Joyce Fegan: Why Britney Spears' story is relevant to all women

The documentary is ostensibly about a pop star in turmoil — but it goes to the heart of inequality, and the punishment meted out to women who dare take control of their own lives
Joyce Fegan: Why Britney Spears' story is relevant to all women

Britney Spears was only a teenager when she became 'a role model for young girls and desirable to boys and men. We put that on her. All she was doing was singing and dancing'.  Picture: AP Photo/Chris Pizzello

At the heart of the new Britney Spears documentary is a woman's agency, a woman's right to be in control of her own resources, a woman's right to how she shows up in the world — basically, a woman's right to exist, on her own terms.

Framing Britney Spears, a documentary by The New York Times, is, of course, about the gilded cage in which the musician now exists thanks to her father's control and dominance over all of her affairs — financial, medical, and physical — but it's also the story of how we treat women in society.

Be who we want you to be. Behave as we want you to behave. Break those codes, and you will pay.

In Ireland, if women dared have sex outside of marriage, they ended up at worst in a laundry and, at best, as a social pariah, self-ostracising in England, away from their ashamed families and gossiping, judgemental, and supposedly morally superior neighbours. Their sin? Being a human born with a working uterus.

Britney Spears supporters protesting outside a court hearing concerning the pop singer's conservatorship at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in Los Angeles on February 11. 	Picture: AP Photo/Chris Pizzello

Britney Spears supporters protesting outside a court hearing concerning the pop singer's conservatorship at the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in Los Angeles on February 11. Picture: AP Photo/Chris Pizzello

Only in 2019 were women in Saudi Arabia allowed to get passports and travel alone without the consent of a male guardian. And that's only on paper because, if you listen to activists in that country, this new freedom seems to be in name only. After all, Saudi Arabia is still a country where a woman can only leave a domestic violence shelter with the consent of their male guardian.

Women's rights under attack

Globally, reproductive rights — or, said another way, access to abortion — are either non-existent or are being eroded, as we saw in many states in the US over the last four years, and indeed in Poland more recently.

As the late US Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, when access to abortion is restricted, so is a woman's right to "control over her [own] destiny" or a woman's right to "determine her life's course".

And it's ironic that, when people argue against a woman's right to choose, a woman is shamed for not respecting or caring for the sanctity of human life. It's ironic because, around the world, women do four times more care work than men, be that the minding and rearing of children (unpaid care work) or the minding of other people's children (low-paid work).

The ability of a state or society to control a woman's body or reproductive system is quite the power, with far-reaching implications. This ability has the power to control the course of a woman’s life.

Then of course, there is the non-structural stuff; how we just treat girls and women in a cultural way.

The late US Supreme Court judge, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, equated a woman's right to control her own fertility with having agency, and control over her own destiny. 	Picture: Marcio José Sanchez, AP/File

The late US Supreme Court judge, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, equated a woman's right to control her own fertility with having agency, and control over her own destiny. Picture: Marcio José Sanchez, AP/File

A girl or woman says she is raped and she is doubted. A girl or woman reports the rape to authorities, several months or years later, and the response is: What took her so long to report it?

Maybe we should be asking ourselves why it was so hard for her to report it in the first place.

Victim-blaming

When a woman is in an abusive relationship and she finally manages to extricate herself, we ask what took her so long. Again, maybe we should be asking ourselves why it is so hard to leave an abusive relationship in the first place.

Maybe we should look at ourselves first, not place responsibility on the victim.

Culturally, we place so much responsibility on women while, in some countries, also taking away their rights.

And then there are things like clothes and makeup, the shortness of the skirt or the shorts, the groomed hair, the applied eyelashes — there is a way girls should appear in order to be acceptable and attractive, but they should also be careful too.

We want it every which way.

Girls should be pretty, but also wholesome. We want women to be attractive and loose, not ugly and frigid.

At the bottom line is what we want: Be who we want you to be, when we say it; behave as we want you to behave.

This is where Britney Spears fell foul.

When she became famous she was a teen, straddling that place between child and young adult, both a role model for young girls and desirable to boys and men. We put that on her. All she was doing was singing and dancing. She was the vessel that we poured our desires and fantasies into. 

Then she became a woman, merely because of the virtue of passing time. There is not many days between 15 and 18 years of age. Her maturation was inevitable.

In the press, she was vilified as no longer wholesome, but a temptress, a slut, a danger to our children. 

Indeed, the wife of a former governor of Maryland, Kendel Ehrlich, said: "If I had an opportunity to shoot Britney Spears, I think I would,” apparently referring to her bad influence on girls and her supposed unkind behaviour in ending her three-year relationship with Justin Timberlake.

The new documentary tells how singer Britney Spears has been engaged in a battle with her father, Jamie Spears, over his conservatorship control of her money and business. 	File picture: AP Photo

The new documentary tells how singer Britney Spears has been engaged in a battle with her father, Jamie Spears, over his conservatorship control of her money and business. File picture: AP Photo

Diane Sawyer asked her about this in a televised interview. It was like Britney had to explain why she broke someone’s heart and what she did to draw a death threat on herself. Britney was the accountable one. 

Meanwhile, Justin went off and wrote a break-up song and created an accompanying music video with a Britney lookalike. His broken heart paid big dividends; his reputation remained intact.

Another question Britney was asked publicly was: Are you a virgin? As if her virginity, as if there is such a notion, is our business. She felt obligated to answer.

She was also asked about her breasts. Again she felt obligated to answer.

Sexualised as a child

And at 10 years of age, when she was a child, she was asked by 70-year-old Ed McMahon, after a spellbinding star performance, if she had a boyfriend. At 10 she thought boys are mean, she said. McMahon still wasn’t satisfied and asked: “What about me?”

Then Britney became a mother, making that major transition of matrescence, from maiden to mother, in the glare of tabloid culture, which we consumed, and its baying dogs, the paparazzi.

She tripped — what mother hasn’t tripped while multi-tasking with a child — and was photographed, and then asked publicly if she was a “bad mother”. Maybe the paparazzi — hounding a young mother, harassing her with lens and flashes, and banging on the car carrying her family — were bad citizens.

Then came the shaved head and striking a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella. Britney, the mother, had had enough.

This life was acceptable for her, but not for her children.

We were all complicit

We all watched on, bought the magazines, clicked on the clickbait, were complicit in the objectification, commodification, and vilification of this girl, this woman, Britney Spears.

And we’d done it before — Monica Lewinsky — and we’ve done it since — Taylor Swift, Meghan Markle, Amy Winehouse. The roll-call of objectified, vilified women is as long as time.

But enough of these stories. Enough of this revisionism, where we say: “Oh, she was treated terribly, tut-tut tabloid culture".

With the passage of time, we always see the error of our ways. But, in the passage of that time, these women — Monica, Meghan, Taylor — have had to live with the consequences of the error of our ways.

When will we learn? When will we stop objectifying the female form for profit?

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