Framing Britney Spears: The Faustinian Fall of the Female Celebrity

I am of the generation who’s resounding image of Britney Spears is 2008’s “Breakdown Britney”. Even in 2017 this image was regurgitated with an onslaught of online memes relating to Britney’s “breakdown” to, once again, remind the world of the media constructed “crazy woman”. They are given the same tragic and inevitable fall like those designed for men of early modern plays but, unlike those characters, these modern women receive this fate undeservingly.

The New York Times documentary, Framing Britney Spears, has finally given the woman behind “crazy Britney” a voice. The documentary follows Britney’s heart-breaking trajectory from guiltless young star to “mad woman”, as she is preyed upon by the tabloids and placed under an unwanted conservatorship by her father in 2008. Britney’s success amounted to a stripping of autonomy. Within the space of her career, her character became custody of the tabloids and, subsequently, she lost control of her estate, money, and personal affairs.

Physically hostile and verbally aggressive, Britney was the isolated target of an unrelenting witch-hunt headed by the tabloids, from the age of sixteen. Britney repeats “I’m scared” as she steers past flocks of paparazzi and is brought to tears in an interview when she is told a Governor would like to “shoot” her “if she could”. The well of Britney’s pain visibly builds in front of our eyes throughout the documentary as brutal judgements are hurled at her. Who Britney is and her worth is dictated to her and decided for her from a swathe of anonymous opinions. The smiling, vibrant Britney we meet at the start of the documentary gets eradicated by the media. The “mad woman” gradually supersedes the glowing, genial teenager in the public’s eyes.

As a female celebrity, Britney had to navigate the impossible dichotomy which faces her sex. Nineteen years old, Britney is told by an interviewer that she is both “sweet, innocent, virginal” and a “sexy, vamp in underwear”. Ignoring the blatant misogyny, this contradiction illustrates how female celebrities must perform a role of unachievable womanhood. It is a demanding balancing act; too sweet and one fails to fulfil the male fantasy and too sensual and you are labelled a “vamp”. Even at seventeen, an older male interviewer whispers to Britney, “everyone is talking about it”, she trustingly asks “what?”, and he concedes, “your breasts”. Britney was an object of sex, while maintaining the perfect balance of allure and innocence to assure audiences in interviews that she is “still a virgin” to maintain their approval. Britney strived and struggled to achieve an unobtainable contradiction, like many other female celebrities’ downfalls.

Britney Spears Love GIF by BrittDoesDesign
From Giphy

Britney’s story is “something that would never happen to a man in America”, states a documentary interviewee. Men don’t have to presume an impossible image of acceptable sexuality to retain acceptance; Justin Timberlake was actually praised for “getting in Britney’s pants”. Yet, the media’s misogyny runs deeper than this. Following their split, Timberlake joined the line of men who have contorted Britney’s image. Timberlake took control of the narrative and easily framed Britney as a deceiving, sexually mischievous woman who cheated on him and broke his heart. Timberlake remained the innocent, still beloved, heart-throb. Their breakup was taken out of Britney’s control, and she was all too easily construed into a vindictive adulteress, whilst Timberlake remained blameless and applauded for deflowering the virginal girl.

As with anybody striving for success, Britney possesses determination and drive. Alas, these are fatal characteristics for a woman in her industry. In the documentary, Britney fights off accusations of being a “diva”, contesting “I just know what I want”. She is not alone in batting off such allegations. On Elizabeth Day’s podcast, How to Fail, Alexandra Burke candidly spoke about being labelled a “diva” and “arrogant” by the tabloids. Boris Johnson’s girlfriend has also recently been branded, “Lady Macbeth” , “capricious” and “demanding”. Such adjectives are reserved in the media for strong, authoritative women, as their ambition quickly becomes greed and determination cunningness.

Jameela Jamil names this, “collective gaslighting”. Jameela argues the tabloids continuously hyperbolise female celebrities only to make their inevitable destruction more entertaining. Taylor Swift’s documentary, Miss Americana, depicts how, almost overnight, Taylor was denounced as “too serious”, “too good” and the #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty trended on twitter. Taylor recalls her helplessness after it was decided that she was “wicked” and “conniving”. Subsequently, Taylor was not seen in the public eye for a year, remembering, “they just don’t love you anymore”. Similarly, within six months of Meghan Markle’s wedding, the British tabloids, once her adulating supporters, stamped her, “Bridezilla”, and painted her as a controlling, argumentative “diva”. The tabloids succeeded on two occasions here – driving two talented women into exile.

Taylor Swift Netflix GIF by NETFLIX
From Giphy

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have since announced they would have “zero engagement” with the tabloids in April 2020, including the chilling words that, “there is a real human cost to this way of doing business.” The human cost for Britney is clear, as her character became a possession of the media she was pitilessly mutilated into a woman she was not, and subsequently, driven to become. The “human cost” of the tabloid’s ferocity was painstakingly evident after the suicide of Caroline Flack. In the six months preceding her suicide the tabloids published 99 articles concerning Caroline and the dispute with her boyfriend. The coverage was aggressive; The Sun evenproduced a Valentine’s Card with the message “I f****in lamp you” in reference to the fight. The tabloids took un-ashamed glee in demonising Caroline, with her friend stating they have her “blood on their hands”. Their violent pursuit of a vulnerable, hurting woman is unforgivable and is worryingly comparable to many famous women’s experiences. The tabloids have taken lives and have used female celebrities’ pain as the punchline for one joke too many.  

Faustus’ “fall” was pre-destined; a punishment for overachieving. Female celebrities often face a similar, if not identical, fate. Yet, their inevitable downfall stems not from overreaching, but merely existing and achieving in the public eye.

-Ellen Hodges

Featured Image Source: Still via Youtube / Britney Spears “Baby One More Time” / Britney Spears Vevo

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