'Framing Britney' exposes a problem bigger than Britney
In The New York Times documentary "Framing Britney Spears," viewers saw a gifted female pop star brought to her knees by a sexist culture that never let her freely live. Many women of the '90s also saw themselves.
Culture held Spears up as an all American girl but had her walk a tight line: look stunning but embody the girl next door, act sexy but remain a virgin, be articulate but never opinionated.
"I mean, it's just all too much to ask of one girl," said journalist Allison Yarrow, author of "90s Bitch: Media, Culture, and the Failed Promise of Gender Equality.”
On its surface, "Framing Britney" is a bruising look at the extraordinary demise of Spears – her explosive success marred by a mental health struggle that led to the legal conservatorship that stripped her of autonomy. But while Spears' story is magnified by her wealth and fame, the impossible standards to which she was held are familiar to the girls who idolized her.
"I don't think that the girls who watched Britney Spears be held to those standards would in any way find that at the time to be anything but normal because those are the standards that they were held to every day of their lives," said Rachel Devlin, a history professor at Rutgers University who studies the cultural politics of girlhood. "What they would see in Britney Spears is the constraint, the demands and the impossibility of their lives reflected back at them."
"Framing Britney": How to watch
Gender experts say the '90s was a decade of contradiction. Women continued to break barriers in male-dominated professions, daughters of second-wave feminists came of age and the riot grrrl movement pushed for social change. But there were also the empty promises of "girl power," the narrow beauty standards of teen magazines, and a hostile 24/7 media machine that sought to objectify and demonize girls and women at every turn. From Monica Lewinsky to Anita Hill to Lorena Bobbitt to Spears, women were the story – and often the punchline.
The unrealistic expectations Spears was held to didn't just have consequences for her own mental health, but for other girls who followed the spectacle.
"Seeing women in the media held accountable as individuals for not meeting impossible standards, of course, it impacts other people's mental health," said Kjerstin Gruys, a sociologist at the University of Nevada whose research focuses on the relationship between physical appearance and social inequality. "It shapes the way that we assess our own troubles as being individual instead of cultural."
Many girls who tried to find their footing in the ’90s can only clearly see now what they vaguely felt then: sexism altered the course of their lives.
What ’90s girls grew up with
In 1994, Mary Pipher published the renowned book "Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls," which looked at societal pressures and found girls were "much more oppressed. They are coming of age in a more dangerous, sexualized and media-saturated culture. ... America today limits girls development, truncates their wholeness and leaves many of them traumatized."
She found that those social pressures to embody societal perfection led girls to become less curious, less resilient and less optimistic. Research shows gender stereotypes lead to harmful outcomes, which for girls can include depression and exposure to violence.
Sexy Halloween: Women just can't win
These stereotypes predate Spears, but at the time she came of age the structural forces of misogyny and sexism were thrust onto a larger stage, Yarrow said, in large part because of the 24/7 news cycle.
"Women were at the center of these major ’90s stories, and now they were being told, on television, on this new medium, all the time, in this really infotainment way," she said.
The media reduced women to caricatures. It was bad for white women like Spears and Lewinsky – who has said her public treatment after an affair with former President Bill Clinton led to post-traumatic stress disorder – and worse yet for Black woman, like Hill, who faced the dual forces of misogyny and racism.
The rise of teen magazines was also damning for girlhood in the ’90s, Yarrow said.
"Seventeen and Teen and YM, these magazines all exploded in the ’90s, and they really sold girls on this image of perfection that was thin, white, blonde, giving off the appearance of being sexually pleasing and available without actually having sex," she said. "I subscribed to those magazines."
In her reporting, Yarrow found 70% of elementary school girls at the time said magazines influenced their idea of the ideal body, and half said the kinds of pictures they saw in magazines contributed to their anorexia, bulimia and self-harm behaviors.
Gruys, who grew up in the ’90s and struggled with an eating disorder, said Spears was her "body thinspo."
"I have a completely different perspective now of what I experienced and who I should have been angry at," she said.
What Spears endured, and what girls watching internalized
Watching how Spears was treated sent signals to her fans about where the guardrails were, what they could get away with and what they never would. It highlighted what the culture valued.
Example: when Ed McMahon asked a 10-year old Spears after a stunning performance on "Star Search," "do you have a boyfriend?" Or when later in her career an interviewer asked if she was still a virgin (Spears thanked him for the question) and when another journalist remarked on the size of her breasts.
"We focused on the pop star, as opposed to this extremely sexist culture and machine behind the pop star which had very little concern for how that person as a human being was doing," Gruys said.
Spears deteriorated in the public eye, her demise culminating in what many perceived as a mental health breakdown – the shaved head, the infamous incident with the green umbrella.
It was shortly after that Spears' father was given legal control of Spears' estate, her career and her personal life, including the management of her mental health. Spears has for years tried to remove her father from this role.
"We throw around the word 'patriarchy' all the time, but it literally means 'rule of the father,'" said Lisa Wade, a sociology professor at Tulane University and author of "American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus." "It is very striking that the one in control is her dad."
Decades later, more understanding of mental health
Experts say society is more sensitive to mental health now than it was a couple of decades ago. If Spears had experienced what she had today, some would like to think that instead of the gawking and late-night jabs, she would have been treated with compassion.
"The mental health awareness conversation, culturally, could never be where it is without the awful price she has paid," Paramore singer Hayley Williams recently tweeted.
Experts say girls and women today are savvier consumers of news and entertainment than they were in the 1990s, which may help them ward off some social pressures, but at the same time, American culture is still steeped in structural misogyny. It's still easier to call an individual woman "crazy" than it is to look at a society that treats her mental health as expendable.
"Back then, we read Britney as a person who was broken and we were watching her fall apart. And it had nothing to do with anything except for what was going on inside of her. But the appeal of that kind of a read is that if it's all about Britney being mentally ill, then we're safe. Then it can't happen to us," Wade said. "If we didn't see what Britney was going through back then, it means something that we're seeing it now. Maybe we can take that awareness and be more careful."