“Framing Britney Spears” Reveals the Media’s Insidious Misogyny


In this op-ed, writer Jessica Toomer explores how misogyny and how the media depicts and demoralizes young, famous women. 

Last month, R&B artist Chloe Bailey took to Instagram to livestream a tearful confessional to her fans. She was there to express confusion at the backlash to videos she had posted. The cause for the outrage? Two TikTok dance challenges the singer had some fun with, including one in which she donned a formfitting outfit to “buss it” in her living room. I watched both videos, but it wasn’t the “provocative” dance moves that made me angry; it was later watching a young woman have to emotionally defend the right to ownership of her body in the post-#MeToo era we’re supposed to be living in.

If you do a quick Google search of Bailey right now, the first few articles you’ll find will claim the multihyphenate artist is “breaking the internet again” with “sensual pics.” Others will accuse her of posting more “thirst traps.” Even after she addressed, explained, and devoted more energy to reframing her image than she should have had to, Bailey’s sex appeal remains the juiciest bit of news about her.

There’s a double standard in media that has always existed. It’s part of a system that forces a young woman to apologize for dancing but enables an accused abuser like Marilyn Manson to seemingly profit off of his bad-boy image for decades (Manson has denied the abuse allegations). This system, which persecutes women while protecting men, is changing, sure: More women feel empowered to speak out, more allies are coming forward with support, more positions of power are being checked and balanced. But when I watched what happened to Chloe Bailey I couldn’t help but think of growing up in the 2000s, an era of cutthroat cultural commentary that shamed some of my biggest icons and sacrificed some of the brightest talents for views and clicks. I couldn’t help but think of Britney Spears.

In Framing Britney Spears, the New York Times documentary that investigates the pop icon’s turbulent personal life, the singer fights two battles. The first, more obvious struggle happens in a courtroom, which has driven the #FreeBritney movement on social media, and spurs dozens of fans to flock to a Los Angeles courthouse — with catchy protest signs and cheeky cardboard cutouts of their childhood icon in tow — during the film’s opening moments. The case involves a conservatorship, a legal ruling that puts a person (in this case, Spears’s father, Jamie) in charge of another person’s finances and, sometimes, their personal care. This is what Spears has been dealing with for the past decade after a very public struggle with her mental health led to the legal arrangement of a conservatorship. It’s gotten so much attention in part because Spears is young and seemingly competent and perhaps doesn’t fit the mold of what a “conservatee” normally looks like. The second battle, the war that led her here, has gone largely unnoticed.

But we need to notice it. We need to talk about it. Because it hasn’t gone away; it’s just gotten harder to recognize.

Framing Britney Spears gives us an uncomfortable look at the misogynistic celebrity culture we have inherited. It’s the tabloid-breakup scandals, the topless photos on gossip-rag covers, the Paris Hiltons and Lindsay Lohans — “party girls” whose reputations, earned or not, magazines traded on for money and more readers. It’s the fake celebrity feuds between teenage Disney Channel princesses as they squabble over boy band crooners (and brothers of boy band crooners). It’s the skewering of attractive young women who refuse to play by the rules, the obsession with a teen starlet’s sex appeal, the “jailbait clocks.” It’s all the ways the media finds to profit off of young women’s bodies, to exploit them, to devote entire think pieces and celebrity profiles to them, before they turn around and condemn them for their sexuality, lifestyle, sometimes for just being a woman in the first place.



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