Has the Media Changed Since Destroying Britney Spears in the 2000s?
Aughts stars are reclaiming their narratives. In 20 years, another batch of stars will probably be left to do the same.
Britney Spears has been freed. Paris Hilton is married. Jessica Simpson bought back her fashion brand.
The women whom the media treated cruelly in the aughts with either the general public’s support or willful blind eye seem to be enjoying both good life events and a glorious reclamation of their narratives. To people who watched these women at the beginning of their celebrity nearly 20 years ago, all of this has been a massive relief.
Now these stars are around 40, roughly twice as old as when they were getting shamed by the tabloids for things like partying and wearing jeans. They are seemingly more in control of their lives and stories than ever before. Sadly, the media’s evolution over the past two decades has only been limited, and another batch of stars will probably be left to do the same thing in 20 years.
Viewers of the New York Times documentary “Framing Britney Spears” saw with fresh eyes the way the media treated her at the height of her fame in the 2000s. She was forced to answer repeatedly for her sexiness, as though, as a teen pop star, she would have had total control of her image and insight into what it meant. Then there was her personal life. She was asked publicly about the status of her virginity. After her breakup with Justin Timberlake, he went on Hot 97’s “Star and Buc Wild Morning Show” where he was asked, like it was downright hilarious, “Did you [expletive] Britney Spears?” Men laugh in the background and he goes, “Oh man.” And then, “Oh yeah I did it.” More cackling. Then, the headline under his face on a cover of deceased magazine Details read, “Can we ever forgive Justin Timberlake for all that sissy music? Hey… at least he got into Britney’s pants.”
In 2003, Diane Sawyer interviewed Spears. “He has gone on television and pretty much said you broke his heart. You did something that caused him so much pain, so much suffering. What did you do?” Sawyer said, as though Timberlake’s suffering was what mattered and it was her fault. Sawyer also said Spears “has upset a lot of mothers in this country,” and quoted Maryland First Lady Kendel Ehrlich saying, “If I had an opportunity to shoot Britney Spears, I think I would.” Spears’s offense was being sexy. On top of all this, Spears was hounded by paparazzi so much she has repeatedly described feeling scared of them, including in an October Instagram.
The documentary teased out the notion that the media came late to the Free Britney movement because it had been marginalizing her as a human being throughout her career. She wasn’t Britney Spears, human being. She was the world’s “Baby One More Time” wind-up doll — there to look pretty, perform, be sexy but not too sexy, and endure aggressive photographers because she was putting on a show for us even when she wasn’t.
The conservatorship that began on October 28, 2008 placed Spears under the oversight of her father, and stripped her of rights to controlling nearly every aspect of her life, including her finances and, she told a court this year, her birth control. Early on, she told us she was suffering. In the first year of the arrangement, she appeared in the MTV documentary Britney: For the Record and said, “If I wasn’t under the restraints that I’m under right now, you know, with all the lawyers and doctors and people analyzing me every day, and all that kind of stuff, like, if that wasn’t there, I’d feel so liberated and feel like myself. When I tell them the way I feel, it’s like they hear me but they’re really not listening, they’re hearing what they wanna hear. They’re not really listening to what I’m telling them. It’s like — it’s bad.” She pauses and starts crying and adds, “I’m sad.”
One friend Spears saw during the conservatorship was Paris Hilton who, on Thursday, November 11 married Carter Reum wearing a stunning Oscar de la Renta dress (she wore six dresses total over the course of the three-day wedding). “I was looking for my equal. Someone who wasn’t fascinated with ‘Paris Hilton’ but instead, someone who saw the real me and loved me for me,” she told Vogue.com. I had to refresh my memory of the Paris Hilton of the aughts — when Kim Kardashian was just her anonymous friend — so ubiquitous at the time that the editor-in-chief of Us Weekly made a decision in 2007 to stop covering her.
I had nearly forgotten about the sex tape, which came out in 2003. The manner in which it was distributed may have been as bad as its existence. From a December 2003 Village Voice article:
Aside from her star turn on reality TV, Hilton is famous for a sex tape, circa May 2001, which features her and actor-producer Rick Solomon and was obtained by Marvad Corp., a porn company that had planned to sell it online.
On November 3, Us magazine got a “first look” at the Paris Hilton sex tape, a/k/a the PHST. Two days later, the New York Post reported that an anonymous source was offering samples to media outlets. Also on November 5, Hilton’s parents began threatening to sue anyone who helped make the tape public. Many defenses emerged, such as that the poor girl was underage, intoxicated — the obvious “victim.” All the principals retained lawyers, and the Post and Daily News gossip columns competed for the daily scoop.
After the tape came out in November of 2003, Hilton took a flight home from Australia, where she had appeared at the Melbourne Cup horse race and done a modeling gig, with an Us Weekly reporter. Here’s some of that article:
IT'S NOVEMBER 13, A WEEK after news of a graphic sex tape involving Paris Hilton broke in the United States. But here, on Qantas flight 93, departing from Melbourne, Australia, the fragile-looking woman at the center of the storm is trying to enjoy her final moments of alone time before landing in Los Angeles. Yet, after a few hours sleep, Hilton, 22, abruptly heads to the bathroom. In blue sweat pants, with her platinum hair in tiny pigtails, she emerges a few minutes later wiping away tears, explaining that a troubling nightmare had awakened her. "I'm just so embarrassed," she says, sitting back down. "What am I supposed to do? Every time people see me, [the video's] all they'll be able to think about."
