In November 2003, the American broadcaster ABC broadcast an hour-long interview with Britney Spears, then 21, for which the television nation had waited over a year. It appeared at the height of speculation about the end of the three-year relationship between pop dream couple Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake the year before. The rumor mill has been simmering ever since, fueled by the former NSYNC singer’s solo debut “Justified”, which Timberlake promoted as a “break-up album”.
In interviews, he was vague about the rumors that Spears had betrayed him, but the video for the second single “Cry Me a River” left no doubt about his version. The media did the rest for him. “What did you do?” Asked ABC presenter Diane Sawyer from Spears – and spoke to an audience of millions from the hearts of.
This excerpt can now be seen in the one-hour documentary “Framing Britney Spears”, a “New York Times” production on the ongoing guardianship dispute between Spears, who has been under the age of 13, and her father – and about the “Free Britney” fan campaign. The singer only has a say in the documentary in archive recordings, her legal counsel did not respond to inquiries from the “Times” editorial team.
But the image that the director and producer Samantha Stark creates of the “Britney Spears case” also provides an atmospheric insight into the culture of the late nineties, when serious news media and the boulevard tried to outdo each other in their lust for sensation.
From all-american girl to “psycho wreck”
The teenager had to answer questions about her breasts or her virginity in front of the cameras. In an interview with the CBS presenter Matt Lauer in 2006, Spears sarcastically summed up her public dismantling after various “scandals”: “That’s America for you!”
The title “Framing Britney Spears” uses a relatively new term from political practice: “Framing” describes the method of giving a story a new spin (“spin”) through selective information.
In the case of Spears, the question is how the all-American girl of the late 90s, who sang “Baby One More Time” in a cheerleader costume, became the “psycho wreck”, according to the media who went shaven with an umbrella at paparazzi.
Spears’ story is illuminating because what happened to her twenty years ago was not an isolated incident. The documentary draws a direct parallel to Monica Lewinsky, who after the revelation of her affair with the then US President Bill Clinton an involuntary one walk of shame made by the US media.
She was insulted as a “slut” and “marriage destroyer”; Already forgotten were Paula Jones’ allegations of sexual abuse against Clinton four years earlier. Shortly before his impeachment proceedings in 1998, the President had cleared Jones’ allegations with an out-of-court settlement. This is how Clinton’s lawyers managed to stage him as a victim of intern Monica Lewinsky.
Treated with intimate questions
With a gap of almost twenty years, “Framing Britney Spears” is all the more shocking. Not only because of her tears, when she is treated with the most intimate questions by her – male and female – interviewers. (Incidentally, CBS star Matt Lauer was fired from his employer in 2017 in the wake of MeToo revelations.)
You also remember your own jokes about the crazy, bald Spears when she was caught off guard by a paparazzo again. Everyone was caught up in the “framing”, the manipulation of perception (a celebrity theater, not a human tragedy). “Thank you, Britney, if you’re a bad girl, that’s good for my business,” said a paparazzo in “Framing Britney Spears” under the lurid headline “Top Five Celebrity Train Wrecks”.
It is not entirely by chance that this “framing” always has a masculine connotation. Women appear in this story only in the roles of “slut”, “adulteress” or “bad mother”. A New York Times reviewer said in Framing Britney Spears of ex-boyfriend Timberlake, “He took control of the narrative.” When the rumor got out, Spears revealing appearances and photos were evidence, she could Publicly go to court with her.
The media adopt the men’s version
The four-part documentary series “Allen v Farrow,” a chronological recap of the decades-old allegations of sexual abuse against Hollywood director Woody Allen, was currently on the American pay-TV channel HBO. The filmmakers use court files, archive recordings and interviews with contemporary witnesses to document how Allen started his PR machine even before Mia Farrow’s accusation that he had sexually abused his then seven-year-old daughter Dylan was made public.
Back then, the media took over the version of his in real time spin doctors‘Farrow raise the allegations out of sheer revenge. This version seeped into the collective subconscious for over 25 years – until the rise of the MeToo movement.
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It is no coincidence that three such cases from the 1990s are dealt with within a few months. The story of Monica Lewinsky, which almost led to the impeachment of Bill Clinton, will also return to the screen in 2021 – not as a documentary, but tellingly as part of the drama series “American Crime Story”.
Monica Lewinsky is an activist against cyberbullying
Lewinsky, who has been a well-known activist against cyberbullying and hate in social networks since her TED Talk in 2018 in the USA, produced the eight-part season. The wording of their announcement sounds almost like the reverse of the sentence about Justin Timberlake from the Spears documentary: “It’s time to take back control of my story.”
After MeToo, it would be easy to attribute the treatment of women in the media to the climate in the nineties. In 1991 lawyer Anita Hill was charged with political intrigue on charges of sexual harassment against Chief Justice Clarence Thomas. But it has been less than three years since Christine Blasey Ford did the same thing in Brett Kavanaugh’s public hearing on the Judiciary Committee.
That is why this “nineties revival” is so necessary. Today Britney Spears, Monica Lewinsky and Dylan Farrow can be sure that millions of supporters are listening to them. (On amazon)