There are many moments in Framing Britney Spears that are difficult to watch. One of the worst comes when The New York Times-led documentary – which details the brutal treatment the pop star received from the misogynistic entertainment industry of the 1990s and 2000s – replays an old episode of Family Feud. “Name something Britney Spears has lost in the last year,” demands the host, prompting sniggering answers from the contestants, including “Her husband!” and “Her hair!” – a reference to the moment a blank-eyed and clearly in pain Spears shaved her head in front of paparazzi in 2007. Then comes the response that garners the loudest howls of mirth and thundering applause: “Her mind!”
When the show aired in 2008, the clip didn’t cause a ripple. By this time, publicly mocking and deriding prominent women – Spears, Jessica Simpson, Whitney Houston, Monica Lewinsky, Anna Nicole Smith, Amy Winehouse and countless others – for everything from their sexuality and their supposed villainousness to their mental illness or addiction had been a central part of the cultural landscape for more than a decade. Shaming and debasing women weren’t new tactics, but the golden age of tabloid magazines and paparazzi in the 1990s and early 2000s turned it into a mass-market moneymaker. In the post #MeToo era, it’s only now that we’re able to look back and see just how damaging that time was for the female celebrities whose names became punchlines, their characters reduced to caricatures.
According to Allison Yarrow, author of 90s Bitch: Media, Culture, and the Failed Promise of Gender Equality, you can trace the beginning of this phenomenon back to the birth of the 24-hour news cycle. It was still a relatively new concept when outlets covered the Persian Gulf War all day, every day in the early 1990s. When it ended, cable networks needed something else to feed into people’s addiction to round-the-clock media access. “The networks realised they had this infrastructure for storytelling and an insatiable audience, and they soon realised that Hollywood and political scandals were cheaper and easier to cover than war, and turned out to be more popular,” says Yarrow. “Disparaging women and treating them badly is as old as time,” she adds, but “the 1990s gave the world an avenue to do that on a grander scale, in a way we could all participate in.”
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