’s obsession with the contradiction between her sexiness and innocence... which wasn’t anything new. As Constance Grady argued in a 2020 Vox article about the enduring appeal of Princess Diana, the press has found that juxtaposition “intoxicating” in plenty of blondes, from Spears to Diana to Marilyn Monroe. “Underlying this archetype is a sort of reassuring whisper to the watching man—and it is always a man who is assumed to be watching—'It’s okay. She can’t manipulate you because she doesn’t know what she’s doing. She will never use sex to get her own way because she doesn’t know she’s sexy. It’s safe to want her. You will always have more power than she has,’” Grady writes. “Unless the woman does know what she’s doing. Unless she’s not a real virgin after all. That would ruin everything, wouldn’t it?”
Why yes, it would. Timberlake’s casual confirmation that they’d been lying all along had zero impact on his own brand. As Hayley Hill, a former magazine editor and Spears’ one-time stylist, points out in Framing Britney Spears, while young female stars were subject to a brutal double-standard when it came to sex, boyband members like Timberlake faced little (if any) of the same pressure. “I worked with all of the boy bands—all of them,” Hill says. “Not one of the boys were ever under this much scrutiny." In fact, he was able to aggressively pursue sex symbol status with zero pushback, even after he was characterized as a “wild sex machine” who deserved the truly cringey nickname Trousersnake. I mean… Details magazine literally congratulated him for getting “into Britney’s pants” on the cover of the December 2002 issue.
His laughing “Okay, I did it!” had a huge impact on her though. Not only was it a betrayal of her trust and privacy, it also called attention to her dishonesty, and, I’d argue, eased the way for the cruelty that was to come. And there was so much cruelty to come. Yes, Timberlake’s behaviour post-breakup was spiteful, insensitive and obviously self-serving. But it’s never been celebrities’ jobs to hold themselves to account. So, why didn’t any journalist think critically about his motivations as he turned his revenge fantasies into music videos, and maybe, I don’t know, call him on it? Instead, Spears became the proverbial whipping boy.
I think it’s important to distinguish between tabloid and mainstream journalists here. Framing Britney Spears pays a fair bit of attention to tabloids, including interviews with Brittain Stone, the former photo director of Us Weekly, and paparazzo Daniel Ramos, whose SUV Spears famously hit with an umbrella. Both men seemingly struggle to understand the role they played in Spears’ objectification. “The goal was not to sort of—with these kinds of images, be negative about people,” Stone says. “It was to enjoy their lives in a somewhat aspirational-slash-relatable way.” Which is interesting because the magazine often was negative, branding her as “out of control,” “sick” and a “time bomb” on various covers. It also existed in the same ecosystem of publications that published upskirt photos of her, gave her cruel nicknames and denigrated her as white trash. Meanwhile Ramos characterizes what’s essentially stalking as a “symbiotic relationship” and claimed Spears “never gave a clue or information to us that ‘I would appreciate you guys leave me the eff alone.’” (So many props to the interviewer, who asked, “What about when she said, ‘Leave me alone?’”)
I’d argue that mainstream journalists played an equally important role in shaping public perception of Spears. After all, it was Barbara Walters who gave Timberlake a high-profile opportunity to comment on their sex life when she asked if they practiced abstinence or not. (He replied "sure” and then laughed, conveying the exact opposite.) Diane Sawyer grilled Spears on what she supposedly 'did' to Timberlake, saying, "you broke his heart. You did something that caused him so much pain, so much suffering. What did you do?" Matt Lauer called her a bad mom to her face. Rolling Stone published a profile of the singer by Vanessa Grigoriadis that described her as an “inbred swamp thing.” And late-night hosts had a literal field day with Spears’ declining mental health, with the exception of Craig Ferguson, who refused to joke about her in 2007 (something he thought he’d get fired for). The rest of the white men who made up the roster of late-night hosts, and who exerted significant control over the pop cultural landscape, had plenty of jokes, from Jay Leno saying “in three years, [she'd] be married with kids, knocking around a trailer somewhere” to David Letterman’s not-very-funny comments about her “chapped head.” (Because she’d shaved it, get it?)
And in a way, I think that’s worse. Even the least media-savvy reader knows to doubt the veracity of tabloid covers, or at least to question whether there’s more to the story. But when ABC News and Diane Sawyer tell their viewers that Spears is a slut who hurt that nice *NSYNC boy, it sends a message about who the singer is—and what she deserves.
Now that I’m thinking about it, what are your guys’ must read “oh my god people wrote this?!” instructively cruel celeb profiles of the 2000s? I’d love to compile a list of TEACHABLE MOMENTS. To start: Lindsay Lohan as Rolling Stone IT GIRL 2004 https://t.co/Ftfs9eh9fC— Jordan Crucchiola (@JorCru) February 7, 2021
Of course, it wasn’t just Spears—mainstream, respected journalists working for prestigious outlets were constantly saying problematic shit about young women. In 1995, Rolling Stone described Alicia Silverstone as “a kittenish 18-year-old movie star whom lots of men want to sleep with.” In a 2000 profile, Sports Illustrated described Anna Kournikova as the “jezebel of sweat” (she was 19) and argued that “even in this age of supposed enlightenment, a hot body can count as much as a good backhand.” A 2004 Rolling Stone profile of Lindsay Lohan begins like this: “Lindsay Lohan has been eighteen for just under a week when she tells me her breasts are real. I did not ask (gentlemen never do), though my reporting (discreet visual fact checking, a goodbye hug) seems to confirm her statement. Lohan fields queries about her breasts in most interviews, which is probably why she decided to pre-emptively address the issue.”
