Recently released New York Times documentary Framing Britney Spears has sparked a conversation around what really happened to the pop legend in the early aughts and who is to blame. We all remember watching voyeuristically as Britney Spears suffered a harrowing public breakdown in 2008. While the rest of us usually have the benefit of privacy when we face life challenges that threaten our mental health, someone like Britney grew up in front of the camera, and in 2008 the paparazzi were more vicious than ever. The infamous images of Britney shaving her head, attacking a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella, and being shipped off to a hospital are what many remember before she started to disappear from the public eye, and Framing Britney Spears gives important context to these events. From the moment Britney became famous as a teenager, her image was aggressively scrutinized by the media, whose self-proclaimed arbiters of morality acted as if a sixteen-year-old girl ought to bear the responsibility of being a perfect role model to an entire generation.
Britney fans are particularly enraged by an interview excerpt that was included in the documentary. In 2003, at the height of Britney’s career, Diane Sawyer interviewed the pop star on ABC’s Primetime Thursday. One could hardly call it an interview—it feels more like an attack. In the scene, which is difficult to watch without cringing, we see a visibly uncomfortable 21-year-old Britney endure sexist questions from Sawyer about Britney’s virginity and her responsibility as a role model to young girls. At one point Sawyer brings up tabloid rumors that Britney had cheated on Justin Timberlake. ‘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?’ Asks Sawyer. Can you imagine an interviewer today asking a young woman this same question? ‘What did you do to him?’ The cringe is severe and the resurfacing of this interview has many millennials questioning their own complicity at the time. It’s sad to be reminded that not long ago, treating women this way was completely normal.
The Diane Sawyer interview was just one example of how the media publicly ripped Britney apart when she was most vulnerable, and not only contributed to the decline in her mental health, but profited from it. Sadly, Britney is still experiencing the fallout of those years—she is locked in a court-ordered conservatorship that has stripped her of control and agency over her own life. Those who have watched the documentary are now dragging Sawyer on Twitter and demanding that she apologize to Britney Spears for the wanton misogyny of that 2003 interview. We’ve collected some Twitter reactions from some of the people who have revisited the brutal and inappropriate media coverage of Britney’s life from that time. We appreciate biographical profiles like Framing Britney Spears and HBO’s Tiger because they remind us that even the most iconic and god-like public figures are still just human beings.