It’s November 2002, and Justin Timberlake is doing a radio interview with Hot 97’s Star and Buc Wild, the shock jocks who hosted the radio station’s morning show at the time. It’s a big deal for the former *NSYNCer—as a member of a boyband, he would never have scored coverage by the station, which had been an influential force in hip-hop and R&B since the early ’90s. But he had a Neptunes-produced solo album, dance moves appropriated from Michael Jackson and a new haircut that didn’t look like ramen noodles at all, so the station now saw a fit. And he saw an opportunity to set the stage for a whole new level of stardom.
Even better, the price was low: just Britney Spears’ dignity.
I was 17 and still very much a fan of boybands, but I don’t remember hearing about the interview at the time. It’s only now, thanks to the Hulu/New York Times documentary Framing Britney Spears that I know what he said. “Did you f-ck Britney Spears?” one of the DJs asks. Timberlake laughs, then says, “Okay, I did it!”
I can’t stand Timberlake, so I definitely don’t want to absolve him of any responsibility towards his ex-girlfriend. But to me, what’s most stunning about this exchange isn’t his behaviour. It’s the fact that he was allowed to get away with this frankly transparent PR strategy for so long. Because that’s exactly what it was. Timberlake had released “Like I Love You,” the first single from Justified, in August of that year and it did… fine, reaching number 11 on the Billboard Hot 100. His existing fans liked it, and he was even invited to perform at the MTV Video Music Awards. But he, or perhaps his team, understood that none of that was enough to launch the kind of solo career he wanted.
So: Britney. He gave sad TV interviews about the demise of their relationship, painted her as a villain and a “horrible woman” and made a music video demonizing a Spears lookalike. After the approach proved successful, he continued to reference her in magazine profiles, his book and even on stage for 14 years after they broke up.
And for many, many years, not a single journalist called him on it.
Journalists have always been obsessed with Britney Spears’ sexuality
To understand why this happened, you have to understand the sexist double standard Spears was operating under at the height of her fame. Until their breakup, much of the media coverage she’d been subject to fit neatly into one of two competing narratives: either she was sexy and would hopefully soon be sexually available , or she was sexy and it was harming America’s youth.
An example of the former: When Spears was 17, Dutch journalist Ivo Niehe asked her about her breasts in an interview, a clip of which is included in Framing Britney Spears. It’s hard enough to watch the obviously uncomfortable teenager try to demur, but there’s one line that I find particularly gross. “You seem to get furious when a talk show host comes up with this subject,” Niehe says, in a clearly calculated attempt to shame her for being uncooperative. (He now says the clip that was included in the documentary was taken out of context and that his goal was a respectful conversation about her thoughts on plastic surgery. Which… sure.)
An example of the latter: a year later, Spears and her mom, Lynne, appeared on The View to promote their book, Britney Spears’ Heart to Heart. After Spears performed “Oops… I Did It Again,” the pair sat down with Lisa Ling and Meredith Vieira for an interview that quickly zeroed in on the singer’s appearance, especially the revealing outfits she wore. “Often you see that with women who are older,” Ling says at one point in the interview. “It was just kind of a shock sometimes to see some of the revealing outfits on someone as young as you are.” It may have been the gentlest slut-shaming ever, but it was still very much slut-shaming.
While we were all shaming Britney Spears, Timberlake became “Trousersnake”
With that context, it’s easy to see why Spears and Timberlake publicly claimed to be virgins for the duration of their relationship—she was already receiving so much criticism that any actual confirmation she was having sex could have been professionally devastating.
But even that decision played into the media’s obsession with the contradiction between her sexiness and innocence. Timberlake’s casual confirmation that they’d been lying all along had zero impact on his own brand. In fact, he was able to aggressively pursue sex symbol status with zero pushback, even after he was characterized as a “wild sex machine” who deserved the truly cringey nickname “Trousersnake.” Details magazine literally congratulated him for getting “into Britney’s pants” on the cover of its December 2002 issue.
His laughing “Okay, I did it!” had a huge impact on Britney. Not only was it a betrayal of her trust and privacy, it also called attention to her dishonesty, and eased the way for the cruelty that was to come. Yes, Timberlake’s behaviour post-breakup was spiteful, insensitive and obviously self-serving. But it’s never been celebrities’ jobs to hold themselves to account. So, why didn’t any journalist think critically about his motivations as he turned his revenge fantasies into music videos, and maybe, I don’t know, call him on it? Instead, Spears shouldered all the blame.
This wasn’t just a tabloid problem
It’s important to distinguish between tabloid and mainstream journalists here. Framing Britney Spears pays a fair bit of attention to tabloids, including interviews with Brittain Stone, the former photo director of Us Weekly, and paparazzo Daniel Ramos, whose SUV Spears famously hit with an umbrella. Both men seemingly struggle to understand the role they played in Spears’ objectification. “The goal was not to sort of—with these kinds of images, be negative about people,” Stone says. “It was to enjoy their lives in a somewhat aspirational-slash-relatable way.” That’s an interesting take when his version of the magazine branded her as “out of control,” “sick” and a “time bomb” on various covers. Ramos characterizes what’s essentially stalking as a “symbiotic relationship” and claimed Spears “never gave a clue or information to us that ‘I would appreciate you guys leave me the eff alone.’” (This is a total lie, as evidenced by the interviewer then asking, “What about when she said, ‘Leave me alone?’”)