If never read this before but I really hope this will be the last of my “she has breasts AND claims to read” profiles/interviews. Lots of levels of gross/embarrassing aspects to this but the attempt at a feminist critique at the end is maybe the worst part. https://t.co/5YVFgnn3WC— Emily Ratajkowski (@emrata) November 1, 2020
And it’s not even constrained to some long-ago point in journalistic history. In 2013, Stephen Marche profiled Megan Fox for Esquire and described her skin as "the color the moon possesses in the thin air of northern winters" before opining on the nature of bombshells (because Fox is one, of course): “To be a bombshell in 2013 is to be an antiquity, an old-world relic, like movie palaces or fountain pens or the muscle cars of the 1970s or the pinball machines in the basement. Bombshells once used to roam the cultural landscape like buffalo, and like buffalo they were edging toward extinction." I just… don’t even know. In 2018, Thomas Chatterton Williams profiled Emily Ratajkowski for Marie Claire France, which included yet another reference to breasts (“She was admittedly blessed with the most perfect breasts of her generation”) and the writer’s shock that Ratajkowski reads: “The day I read that she was a fan of Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño, my brain snapped. It doesn’t matter that she really took the time to read the 1,300 pages of 2,666, the mere fact that she knew his name already seemed incredible to me, as if we were definitely meant to get along.”
To be fair, those recent pieces were overwhelmingly panned by a media ecosystem—and a public—that’s now much more educated on power dynamics, privilege, sexism and mental health. But that just goes to show how recently journalists felt empowered diminish, undermine, insult and condescend to young women with little thought for the impact on them, or the ways that this type of coverage perpetuates inequality. (You’ll notice that the women who are subjected to this type of objectification tend to be white; racialized and especially Black women didn’t, and often still don’t, have the protection of desirability.)
I admit I wrote many of those Us Weekly cover stories back in the day. Trust me, we wouldn’t have kept reporting out the saga if public interest weren’t rampant. Everyone is complicit to varying degrees.— Mara Reinstein (@MaraReinstein) February 10, 2021
There have already been some pieces that suggest a new cultural reckoning is here, or at least imminent. It's definitely no longer acceptable to treat women the way journalists treated Spears, and there have been a lot of apologies, and calls for apologies, in the past few days. But... I'm not sure media is actually holding itself accountable. As Jezebel points out, they're certainly not engaging in self-reflection. Writer Emily Alford cites Glamour, which just published an essay entitled “We’re All to Blame for What Happened to Britney Spears,” as one example. Alford "assumed it would be some sort of letter from the editor explaining that the beauty industry was deeply shitty to all women for a very long time—in fact, in 2007, Glamour still routinely published candids of women on the street dressed in outfits their editors deemed bad published for readers’ amusement. Instead, it was a piece about how the 'media' needs to do better for all (famous) women, and the 'we' in the title does not mean Glamour, it means, well, who can say. Everyone on Earth, maybe?" Or what about Rolling Stone, which repromoted that extremely cruel 2008 cover story earlier this week, seemingly without realizing that it was part of the problem Framing Britney Spears rails against.
And none of the individual journalists who are facing backlash for their cruel lines of questioning or snarky commentary have responded publicly, while those who are engaging with the conversation still don't seem to be willing to actually take responsibility. In a now-deleted tweet, comedian Billy Eichner pointed out that there are “lots of virtuous folks on [Twitter] pretending they didn’t read Perez Hilton or Us Weekly’s abusive coverage of Britney religiously in 2005. We are all to blame.” (He went a tiny bit further than just reading Perez Hilton, for the record.) The magazine's film critic, Mara Weinstein, chimed in, saying, “I admit I wrote many of those Us Weekly cover stories back in the day. Trust me, we wouldn’t have kept reporting out the saga if public interest weren’t rampant. Everyone is complicit to varying degrees.”
I find this… laughable. Sure, metrics matter, whether that’s how many print issues are sold or how many unique views a story earns online. And the fact that so many people were clamouring for the tiniest crumb of information about Spears’ downfall is a problem for sure. But you can’t blame readers for the way you framed stories, or the cruelty you displayed.
Journalists never want to be part of the story. We think we're just covering what happens, that we're somehow separate from the news. But our biases inform our interpretation of events, which affects what we choose to omit or include in our coverage. That matters because our work helps shape how people think, talk about and treat our subjects—and also each other. When we made it acceptable to ridicule Britney Spears and allowed Justin Timberlake to push his narrative to her detriment, we also made it acceptable to do that to any young woman. And when we don’t acknowledge that, we aren’t just dodging responsibility for our actions, we’re actively perpetuating sexism and misogyny.
Vanity Fair’s profile of the anonymous woman behind Deuxmoi, in which the writer figures out who she is but doesn’t say (🤷🏽♀️) and the subject refuses think about the implications of her actions (🙃).
Rolling Stone’s piece on Phoebe Bridgers smashing her guitar on SNL and how that moment subverted music history.
Friday Things intern Shayelle Smith’s love letter to rom-coms, and recommendations for the eight best ones to stream right now.
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