By Maeve O’Keeffe
On Friday the 15th of November, Britney Spears fans and advocates of the #FreeBritney movement rejoiced, as her 13-year long conservatorship was terminated. Spears was placed under conservatorship after what can only be described as an incessant paparazzi pursuit that contributed to her mental health difficulties and erratic behaviour. The New York Times documentary Framing Britney Spears details the intricacies of conservatorship cases, and the role of Spears’s fans in campaigning to “Free Britney.” However, one of the documentary’s most captivating aspects was the initial depiction of how Spears – one of pop’s most promising and popular stars – was driven to breaking point by relentless negative media reports. Given how Spears’s release from her conservatorship coincided with the release of Taylor Swift’s re-recording of her Red album, I began to reflect upon the ways in which our media and society continues to fail successful young women, and how female artists can be empowered to reclaim the caricature-like portrayals of them in the tabloid press.
Spears was catapulted into the public eye at age 16 when her immensely successful …Baby One More Time came out. The song’s enduring appeal is testimony to the talent and hard work that Spears possessed from a young age. And yet, as Spears’s stardom grew, so too did the scrutiny with which private aspects of her life were examined under. Her public break-up with *NSYNC singer Justin Timberlake drew a vulturous circling of tabloid stories slut-shaming Spears, alluding to alleged cheating, as well as discourses into Spears’s virginity and sex life. The once loved girl-next-door became a subject of scorn and public mocking as she struggled with personal issues in the following years, exacerbated by the same media outlets that would benefit from unflattering paparazzi shots and headlines of the singer.
One can only feel angered by how hounded Spears was, and how the public devoured stories of Spears’s struggles and so-called incompetence, as a mother, a performer, a sex symbol for general consumption. Although society has progressed in how we now have an improved understanding of mental health, it would be naïve to think that today’s stars are immune from the level of bashing that Spears was subjected to. If there is one thing that is becoming increasingly clear, it is that our patriarchal society does not like successful women, particularly not young successful women, and inevitably, will find some lens with which to scrutinize and dissect her publicly.
Let’s look at Taylor Swift, the only woman ever to win the Grammy for Album of the Year three times, and how, even today, she is a source of ridicule for her dating history and ‘feud’ with the Kardashian-Wests. Swift, like Spears, was still a young woman when tabloids latched onto her relationships and dismissed her song-writing abilities simply because she, like so many other artists, wrote from personal experience. Look at the media’s fixation on Adele’s weight. Or Billie Eilish, who just so happens to be the musician who broke Swift’s record for the youngest artist to win Album of the Year at the Grammys, and how on her 18th birthday, her name was the most searched term on PornHub.
Megan Markle, Janet Jackson, Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen… I could go on. It is as though society is deeply uncomfortable with the idea of a talented woman, and the more successful and attractive she is, the more vulnerable she is to media outlets making it their mission to tear her down, knock down her self-made pedestal of success, and laugh when she falls. Every facet of a prominent woman’s appearance and character is criticised at best, and at worst, condemned and ridiculed. We will invent a reason to justify our collective contempt for such a talented, yet fundamentally “unlikeable” woman, in a way that somehow, men appear to be exempt from.
When Swift released Red (Taylor’s Version), she broke Spotify’s record for the most-streamed album in a day by a female artist. Not only does this mark Swift reclaiming the rights to her music after her masters were sold by her record label to Scooter Braun, who Swift claims actively tried to dismantle her career as a manager to Kanye West, but it also signifies Swift reclaiming the narrative around her personal life. When Red was initially released in 2012, Swift was subject to relentless slut-shaming and sneering in the media, as she was branded a “man-eater.” The album, though commercially successful, was dismissed with the rest of Swift’s discography for being too focussed on her break-ups, as though writing from personal experience diminished, rather than amplified the quality of her songwriting.
In 2021, the narrative has changed. Swift is still singing about the same heartbreak, but this time she is unapologetic about showcasing the urgency that women feel when experiencing heartbreak but are condemned for outwardly showing, at risk of being labelled hysterical, over-emotional, or needy. In the fan-favourite extended version of the song All Too Well, Swift highlights the significant age difference between herself, and the alleged subject of the song, Jake Gyllenhaal, who was 29 years old to Swift’s 20 years when their relationship began. With lines like, “I get older, but your lovers stay my age,” Swift draws attention to the fact that the criticism she suffered due to her famous relationships and break-ups was largely unwarranted and unfair. In all of the relationships and break-ups that Swift was ridiculed for throughout her career, which, like Spears, began when she was only 16, the men remain unscathed by the shaming that plagued Swift.
Ultimately, it is the pattern of behaviour behind the attempts to undermine and unravel female celebrities that should be subject to scrutiny. When you examine the cases of the aforementioned women, it can feel like women and girls just can’t win. The paradox of scorning and dismissing women for singing about their personal lives, while obsessively monitoring their personal lives for profit on gossip websites and in tabloids is so wrong. Yet if the women complain about their unfair treatment by the media, they are accused of “playing the victim.” Inevitably, some flaw will be unearthed or invented, and magnified, until we forget the reasons why the woman became famous in the first place – talent and hard work. Disregarding the media’s expectations will result in widespread lambasting, but any attempts to comply with the unattainable standards of behaviour set for female celebrities will be met with complaints that she is insincere and fake. Hollow cookie-cutter apologies from publicists on social media are not enough to undo the wrongs perpetrated against women who suffered in the public eye. In the end, what we need is to ensure that the incessant and unnecessary hounding of female celebrities by paparazzi and media outlets dies out, like the legacy of superstars whose tabloid coverage overshadowed their initial success.