In hindsight, it was a hounding. In 2007, as American pop star Britney Spears fell from the height of her teenybop fame to the lows of a mental breakdown, the cameras just would not look away. The unravelling of a 25-year-old young woman was an event for American celebrity culture. From talk show hosts to tabloids and respectable newspapers, they focussed a vicious attention on Spears, her alleged “failings” as a mother, her mental health and substance abuse, her turbulent personal life.
A new documentary on the pop star, Framing Britney Spears, inspired by the larger questions of the #MeToo movement, is forcing a horrified look at the culture that enabled the pop star’s harassment. Former boyfriend Justin Timberlake, who turned their break-up into a stalker-revenge song and went on a talk show to “bust” her claim that she was a virgin, has apologised for his behaviour. As has a comedian, who once described her children as mistakes. There are calls for apology from media stars like Diane Sawyer, who did nothing short of bully Spears on television. The film also turns the searchlight on the peculiar circumstances of Spears’s current life. The spate of breakdowns and tabloid hysteria over her life led her, 13 years ago, to agree to remain under the legal “conservatorship” of her father, who has control over her finances and personal life.
Why are performers, and especially women, so easily shoved into the nether zone between desire and derision? Why does their public punishment feed such a salacious frenzy, across cultures? How do stars so beloved of millions become fair game? The questions the documentary asks are a part of the larger re-evaluation of the misogyny of celebrity culture. They apply as easily to the recent persecution of actor Rhea Chakraborty as to the venom with which the Indian film press once targeted an actor like Rekha. It’s time to look back, with more than a little anger.