- Sam White
Dear Millennials: We Collectively Owe Britney Spears (and Many Other 2000s Icons) A Massive Apology.
Britney Spears is free.
After 13 years, she finally broke her silence on the conservatorship that has had a stranglehold on her life since 2008. With an incredibly emotional 20 minute statement to a California court, she addressed Judge Brenda Penny and expressed just how depressed and abused she has felt during her time under her father's "protection."
In the time since, Jamie Spears has officially been suspended as her conservator, leaving Britney and the #FreeBritney army to finally celebrate their victory. And boy, is she celebrating––all it takes is one look at Britney's Instagram to see a pretty drastic change in the way she posts and captions her photos.
Her posts online have always been somewhat chaotic, prompting some people to raise questions about the state of her mental health before we knew the extent of her trauma. But since she's been able to post freely, they've arguably become even more chaotic, although chaotic in a way that denotes a sense of frenzied freedom and autonomy from someone who isn’t quite sure what to do with it yet. (Prime example, this caption here.)
What we're left seeing is the raw, visceral shell of someone who has been completely eroded by the entertainment industry. Which is, unfortunately, something we've seen time and time again. The early 2000s were notoriously filled with scandals surrounding not only Britney but a slew of other vulnerable young female celebrities, most notably including Amanda Bynes and Linsday Lohan.
It's clear that Hollywood is a breeding ground for trauma and predatory relationships, especially for children. Even before the 2000s, there's been a troubling pattern of trauma in the cases of many child stars, the consequences of unprotected childhood stardom front and center with the public struggles of Michael Jackson, Dana Plato, Judy Garland, Corey Haim and Corey Feldman, and so many more.
And although it's a Hollywood tale as old as time, it felt like the early 2000s took it up a notch. It was the first time the internet exploded, making "bad press" and ruthless celebrity criticism accessible to anyone with internet access and an opinion.
When Millennials talk about growing up in the 90s and early 00s, we usually talk about the fun, nostalgic part of it––and believe me, there was plenty of that. It really was an awesome time in some aspects. But what we fail to talk about as frequently is just how fucking toxic the media was when we were kids.
Thanks to the cyclical nature of the internet, there have been a lot of videos from the early 2000s making their rounds again. Tyra Banks has notoriously gone viral on Twitter multiple times as videos resurfaced from America’s Next Top Model (which was one of my favorites at the time, of course) where she was relentlessly bullying the girls on the show.
And let's not forget the pinnacle of early 2000s media vitriol: Perez Hilton. He gained his notoriety for running celebrity blogs based purely on bullying, picking people apart, and exploiting their mental health and addiction issues. It was foul.
Recently, he appeared in an HBO documentary about the death of Brittany Murphy titled What Happened, Brittany Murphy? The two part series documented the tragic loss of a kind and bright young woman who was also subject to gross media attacks focused on her weight and appearance, many times spearheaded by Hilton.
In the documentary, he was confronted about his hateful blog posts. The interviewer states, "You were kind of nasty sometimes." Perez responded by staying, "I was more than nasty. I didn't even view Brittany Murphy or any of the celebrities I covered as real people. They were characters to me. It was almost like a way to disassociate myself from my actions, from what I was writing and saying, [like] 'oh, this isn't real, and also Perez is a character.' I would tell all these things to myself to help me sleep at night."
Later in the documentary, Perez continues, "On a radio interview in 2009, somebody asked me to make a prediction of who would die, what celebrity would pass away. And I said Brittany Murphy. And all these years later now, I just, I regret saying that, just putting that energy out there. It's gross. Gross of the interviewer and gross of me for giving a response. But that's definitely telling of the time. 2009 in many ways was a very gross time."