…"I wish I could just stay in Australia," Hilton says sadly. "I loved it there. I can't walk the streets [at home]. It's too embarrassing. I don't want to go out anymore, I don't want to party. This has really made me think about changes I want to make."
The story goes on to ask:
So should anyone feel sorry for Hilton?
Then on November 27, 2003, the Washington Post printed this, in a piece by by Richard Cohen:
It is easy enough to make fun of Ms. Hilton, because she is rich and spoiled and noted for doing not very much at all. But as one who has not watched the tape, I feel a twinge of sympathy for her. If she is misspending her youth -- she's only 22 -- she would hardly be a pioneer in this area. The rest of us were lucky to be fools before the advent of the Internet and the video or digital camera -- and we have been blessed with retroactively correct memories. We led model youths.
Of course Hilton pulled through the horrific ordeal, her fame only seeming to grow, just like the celebrity members of her squad. When she partied with Spears and Lindsay Lohan, a famous photo of the trio shoulder-to-shoulder in the camel leather seat of her car, Hilton at the wheel, ran on a November, 2006 cover of the New York Post with the headline, “Bimbo Summit.”
Jessica Simpson wasn’t part of this clique, but was in the same circle as Spears. Simpson, in fact, tried out for the Mickey Mouse Club in 1992, only to lose out to Christina Aguilera, but she stayed in touch with Timberlake (who appeared on the show with Spears), even kissing him after her divorce from Nick Lachey. As a solo artist, she was her label’s answer to Spears, with a similar Southern, all-American saccharinity. And unsurprisingly, she was subjected to similarly unsparing media coverage. There was the day she walked on stage in high-waisted size 4 jeans and a double leopard belt in 2009, only to be called things like “beefy” and “Jumbo Jessica.” The coverage shocked and traumatized her so much that she retreated from public life for six months. Early last year when promoting her memoir, she talked about that moment, telling Glamour, “I felt confident. And then it ruined the stage for me. And the stage was my home. It broke my home.”
Though she never seemed to betray smug satisfaction to the press about it, she went on to launch a clothing line that would earn her the cover of New York magazine in 2011 under the headline “The $1 Billion Girl,” referring to her brand’s sales. The line is licensed through Camuto Group, and Sequential Brands Group Inc. bought a majority share in it in 2015, leaving Simpson and her mom with a 37.5 percent stake. Around this time, Simpson was struggling with alcoholism, something else she discussed in her memoir. “The drinking wasn’t the issue. I was. I didn’t love myself. I didn’t respect my own power. Today I do,” she wrote last week on Instagram. In August, Sequential filed Chapter 11, and started selling off its brands. Last week, around the four-year mark of her sobriety, Simpson announced that she and her mom had successfully bought the brand back and released a cover of the song “Particles,” which she said on YouTube “healed a broken piece of me.”
(In other news about famous women reclaiming their narratives, the internet has been delighted that Lindsay Lohan is appearing in a Netflix romcom and Taylor Swift just re-recorded her album Red.)
What was it that led to such cruel coverage of these women when they were just around 20 years old? In Hilton’s case, we struggled with the whole “famous for being famous” thing, but in the era of influencers, no one much bats an eye at that anymore. As for Spears and Simpson, there’s probably not a better answer than misogyny and sexism.
With all that behind us, are today’s young female tabloid stars better off? We could look to celebrities occupying a similar place in the culture, like Kendall Jenner, also a famous-for-being-famous type (though she is a successful model). Just over the weekend, Jenner was written up for — what do you know? —wearing a revealing dress in a possibly bad way. “Kendall Jenner wore an eye-popping dress to a friend's wedding. Was it out-of-line?” reads the headline on USA Today. “People Are Saying Kendall Jenner Was ‘Blatantly Disrespectful’ For Wearing This Dress To Someone's Wedding,” is how BuzzFeed covered it. (Jenner previously gave an interview to Vogue about her anxiety, in which she said, “Sometimes I think I’m dying.”)
And recent coverage of Emily Ratajkowski’s new book My Body, personal reflections on her own celebrity, has repeatedly questioned whether or not we should feel sorry for her — the very same thing Us Weekly asked of Hilton after her sex tape came out.
Pre-pandemic, the press was hard enough for Meghan Markle that she and Prince Harry ultimately decided to leave the royal family. Recall, if you will, this moment from an interview for a 2019 documentary when reporter Tom Bradby asked how she was doing, and she said she wasn’t really okay.
It’s not hard to find other examples. Recently, Blake Lively discussed being “stalked by a man” trying to photograph her with her kids. Here’s a BuzzFeed post from the spring about someone calling Hailey Bieber “rude” on TikTok. The underlying message of these stories remains that privilege of any kind — money, good looks, a famous family — makes these women acceptable targets because their lives are great already, so who cares if we pick on them?
Celebrity media isn’t in the same toilet it occupied in 2003. Unfortunately, it’s in an entirely different toilet, fighting Facebook, Google, and TikTok not to get flushed away for good. There’s almost no way that ad driven outlets, which monetize based on audience size and not subscriptions, can compete with social networks and Google, which have much bigger audiences and more sophisticated ad targeting. Unfortunately, all the tech giants’ algorithms have done is instigate a very drawn-out race to the bottom, in which traffic that can most cheaply be derived from clickbait and chasing “trending topics” is really all that matters, which is why I see the same not terribly interesting celebrity stories in my newsfeeds day after day. If this continues — and we have every reason to believe it will — we should all expect history to repeat itself.
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