But mainstream journalists played an equally important role in shaping public perception of Spears. After all, it was Barbara Walters who gave Timberlake a high-profile opportunity to comment on their sex life when she asked if they practiced abstinence or not. (He replied “sure” and then laughed, conveying the exact opposite.) Diane Sawyer grilled Spears on what she supposedly “did” to Timberlake, saying, “You broke his heart. You did something that caused him so much pain, so much suffering. What did you do?” Matt Lauer called her a bad mom to her face. Rolling Stone published a profile of the singer by Vanessa Grigoriadis that described her as an “inbred swamp thing.” And late-night hosts had a literal field day with Spears’ declining mental health, with the exception of Craig Ferguson, who refused to joke about her in 2007 (something he thought he’d get fired for).
Even the least media-savvy reader knows to doubt the veracity of tabloid covers, or at least to question whether there’s more to the story. But when Diane Sawyer implies to her viewers that Spears is a slut who hurt that nice *NSYNC boy, it sends a message about who the singer is—and what she deserves.
And of course, it wasn’t just Spears—mainstream, respected journalists working for prestigious outlets were constantly saying problematic things about young women. A 2004 Rolling Stone profile of Lindsay Lohan begins like this: “Lindsay Lohan has been 18 for just under a week when she tells me her breasts are real. I did not ask (gentlemen never do), though my reporting (discreet visual fact checking, a goodbye hug) seems to confirm her statement. Lohan fields queries about her breasts in most interviews, which is probably why she decided to pre-emptively address the issue.”
We didn’t leave sexist media coverage in the early aughts
In the wake of the Britney doc, there have been some pieces that suggest a new cultural reckoning is here, or at least imminent. Since the documentary dropped, she’s received a litany of apologies. Timberlake posted an obviously PR-approved Notes App mea culpa to Spears and Janet Jackson, who he also screwed over, a full week after Framing Britney Spears dropped in the U.S.—and about two decades after her fans first started calling for him to publicly atone for his behaviour. Sarah Silverman addressed, but didn’t actually apologize for, her 2007 roast of Spears. Even the famously cruel Perez Hilton has addressed his coverage of Spears, telling Good Morning Britain, “I regret a lot or most of what I said about Britney. Thankfully, hopefully, many of us get older and wiser.”
Not so fast. Just two years ago, Thomas Chatterton Williams profiled model and actor Emily Ratajkowski for Marie Claire France and included not just a reference to breasts (“She was admittedly blessed with the most perfect breasts of her generation”) but supposed shock that Ratajkowski reads. “The day I read that she was a fan of Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño, my brain snapped,” he wrote. “It doesn’t matter that she really took the time to read the 1,300 pages of 2,666, the mere fact that she knew his name already seemed incredible to me, as if we were definitely meant to get along.”
To be fair, the Ratajkowski profile was overwhelmingly panned by a media ecosystem—and a public—that’s now much more educated on power dynamics, privilege, sexism and mental health. And post-Framing Britney Spears, the internet is retroactively furious about the way many “serious” journalists used to speak about (and to) these stars. But it’s still jarring to realize how recently journalists felt empowered to diminish, undermine, insult and condescend young women with little thought for the way it would impact them, or the ways that this type of coverage perpetuates inequality. (You’ll notice that almost everyone who was subjected to this type of objectification was white; racialized and especially Black women didn’t, and often still don’t, even have the limited protection of desirability.)
I’m frustrated that none of the “serious” journalists who are facing backlash seem to be grappling with their behaviour, at least not publicly. What’s more, those who are engaging with the conversation still don’t seem to be willing to actually take responsibility. Take this comment from Us Weekly’s film critic, Mara Weinstein, who recently said “I admit I wrote many of those… cover stories back in the day. Trust me, we wouldn’t have kept reporting out the saga if public interest weren’t rampant. Everyone is complicit to varying degrees.”
I find this… laughable. Sure, metrics matter, whether that’s how many print issues are sold or how many clicks a story gets online. And the fact that so many people were clamouring for gossip about Spears’ downfall is a problem for sure. But journalists can’t blame readers for the way they framed stories, or the cruelty they displayed.
Journalists never want to be part of the story. We think we’re just covering what happens, that we’re somehow separate from the news. But our biases inform our interpretation of events, which affects what we choose to omit or include in our coverage. That matters because our work helps shape how people think, talk about and treat our subjects—and also each other. When we made it acceptable to ridicule Britney Spears and allowed Justin Timberlake to push his narrative to her detriment, we also made it acceptable to do that to any young woman. And when we don’t acknowledge that, we aren’t just dodging responsibility for our actions, we’re actively perpetuating sexism and misogyny.
Framing Britney Spears begins streaming on Crave on February 26.