Celebrities were under a microscopic lens from head to toe, every square inch of their bodies micro-analyzed until they were no longer a person, just a collection of parts that were either absolutely perfect or the complete opposite. The media was an insidious creature, spewing vitriol not just at celebrities but right back at us, too. It was an incredibly tough time to be a kid/preteen/teenager. There was no such thing as body positivity back then, and being ‘fat’ was the worst possible thing you could be. (Not to mention that what was considered overweight back then is completely laughable now.)
It’s unbelievable what was allowed to be said in the press during the early 2000s. I mean, talk about no fucking chill. In short: *Olivia Rodrigo voice* It was brutal out there.
Unfortunately, this kind of media tends to be super impressionable on young minds. The early 2000s were an amalgamation of bright colors, flashy lights, manufactured pop music, and 18 different kinds of accessories stacked on top of each other. It was a LOT.
And as a kid, it was a lot to take in, especially during your most insecure years. You had to do what you had to do to survive, and the media loved to make it seem like the only way to survive was to tear someone else down enough that you feel better about yourself. Truly, it was fucking awful.
I like to think of myself as a reformed “not like other girls” girl. I think, for a time, I was kind of insufferable in that way. I do also think that a lot of it was a product of my crippling insecurities which were exacerbated by the predatory media that engrained a lot of internalized misogyny in me––but I do take responsibility for how awful I could be sometimes, too.
Don’t get me wrong, I was a nice enough person, but the media certainly had a chokehold on how I interacted with celebrities and pop culture. I didn’t understand at the time that I was a part of something really ugly and damaging, that I was subscribing to the patriarchy’s ideals of the media, failing to protect and support my fellow women when they needed it.
(At this point, some of you reading this may be saying, “girl, I cannot relate to this at all, I’ve always loved Britney! I wasn’t a bully like you!” and to that, I say: good! Point blank, you were a much better person than I was. I’m okay with admitting that.)
I fully admit that I was a part of the jeering peanut gallery of people poking fun at (aka bullying) Britney for her head-shaving episode, reveled in Lindsay Lohan’s spiral into drug addiction, and rolled my eyes in dismissal at Amanda Bynes’ manic tweets. It was ugly, it was awful, and it was uncalled for.
But here’s the thing––I know I wasn't the only one. I watched most of my fellow Millennials fall into the same cycle of consuming this poisonous media just to tear pop stars and celebrities apart, because, well, that’s what the media told us to do. That’s what they told us was right, was okay, was acceptable, was funny; and I’m not saying this to shirk responsibility, I’m just trying to explain how it was back then. It doesn’t make it right, it just makes it honest.
Looking back now, as I’m just a few short months away from my 30th birthday, I see everything through such a different and more compassionate lens. It feels like a shroud of negative influence has been lifted off our collective vision allowing us to see situations for how they really are––like Britney being a product of exploitation and sexualization from the time she was a teenager and just how incredibly fucking damaging that must of been. The same goes for Lindsay, and Amanda, and even people like Megan Fox who has recently spoken out about how much it traumatized her to be so sexualized at such a young age.
While I still firmly believe the entertainment and media industries as a whole bear the brunt of the blame in this, it’s super important that as Millennials, we recognize the role we played in this damage, too. It sucks to admit to being problematic, I know. But it’s something we shouldn’t ignore––it’s a history we need to learn from instead of repeat.
We have to learn to look at situations first with patience, compassion, and understanding before we jump to conclusions that can hurt someone who is just a product of their trauma and toxic environments. (This goes for everyone, not just celebrities, btw.) Children especially in the entertainment industry need to be protected at all costs and should never be a target of bullying from grown-ass adults who have no business bullying a child.
It sucks that it took over a decade and some pretty significant shifts in the media to finally get through to a lot of us, but I’m just glad it did. We may miss the 90s and make jokes about how “life was so much better then,” but in reality, I am so much happier with the climate we're living in now. (I know there are a whole new set of problems with the egregious beauty standards of social media, but trust me, things are SO much better than they used to be.) And I feel pretty good about the new generation of kids we have at the helm of our future––it can only get better from here.