Criticism is a field overwhelmingly dominated by (surprise, surprise) white men. Not anymore. In Refinery29's monthly series, our movie critic gives fresh consideration to the movies, actors and pop culture moments that shaped entire generations. It’s time for a rewrite.
While watching Framing Britney Spears over the weekend, I found myself thinking about another movie about a beleaguered young woman, the newly released revenge film Promising Young Woman. Specifically, I thought about a scene in which protagonist Cassie (Carey Mulligan), in a moment of vulnerability, stops her car at an intersection to take a breather. A man pulls up next to her, and, angry that she’s a woman taking up space in the road, gets aggressive, honking loudly and spewing out verbal abuse. Suddenly, Cassie gets out of her car, grabs a crowbar, and bashes in his windshield.
During her press tour for Promising Young Woman, now nominated for four Golden Globes — including Best Director — director Emerald Fennell has stressed the importance of reclaiming the tainted legacies of celebrities like Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. An acoustic cover of the latter’s 2004 single “Toxic” very intentionally scores the film’s narrative climax, drawing a straight line between Cassie’s experience to Spears’ own experience with vitriolic sexism. Likewise, the obvious parallels between Cassie’s attack on the man’s car and Spears’ now famous 2007 umbrella altercation with the paparazzi are deliberate. But the difference — the thing that ate at me as I watched footage from Britney’s press tour in the aftermath of the incident — lies in the lens through which the two events are framed. What became known as “Britney’s meltdown” was presented as a freak show, the public unraveling of a woman consumed as mass entertainment. Cassie’s reaction, on the other hand, is shown to be the natural — and let’s face it, cathartic — result of years of pent-up rage and gaslighting. One depicted a woman who lost it; the other, a woman who finally got it.
If the first wave of #MeToo dealt explicitly with allegations of clear-cut abuse by men in positions of power, we’re currently grappling with the terrible consequences of a culture built to uphold the less obvious systems of casual misogyny. Framing Britney Spears, the latest installment in a New York Times Presents series of investigative docs that took the internet by storm over Super Bowl weekend, is a good example of what that introspection looks like. In just over an hour, the film, directed by Samantha Stark, aimed to give an overview of the circumstances that led to the pop star’s ongoing conservatorship, and the growing movement known as #FreeBritney, led by fans who believe she should be able to regain autonomy over her life.
But the more shocking moments in the film had nothing today with Spears’ unusually cruel legal battle. Rather, it’s the archival clips, pulled from mainstream media coverage of Spears throughout her career, that paints the clearest picture of the hatefulness directed her way. We see her awkwardly (but expertly — she was used to it) fielding gross questions about her virginity in press conferences, and attempting to laugh off Ivo Niehe, a Dutch talk show host who won’t stop bringing up her breasts. There’s a 2003 interview with Diane Sawyer in which the latter asks a then-22-year-old Spears about what she did to break Justin Timberlake’s heart, putting the onus on her to take sole responsibility for a mutual breakup. And then comes the 2006 Dateline interview with Matt Lauer (now a known-sexual predator), taped after paparazzi took photos of Spears driving with her then-5-month-old son Sean on her lap. As she breaks down crying describing her terror of the swarm of photographers who track her every move, Lauer badgers the distraught 25-year-old about her parenting skills. Just one year later, Spears would lose custody of both her children, shave her head, and smash a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella, incidents that were used to further the theory that she was an unstable diva and an unfit mother. All three incidents are addressed with staggering triviality in a clip from an episode of Family Feud, which uses them as answers to the question: “What has Britney lost this year?” (Another answer that appears on the board: Her mind.)
In the aftermath of Framing Britney Spears, Diane Sawyer and Justin Timberlake have emerged as two of the villains in her story. But it’s important to remember that it wasn’t just Britney Spears’ careers they’ve tanked: Both also played significant roles in the downfall of two Black women performers. If you think the 2003 interview with Britney is bad, try watching Sawyer talk to Whitney Houston just a year earlier. The infamous segment, in which the Primetime host confronted the singer about her weight loss and alleged drug use, destroyed the latter’s reputation. As for Timberlake, his “nice guy” image has come at the expense of multiple women, though none more so than Janet Jackson, his co-performer at the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show. While she paid the price for #Nipplegate, his career soared. In 2018, he performed at the halftime show again. She did not.
In March, I revisited Spears’ film debut, 2002’s Crossroads, directed by Tamra Davis and written by none other than Shonda Rhimes. The film was an instant classic for my generation. Yes, we were primed to love anything that starred Spears after the almost back-to-back releases of Oops… I Did It Again and Britney, but Crossroads delivered as more than just a star vehicle. It painted a tender picture of female friendship, and more somberly, hinted at some of Spears’ darker days to come.
