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Article originally published by VICE in English.
Britney Spears is sitting in a chair across from famous reporter Diane Sawyer. During that “unrestricted” interview in 2003, the then-21-year-old pop star was trying to change the narrative that portrayed her as a cheating slut. Sawyer points out that Spears has had a rough year after her breakup with Justin Timberlake, which makes her visibly uncomfortable and begins to cry. As she continues the conversation about the breakup, Sawyer says, “You did something that caused her a lot of pain and suffering. What did you do?”.
That scene has become one of the most talked about moments of Framing Britney Spearsthe most recent documentary New York Times (available on Hulu). The documentary follows the megastar’s battle against the guardianship in which you arewho for 12 years has put all personal, business and property decisions in the hands of his father, Jamie Spears and — after a court decision in 2020 — of the finance company Bessemer Trust. Spears, who was placed under conservatorship in 2008 due to public mental health issues, refuses to work until she is finished.
While the documentary has added fuel to the fire of the #FreeBritney movement—led by fans calling for the removal of Spears’ conservatorship—it also sheds light on the harassment and treatment Spears suffered from the public, paparazzi and the media. Communication. Sawyer’s interview is a perfect example: It led to Britney’s fans bombarding Sawyer on social media demanding that he apologize to the singer. It is impossible to ignore how everyone was complicit in the cruel and relentless persecution of her and how it was made worse by rampant misogyny within media culture and society as a whole. Included here are those who made jokes and made fun of what was clearly a meltdown. But the documentary reminds us of one person in particular who we must hold accountable for her involvement in Spears’ harassment and other incidents: Justin Timberlake.
Framing Britney Spears exposes the ways Timberlake took the narrative of their breakup and used it to burn Spears at the stake, exploiting the video for her 2002 solo single “Cry Me a River” to present himself as the wounded lover seeking revenge against a cheating partner who turned out to bear a striking resemblance to his ex. While it’s certainly a cheap shot, he also took her spite story on the road, airing the private details of her sex life in countless interviews to tarnish the innocent virgin image that had been created for her. As the critic of the New York Times Wesley Morris: “The way people treated her, like they were in high school, it’s like she’s the school slut and he’s the standout athlete.” Timberlake is certainly among those who fueled the hatred against Spears by ripping her apart at every opportunity, using her breakup to build a solo career and the culture of misogyny to declare himself the “winner” in that relationship. Framing Britney Spears plays a video of Timberlake nonchalantly talking on a radio show about having sex with his then-partner and shows a magazine cover Details who applauds him for getting “into Britney’s pants.”
“Technically I’m not saying he’s wrong, but technically I’m not saying he’s right either,” Spears tells Sawyer in that infamous interview, acknowledging her own failings in the relationship but making it clear that the breakup wasn’t her fault alone. The move was elegant, especially considering how much she could have said about the situation and Timberlake’s numerous attempts to turn the public against her.
The fact is that Spears didn’t need to be painted as a villain, a fact that no doubt contributed to her breakdown. They were a couple from 1998 to 2002, however, during years, Timberlake continued to mention her in interviews and criticize her in public forums, as well as releasing another possible song about her (“What Goes Around Comes Around”) in 2006, four years after their breakup, when she was already married and expecting her second. son, and when his mental health issues had become tabloid bait. And all the times he brutally took advantage of Spears to build your own fame and get rid of the image of boy banner, people laughed and the media covered it up as lewd gossip behind the school gym. Timberlake apparently enjoyed shaming Spears and experienced a boom in her career and sex appeal by using the infidelity narrative to her advantage, all while the media and paparazzi grew increasingly cruel and intrusive towards her. Spears.
It was easy to turn the public against Spears when questions about her personal life, her body, her outfits, and her virginity were thrown around regardless of how rude, sexist, and inappropriate they were. The documentary shows a reporter asking Spears about her breasts, to which she answers with an awkward laugh, not sure how to respond. A sexualized woman is seen as a threat and Spears became just that. When sex was the potential reason for her breakup, the public had no qualms about painting her as an adulteress. Taking into account the recent accusations of infidelity against Timberlake, it’s hard not to see the double standard between how the press has treated him compared to Spears.
Letting women bear all the responsibility has clearly been the modus operandi of Timberlake to build his career. When Janet Jackson was showered with criticism after her “wardrobe slip” at Super Bowl XXXVIII in February 2004 — during which Timberlake ripped off part of her costume and accidentally revealed her bare breast — the singer washed his hands of the situation and let Jackson pay the piper. It’s not surprising because Jackson is a black woman, inherently seen as a threat to “American values” because of her race and sensuality. Her career was severely affected, while his continued to grow: she was banned from participating in the Grammys that year while he was asked to present them. Jackson was blacklisted by the television and radio network Clear Channel Communications, hurting sales of her 2004 album. Lady Jo. He also hasn’t performed at the Super Bowl since then, while he did perform again in 2018. He finally apologized, two years after the Super Bowl fiasco, with a statement to MTV: “I was probably only 10 percent blamed and that says something about society. I think America is harsher on women and I think it’s unfairly harsh on ethnic people.” But the damage to Jackson’s career was done. Terron Moore, editorial director of MTV and Logo, tweeted: “justin timberlake’s rise from the remains of britney spears and janet jackson is something we have to answer for.”
Although Spears rebuilt her career-slowly and with some moments of instability— with the release of several successful albums, including black out Y circus, his personal life has remained a work in progress. Although she never talks about guardianship or her mental health in public, we can tell from her Instagram, where she often dances (even Timberlake songs) and shares memes and videos where he appears talking about his favorite things, revealing that he is doing everything possible to be happy. After 12 years of fighting to regain full control of his life and the rumors (shared online and in the documentary) that her father has threatened to take her children from her, she is working to create a life entirely of her own. But she will never get rid of Timberlake or what she has done to him. She will always be a part of her story, as he continues a successful career built partially on Spears’ humiliation.
The late 1990s and early 2000s was not a time when terms like slut shaming, bodily autonomy or even mental health were so widely part of the discourse or universally understood. Women in Hollywood and in the music industry in general have made it clear through the #MeToo movement and other public statements that they will not tolerate predatory and misogynistic behavior. While Timberlake apologized to Jackson, he never bothered to show Spears the same courtesy, if only as a public relations stunt. This says a lot about her character and at least now we have a new perspective to demand better behavior from her. Though Sawyer found it appropriate to ask Spears how he caused her breakup, we now know what Timberlake did to build his career out of that trauma.
Alex Zaragoza is a senior writer at VICE.
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