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It Wasn’t Just Britney Spears’ Song That Was ‘Toxic’: A Story Of Celebrity, Media And Misogyny

Britney Spears, a blonde white woman wearing gold hoop earrings and a black one-shoulder dress, smiling into the camera
Glenn Francis
/
Wikimedia Commons
The life of pop star Britney Spears is the subject of a recent New York Times documentary "Framing Britney Spears."

You don’t have to love Britney Spears to have heard her story. She was the shiny celebrity with hits like “...Baby One More Time” and “Toxic” that have now become classics. And then she was the woman whose love life, family dynamics and run-ins with the paparazzi were blasted across celebrity magazines. Now, the recent New York Times documentary “Framing Britney Spears” reveals how the same media and cultural forces that brought her to fame tore her apart.

After a public mental breakdown in 2007, Spears was placed under a conservatorship, which gives her father complete control of her personal affairs — from her travel to mental health care — and estate. Host Anita Rao is joined by three guests to talk about the film and the culture that shaped Britney’s life: Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic, Jordan-Marie Smith is an associate producer for the Washington Post’s daily podcast “Post Reports” and Natalie Bullock Brown is a filmmaker and teaching assistant professor at North Carolina State University.

You can watch “Framing Britney Spears” on Hulu.

Interview Highlights

[My] early 2000s self when it came to Britney Spears was definitely obsessed. I'm awkward. I'm a misfit. I'm a little bit weird. And she just has it all, and I wanted that.
Jordan-Marie Smith

Smith on Britney’s appeal and her Southern identity:

I myself grew up in Lagrange, North Carolina … so when I saw this Southern woman, or this Southern young girl at the time, become this incredibly successful figure, I definitely saw that Southern connotation added to her perfection. She's this young girl who is talented, and that in itself is — in a patriarchal society — is threatening. But you put the fact that she's Southern on it, and that, in a way, illustrates ... all these stereotypes that come along with being Southern and also from the rural South. She's humble. … She's traditional, she even may be a little bit Christian. I wasn't really thinking about all of this at that time, but it definitely kind of made me think of her as being perfect in America.

Dawson on what pop culture consumers should be aware of:

So much of the way that we interact with celebrities now is online, whether that's following our favorite artists on Instagram or joining a trending topic to make fun of a celebrity who's in the news. And we still have the same culture of shaming and cruelty and humiliation — especially on Twitter I think is where we see it the most. But in YouTube comments, on Instagram comments, I think that it's really on all of us to think about: How are we criticizing and attacking or idealizing celebrities? How are we treating them as products for our own entertainment? How are we having fun at their expense? And how can we stop doing that and remember that these are, at the end of the day, humans?

Brown on the double bind of celebrities’ relationship with the media:

If [Britney] had approached her interviews in a way where ... she was clear that there were certain things she was not going to talk about, and if she had called the guy who asked her about her breasts — if she had called him on that comment, then she would have been branded the B-word. She would have been called all kinds of things. So there's a way that women either have to be completely accommodating or they risk being written off and dismissed and even canceled, because they're considered inaccessible. They're not nice.

Kaia Findlay is a producer for Embodied, WUNC's weekly, live talk show on health, sex and relationships. Kaia first joined the WUNC team in 2020 as a producer for The State of Things.
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist and the host and creator of "Embodied," a live, weekly radio show and seasonal podcast about sex, relationships & health. She's also the managing editor of WUNC's on-demand content.