“If you’re not the target demographic, which Spears helpfully defines in the film’s single — ‘I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman’ — this movie is one long chick-flick slog,” critic Peter Travers wrote in his 2002 review for Rolling Stone, before helpfully pointing “randy males ranging from hormone-charged teens to a Viagra-fueled Bob Dole,” (his words, not mine) in the direction of “Pepsi commercials, belly-baring videos and tracks in which the twenty-year-old pop princess whispers, ‘I’m a slave for you,” to fulfill their sexual gratification needs.
Yeah, I know. Crossroads is not Citizen Kane. But really, go back and read almost any profile of a celebrity young woman or a review of a movie featuring a buzzy young starlet from the early aughts, and you’re less likely to find a real critique of the film than someone’s indulgent, gratuitous delight in taking down a bimbo. (Writer Jordan Crucciola has an excellent Twitter thread weaving together examples of some of the most egregious ones.) Spears’ contemporaries (Lindsay Lohan, Hillary Duff, Jessica Simpson) were all among the many women denigrated and disdained by a tabloid culture that required young women to somehow be both virginal and sexual, and then brutally tore them down when they failed. And you don’t even have to go as far back as 2002. Megan Fox drew fire in 2009 for criticizing Transformers director Michael Bay in an interview with Wonderland. “Mike,” I’ll say, “Who am I talking to? Where am I supposed to be looking at?’ she said. “And he responds, ‘Just be sexy.’ I get mad when people talk to me like that.” Soon afterward, she was fired from Transformers 3. That same year, Jennifer’s Body, Karyn Kusama’s now-cult classic horror movie that cast Fox in a role that subverted her hot girl image, was trashed by critics.
And let’s not forget the 2016 Vanity Fair profile of Margot Robbie, now held up by women in the industry as an example of what not to do.
As Framing Britney Spears shows, the rise of social media has certainly allowed celebrities to gain control over their own public image. They don’t have to go through adversarial media outlets to get their message across — instead they can just go straight to the fans. The popularity of Spears’ Instagram is partly to thank for her renewed popularity. Paris Hilton, another favorite target of early aughts tabloid culture, was recently the subject of This Is Paris, a new documentary that recounts the socialite’s codependent relationship with the paparazzi as well as her equally tortured relationship with social media.
Promising Young Woman’s protagonist is not a celebrity. Cassie is a former medical student, who dropped out after a traumatic sexual assault sent her best friend Nina into a downward spiral, which ended in suicide. By day, she works in a twee instagrammable coffee-shop. By night, she pretends to get black-out drunk in bars and waits for a self-proclaimed “nice guy” to take her home. If he makes a move, she sits up, stone cold sober, making him confront his own hypocrisy. In one of the film’s ugliest scenes, Cassie gets lunch with a former classmate Madison, played by Alison Brie. The congenial catch-up ends abruptly when Cassie brings up Nina. As it turns out, she reported her assault to Madison immediately after it happened, and the latter sent her on her way, dismissing it all as “drama.”
“I don’t know why you’re getting mad at me,” Madison tells Cassie. “If you have a reputation for sleeping around, then maybe people aren’t going to believe you when you say something’s happened. Crying wolf.”
Tabloid culture’s legacy — that women are reckless, whores, and unstable — is resilient. The very same weekend that Framing Britney Spears was blowing up the internet, Phoebe Bridgers was being shamed for slamming a guitar during her Saturday Night Live set, while Natalie Portman took to Instagram to respond to a New York Post headline suggesting she looked pregnant.
Why continue writing stories about public women in pain? Why continue celebrating downfalls and declines? It’s one the reason why those interview scenes in the documentary were so uncomfortable for me to watch, because I remember that the first time I saw them, they were deeply entertaining. We, the audience, were the ones fueling the coverage we are now so outraged by. It continued because we kept laughing at crude talk show jokes, and buying magazines with humiliating cover photos. In a way, social media has only delegated that same policing of behaviors to the wider public.
In a recent interview with Refinery29’s Natalie Morin, Framing Britney director Stark revealed that it’s that sense of responsibility that she’d like audiences to take away from her documentary. “I hope people think about the coverage, and think about how they participated in it — either by consuming it or believing it,” she said. “The reason that [Britney] was on TV and magazines so much is because we consumed it. We should think about how easy it is to make money off of women's bodies without their consent. And I hope that we reassess how we treat people in the future. The mean-spiritedness was so extreme. Is that who we want to be as a society?”