An Apology to the Girls Gone Bad

#FreeBritney and all the other women in popular media who’ve been ruined.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Cover Image
By Ying Chen

Practically the entire world watched Britney Spears’s public mental breakdown back in 2008. They mocked her shaved head and tears, shamed her apparent drug and alcohol addiction, and debated how she, among other ‘90s poster girls like Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton, fell into disorder. They dubbed her a bad role model, and young girls were told to not turn out like her.

I was too young to watch Spears’s downfall as it happened, but as a woman, it is difficult to ignore the lasting effects of the blatant sexism, public humiliation, and sheer joy that society enjoys when watching female celebrities fall. After all, the disparaging way female celebrities are treated is present in every facet of modern media.

There is a continuous trend of mistreatment of women in media: oversexualization from a young age as seen in stars like Megan Fox, body shaming over minuscule weight gain or natural aging like with Rihanna and Victoria Beckham, and a general disparity in how women are treated in the news. The headlines “Amber Rose lets her baby bump hang out in revealing leopard print bikini and crop top at eight months pregnant... after cancelling SlutWalk” and “Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!” demonstrate the extent of the unnecessary sexualization in media. Even someone as beloved as Lohan, an icon of ‘90s films and television, was dubbed a “slut” and “delusional” for having sex and checking herself into rehabilitation. As long as it provides entertaining content, the Internet tears down these celebrities to the point of mental breakdowns, like in Spears’s case.

Spears only trended with #FreeBritney this year, over a decade after she was placed under a conservatorship for what was supposed to be her own safety. For years, she was the most popular pop star figure until the media created an exaggerated narrative of a transformation from pop queen to mentally ill. Until news of her suffocating life as a conservatee became mainstream, Spears was the ultimate girl-gone-wild figurehead, showing what happens when girls become involved with drugs and sex. Spears was torn down for years until the full truth about her father’s overbearing conservatorship and her lack of basic freedoms, like spending her own money and having kids, became known, demonstrating just how quickly the media jumps at the throats of women. She wasn’t the only one; plenty of popular ‘90s and 2000s stars suffered at the hands of online media and harassment until their own stories became known, many following #FreeBritney.

Megan Fox, for instance, was only 15 when she auditioned for leading roles in “Bad Boys II” and “Transformers.” Director Michael Bay made her wash his car in a bikini to get the role, a perverse act that not only sexualized a child but was also immortalized on video. In “Jennifer’s Body,” Fox was required to wear nude underwear and pasties, and her privacy was violated by a photographer who snuck on set. When she attempted to speak out about it on television, Jimmy Kimmel not only made a joke out of her suffering but allowed Fox to be dubbed as overreacting to Bay’s actions since they merely represented “a microcosm of how all [men’s] minds work.” Bay published an open letter on his website dubbing her “queen of talking trailer trash and posing like a porn star,” and the press, rather than defending Fox against the sexist comments and hypersexualization, embraced this narrative. Fox was portrayed as a terrible and lazy actress who relied only on her appearance to gain roles; these stereotypes have followed her for the rest of her career.

Similar to most controversies, huge details are excluded to perpetually restrict women to these misogynistic labels. Certain stories do not describe how Fox would frequently ask Bay for advice on her character portrayal and how to be a better actress but was only instructed to “just be sexy.” After being exposed by the photographer to the world, Fox openly opposed being stripped of her privacy, citing how it made her feel “hunted” by the Internet. Regardless of how much Fox spoke outwardly about her experience as a woman in media, she was still fired by Steven Spielberg and harassed by Bay’s crew, and her career was destroyed by massive figures in the film industry.

The disparaging treatment of female celebrities is apparent not only in false headlines but also in the intrusive nature of the media, who repeatedly violate boundaries set by these women to the point of mental breakdown and then target them for showing weakness. Though it can be said that such harassment is just “part of the job,” it must be emphasized that women are often placed on the industry’s chopping block, where even their positive attributes can be turned negative with sleight of words. Spears and Fox are just a few examples of countless celebrities who have suffered as a result of the media. Women in particular fall victim to mindless and far-fetched rumors and are torn apart due to false controversies. Despite how frequently movements that support trying to “find the truth” crop up, they often result in meaningless trends that only increase the attention on the controversies.

Instead, people should be held accountable. Too often, someone’s cancellation, such as that of Bay or journalists who focus more on women’s bodies than their achievements, is short-lived. After a period of time, people return to consuming the content produced by problematic media, perpetuating the cycle further. On an individual level, it is necessary for us to stick by women who have spoken out about their experiences rather than abandoning them in favor of a “juicier story.” On a broader level, we must continue to call out those who have contributed to online harassment and stand by these convictions.

No one should ever endure what female celebrities go through. There must be critique and rejection when women’s careers are ruined out of sheer pettiness, which cannot be accomplished without the genuine acknowledgment and improvement of consumers of popular media. There is a difference between engaging in modern media and harassment. Too frequently, that line is crossed, especially when it’s about women.