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May 29, 2024, 9 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Britney Spears and the generational shift in celebrity coverage

“There was just this nastiness that emerged in the way celebrities were covered in the 2000s.”

Britney Spears became famous in the late 1990s and underwent a major — and very public — mental health crisis in the early aughts that drew headlines not just in tabloids and gossip magazines like US Weekly but also publications like The Atlantic and The New York Times — and a universal punchline for jokes about “crazy” women.

Spears’ story goes beyond tabloid fodder. In 2008, she was placed under a legal conservatorship that gave her father, Jamie Spears, complete control over her personal affairs and her finances. This also meant that he also had control over Spears’s performance and recording schedule and the millions of dollars that she earned.

There’s a larger story here, about conservatorship abuse and the rights of people with mental health issues. But as Joanna Arcieri, a PhD candidate at Columbia Journalism School who is writing her dissertation on media coverage of Spears and the #FreeBritney movement, discovered in her research, the only media outlet that reported on the conservatorship when it happened was the National Enquirer.

“Even now, 15 years later, one article from August 18, [2008] stands out,” Arcieri writes in an excerpt from her dissertation published by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Journalism Ethics. “‘Britney furious as court keeps dad in control’ details the conservatorship and Jamie Spears’ surveillance tactics. Spears is quoted as saying, ‘You treat me like a prisoner.’”

“Britney’s story,” Arcieri writes, “is in fact a case study about how media institutions collectively failed her.”

Coverage of Spears has changed over the past decade, especially since 2018, when Spears began her legal challenge to the conservatorship. The fan-led #FreeBritney movement, which originated on social media and then moved on to real-life street protests, offered her both moral and legal support. Outlets like The New York Times and New Yorker reported the story seriously, treating Spears with empathy instead of as a tabloid curiosity and her experience as an example of a larger epidemic of conservator abuse. When Spears’ memoir The Woman in Me came out last October and became one of the year’s bestsellers, many of the reviews were downright respectful.

This, for example, from the Times: “It’s nearly impossible to come out of it without empathy for and real outrage on behalf of Spears, whose admitted bitterness over the dire circumstances of the last decade-plus of her life — she no longer speaks to her family, and says she has no immediate plans to return to recording — is tempered by an enduring, insistent optimism.”

So what’s changed? Arcieri has some thoughts.

The era just before the Great Recession, she believes, was quite possibly the worst time in modern history to be a celebrity: Traditional paparazzi was augmented by a 24/7 digital media cycle, creating a larger demand for stories, while reality TV showed the everyday lives of celebrities in all their banality.

“This is the new baseline,” writes anthropologist and former celebrity journalist Vanessa Díaz in her book Manufacturing Celebrity. “We expect to have access to all personal details of celebrities, broadly defined. Access to this intimate information has shifted our own notions of community and our general discourse, with information about these personalities becoming the default conversation starters for many people, the shared imaginary community among Americans.”

In the mid-aughts, when Spears was the subject of a lot of those conversations, there wasn’t much of a way for her to join in and explain her version of the story, even if she wanted to. Social media was still in its infancy and celebrities were still speaking to the public through a network of publicists and PR that couldn’t possibly keep up with the news cycle.

Díaz cites the work of two other anthropologists, Lara Descartes and Conrad Kottak, who “suggest that part of Americans’ media obsession is to validate themselves by noting ‘Bad things happen to people unlike me.’”

“There was just this nastiness that emerged in the way celebrities were covered in the 2000s,” Arcieri says. “Not that it wasn’t there before. But it was the combination of all these effects that made it difficult for [Spears], how she was covered and chased.” US Weekly, for instance, relentlessly covered Spears’s first two marriages, the births of her children, and her increasingly odd behavior, culminating in the very public head-shaving incident. It was all treated as entertainment, not a mental health crisis that, as Spears claimed later, arose from a combination of postpartum depression and grief over the death of a beloved aunt.

In her research, Arcieri spoke to reporters from publications such as People, US Weekly, Star, InTouch, and the National Enquirer who had covered Spears both in the early years of her career and more recently. None of the reporters who wrote about Spears 20 years ago regret their stories, exactly, but they have more empathy for her now, and they emphasize that they were part of a different media ecosystem.

“Several reporters out there have spoken publicly about growing up as Britney fans and then going on to become entertainment reporters,” Arcieri says. “There’s been a generational shift in how this coverage happens. Enough celebrities have spoken up about paparazzi culture that there’s been pushback and laws have changed.” The recession, and the accompanying shrinkage of media budgets, and the rise of digital photography also changed the market for paparazzi photos and made them less valuable than they once were.

There’s also been a shift in how mental health is covered. Arcieri points out that the chatter around the actress Amanda Bynes — who, like Spears, became famous as a teenager and had her own mental health challenges, culminating in a conservatorship in the late 2010s — is less harsh than that around Spears a decade earlier (though even at the peak of her career, Bynes was never as well-known as Spears). Instead of making Bynes the butt of jokes, the conversation is more likely to be along the lines of “I hope she’s taking care of herself.”

Brooke Shields, another former child star, also suffered from postpartum depression and went public about it in 2005. But Shields, says Arcieri, was the sort of celebrity who was “allowed” to talk about her mental health challenges, and the media gave her sympathy instead of turning her into a sideshow. Shields was older, she was married, she had graduated from Princeton, and she spoke about her depression because she was promoting a memoir, not because she was acting out in public.

Arcieri can’t say for sure how the Britney Spears story would be covered if it were happening now. “I’d like to think that it’s different today,” she says. “Journalism is a business and a celebrity in crisis is what sells magazines, but at the end of the day, it’s a totally different industry now.” That includes more public discussions of mental health, both of celebrities and of the reporters themselves, and that factors into what gets covered.

One thing she is sure of, though, is that Spears herself would have more of a say, likely through social media, and she would take control of the narrative and push back against negative coverage the way Taylor Swift has. (Ironically, the rise of the #FreeBritney movement occurred when fans observed a shift in the tone of Spears’ Instagram posts.)

“To me, this is a story of the media industry at large — what stories are allowed to be pursued, how they’re framed and presented to the public, and what narratives persist,” she says. “How we talk about celebrities at a certain moment in time reflects society at large.”

Aimee Levitt is a freelance writer based in Chicago. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Eater, Texas Monthly, and National Geographic Traveller, among other publications.

Mardi Gras #FreeBritney float in 2022. Photo by SCFiasco being used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     May 29, 2024, 9 a.m.
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