In 2017, at the height of the #MeToo movement, the allegations of misconduct against high-powered men across industries were mostly blatant and precise. But for every Harvey Weinstein, there are hundreds of smaller, more subtle infractions, easier to brush off but all the more dangerous because of it.
Now, we find ourselves in the midst of what you could call a “second wave." Armed with new insight on the complex nuances of consent and better radars for identifying systems of racism and misogyny, people are looking back at defining moments in pop culture — as well as in their own lives — with sharper eyes. In the aftermath of FX-Hulu’s documentary Framing Britney Spears from The New York Times, the public is reevaluating Justin Timberlake’s ascent to fame, and the reality is crystal clear. The pop golden boy’s career came at the expense of the women around him.
Framing Britney Spears follows Britney Spears’ rise to superstardom, the events that led to her eventual ongoing 13-year conservatorship, and her lengthy, arduous legal battle to end it. But the most difficult moments to watch were those that illustrated how mercilessly the singer was targeted by the mainstream media, delighting in any opportunity to “expose” her for not being the good girl she was originally advertised as. The backlash against the teenager begins with her very publicized breakup with Timberlake, who she dated from 1998 to 2002, after meeting as children in The Mickey Mouse Club. "The way that people treated her, to be very high school about it, was like she was the school slut and he was the quarterback," NYT critic-at-large Wesley Morris says in the documentary.
At the time of their split, 21-year-old Timberlake was in the middle of another breakup: with NSYNC. The curly-haired singer was eager for his big debut as a solo artist after seven years of singing with the one of the most successful boy bands of the late '90s. His first single “Like I Love You,” released a few months later in August 2002, however, wasn’t a bonafide hit (it peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100). Scroll through the tabloid covers at the time, and you may notice that it wasn’t until a month after the lackluster release that the rumors between pop’s former prom king and queen began to roil. “Did She Betray Him?” read Us Weekly’s lead headline in September, a good six months after they ended things in March.
The frenzy around the alleged scandal was at an all-time high in November when Timberlake released his album, Justified, and later dropped the video for his second single, “Cry Me A River” — a song about infidelity. The music video, which depicted a man breaking into a woman’s house and secretly recording her in the shower, featured a spot-on lookalike of Spears. The song was a hit, and both the single and Justified would go on to earn him two Grammys.
In Framing Britney, Morris suggests that Timberlake used "Cry Me A River" and his breakup as a weapon to publicly shame Spears and to propel his own fame. During the promotional tour for the album, Spears became a staple of conversation, and Timberlake seemed to keep leaking more intimate tidbits about their relationship. In a number of instances, including radio appearance and one particular interview with Barbara Walters, he even made light of their alleged sex life.
But while Timberlake continued to rise in the media’s esteem, Spears, 21 and now painted as a villain, was treated as such. In a now infamous 2003 interview with Diane Sawyer, Spears is basically put on the defensive from the start. “[Timberlake] has gone on television, and pretty much said you broke his heart,” Sawyer says. “You did something that caused him so much pain, so much suffering…What did you do?” After Spears effectively dodges the question by saying she has no ill-will against her ex, Sawyer then shows the singer a quote from the then-first lady of Maryland, who says that because she feels Spears' “sexualized image” didn’t meet the expectations of “mothers in this country,” if she "had an opportunity to shoot Britney Spears," she would do it. Sawyer appears to defend the comment, going on to suggest that Spears is a “bad example” for children.
A year later, Timberlake played the XXXVIII Super Bowl in Houston, Texas, with Janet Jackson, where he would be involved in a scandal that would be to the detriment of his woman co-performer — and only her. After Timberlake pulled down Jackson’s bustier to reveal her boob, CBS was fined half a million dollars for its “indecency." But Jackson effectively took the blame for the entire incident, even after she was made to issue a public apology. Her single was pulled from broadcast radio, her music was blacklisted, and her next album flopped. The week following the Super Bowl, she was reportedly banned from the Grammys while Timberlake not only showed up, but was also lauded with his aforementioned two awards. Not a single woman played the Super Bowl halftime show until 2011, when Fergie and The Black Eyed Peas took the stage. Still, Timberlake was inexplicably invited back for a solo performance in 2018.
We know very well what happened in the years that followed. Timberlake has won eight more Grammys (one of which was for his second apparent diss track "What Goes Around... Comes Around,” released right when Spears was dealing with her second divorce and her sobriety), and has emerged as one of the most well-known male pop soloists of our time. He has been invited to be funny on SNL. He’s had a decent acting career (he’s even now on a press tour promoting his latest movie, Palmer). Despite the fact that he was suspected of cheating on his wife, Jessica Biel, in 2019, people still consider him the picture of a devoted husband and father.
However, what Framing Britney Spears ultimately reveals is how complicit the public was in Britney’s downfall. And similarly, when it comes to Timberlake, fans and audiences alike were happy to applaud him while admonishing the overly sexualized women who shared his spotlight. There's a reason why Timberlake's use of Spears as a punchline years after their breakup continued to tickle audiences. Timberlake has certainly acknowledged the incidents — and in Jackson's case, even admitted that the public is harsher on women — though he has done little more than admit that he cannot change the past. But why would he go the extra mile? If he did, he would likely have to own up to all he gained. Timberlake is unquestionably a talented musician and singer, but it’s no coincidence that his career only continued to thrive while women were hurt along the way.
In an essay published in Medium about the recent allegations of abuse against singer Marilyn Manson, writer Jude Ellison Sady Doyle explains how easy it is to ignore the signs and look the other way when famous, beloved men exhibit bad behavior. “We would rather keep these famous men in the canon, with a few euphemistic caveats about their ‘flaws,’ than hold them accountable and risk having to abandon our heroes,” they write. “Women’s lives are less important than our right to listen to our high school record collections without feeling guilty."
Admitting that we too easily buy into the narratives that champion men and punish women — and therefore enable them — for the sake of our own comfort or our need to listen to our favorite Timberlake bop, is difficult. But now, as that past is knocking on the present’s door, demanding to be heard, more people are being forced to steel themselves and face those uncomfortable truths head on. Our golden boys are often golden because we deliberately paint them so, and we’re happy to take away the star power of scorned women in order to make them shine brighter.