This is a preview of our pop culture newsletter The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, written by senior entertainment reporter Kevin Fallon. To receive the full newsletter in your inbox each week, sign up for it here.
A disturbing revelation of Framing Britney Spears, the recent FX and Hulu documentary that catapulted a fiery artillery of new discourse into the #FreeBritney movement, is how shitty everyone has been to Britney Spears. It turns out, that includes us.
There’s the industry mechanism that hyper-sexualized a teenage girl and the pearl-clutchers that denigrated her in response. And then there’s the rest of us taking in the back-and-forth debate with the thrill of watching Nadal and Federer in the U.S. Open finals.
There’s the paparazzi that stalked her every move, and the rest of us who gawked at the photos.
There’s the media that practically celebrated her breakdown and bullied her with glee, and the rest of us who couldn’t get enough of those stories or laugh harder at those punchlines.
There are the family members, lawyers, and managers possibly taking advantage of her under a conservatorship, and the rest of us who have been a little suspect of the arrangement... but who were more than happy to bury those concerns while chugging vodka sodas at her Vegas residency and tour.
The #FreeBritney movement argues that Spears is being constrained against her will to the parameters of a legal conservatorship that controls every aspect of her life. The documentary is a crucial summary of the ins and outs of Spears’ legal battles and the evidence that the #FreeBritney soldiers purport proves that she should no longer be under a conservatorship. But it’s also a brisk history of the life of Britney Spears—no small feat to provide in a 70-minute running time—in order to add context to how she ended up in the conservatorship in the first place.
It’s the breakout star of that brisk history that provides one of those slam-the-breaks, screeching-sound moments during which big realizations rush in like an avalanche: My God, Justin Timberlake was so shitty to Britney Spears. But also...what were we thinking?
Hell hath no fury like a fan army scorned, so the guns have been blazing for Timberlake this week, building with intensity as more and more people have watched Framing Britney and seen its careful distillation of the ways he used the media apparatus and our society’s default to misogyny to ruin Spears’ reputation and, in turn, elevate his career. Meanwhile we were beatboxing along to his idiot song like giddy accomplices.
Considering that Framing Britney Spears, because of its running time, has to cherry-pick what dramas and scandals from Spears’ life to focus on, it’s pretty damning that it chooses to shine such a harsh spotlight on Timberlake’s calculating and crass behavior following his and Spears’ breakup almost two decades ago.
Maybe you recall the bombshell 2002 video for Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River,” a breakup-revenge song that plenty of people speculated was about Spears cheating on him, even before an uncanny body double for her was cast in the video. Or the ensuing tabloid covers brandishing the scandal in headlines: “Britney & Justin: Did She Betray Him?”
“The way people treated her, to be very high school about it, was like she was the school slut and he was the school quarterback,” says New York Times critic Wesley Morris in the documentary. “He essentially weaponizes the video for one of his singles to incriminate her in the demise of their relationship.”
Timberlake’s press tour for his solo album seemed to revolve almost exclusively around his former relationship with Spears and the rumors he kept stoking, even while playing coy. He was questioned by Barbara Walters for 10 minutes about his heartbreak; Spears, meanwhile, was cruelly grilled by Diane Sawyer about how she “caused [Timberlake] so much pain” and then accused of being a bad role model.
Role model is an interesting concept in the context of this particular celebrity story as, while Spears was being slut-shamed, Timberlake continued talking about the relationship for years, when it was convenient to draw attention to his career.
Most shocking to see replayed in the documentary all these years later are the times he crudely discussed their sex life. "Did you fuck Britney Spears?" he was asked in one interview. "OK, I did it,” he replied, laughing hysterically. In another he was asked about having “oral intercourse” with her. “I did it. I’m dirty,” he said.
It’s pretty gross behavior, then or now. The collective disgust from Spears fans after being reminded of it in the documentary happens to be timed with what’s become an annual tradition of Timberlake backlash. In recent years, #JanetJacksonAppreciationDay trends on social media every February to remind us of how she was sexistly thrown under the bus and had her career derailed following the infamous #NippleGate controversy at her Super Bowl halftime show with Timberlake.
There are parallels drawn between the ways Timberlake allowed both Spears and Jackson to be villainized and punished by the media and the music industry while his own career progressed. After so much time, he still has not taken satisfactory responsibility for his complicity in how the women were treated.
All of this is fair. But watching Framing Britney Spears transported me back to how I—and, likely, all of us—behaved at the time. When the “Cry Me a River” video came out and seemed to put Spears on blast, I gasped with delight at the salaciousness of it all. When he spilled those tawdry details about their sex life in those interviews, I ate it up. I am as big a Britney fan as they come, and I still felt that way! It was juicy!
We were, and in many cases, still are gossipmongers, and we were eating good. Of course Timberlake hasn’t been held accountable yet, because we haven’t yet held ourselves accountable. That’s not an absolution of how he handled himself. It’s a condemnation of ourselves, too.
I think that’s at the heart of what the #FreeBritney movement is about. It’s about justice for the people who deserve it, but it may be even more about demolishing harmful systems. It’s about time.
Update: On Friday, Timberlake posted a note on his Instagram apologizing to both Britney Spears and Janet Jackson, saying, "I care for and respect these women and I know I failed." See his full post below: