A month ago, people were abuzz about the new Britney Spears Documentary. “Framing Britney Spears” was made to address the star’s conservatorship, but it started another important conversation. Across the country, people were surprised at how rampant misogyny had been in the media in the 1990s. In the documentary, we see Spears being asked invasive questions about her sex life and the status of her virginity, how the media ridiculed everything going wrong in her life, and how her character was watered down to a wild and dumb party girl. In fact, the media’s portrayal of Britney is an important factor in why she ended up in her conservatorship.
But Britney’s experience was nothing new. Many women, from various walks of life, were harassed, degraded and ridiculed by the media. Another woman who, like Britney Spears, had details of her private life lambasted in the media was Monica Lewinsky. Lewinsky became a subject of national discussion when it came to light that she’d had an affair with President Bill Clinton when she was an intern at the White House. The media ignored the complexity of the power dynamics in the situation and the fact that Monica was just a 22-year-old intern. Instead, Monica was attacked in the media as a slut for well over a decade. Years later, Monica would reveal that the humiliation had resulted in her having suicidal thoughts.
When these instances of blatant misogyny are brought up, the excuse is always, “Well, times were different back then.” And that is true to a degree since a lot of past headlines about Monica or Britney would result in public outrage should they be printed today. But to be clear, just because the media isn’t as misogynistic as before does not mean that such misogyny is not still present.
In the last decade, we saw the media and the internet work to shame and exploit various women. Tabloids fed people gossip about celebrities and their sex lives, and social media delighted in the rumors. Artist and businesswoman Rihanna was often slut-shamed for her private romantic relationships. Taylor Swift has also been fending off attacks on her romantic life since the early 2010s. In fact, Swift hit back against a sexist joke made at her expense on a Netflix show just a few days ago. In 2012, Kate Middleton was photographed nude by a paparazzo while on private property, and a French magazine eagerly published the photos for the world to see. Almost a decade later, the media picked apart Meghan Markle’s every move, ridiculing her with headlines like “Prince Harry’s girl is (almost) straight outta Compton”. Another newspaper invaded her privacy by publishing her private letters for the world to see.
In 2013, when Beyonce released “Partition,” she was shamed as a woman, as a wife and as a mother. Various talk shows took turns discussing whether or not it was acceptable for her, as a mother and a wife, to shoot a sexy music video for a sexually explicit song. The same thing happened to Cardi B in 2020, when the rapper teamed up with Meghan Thee Stallion to release their hit song “WAP.” For months after its release, the artist was fending off attacks. Various different media outlets uplifted conservatives who were outraged by the song. Then, in January (nearly 6 months since the song’s release), the media highlighted a video of Cardi turning off WAP when her daughter entered the room. This led to another bout of slut-shaming against the rapper.
During this Women’s History Month, we, as a society, all have to reflect on how women – regardless of their fame, wealth or privilege – face abuse at the hands of the media. Sure, things have gotten better, but that doesn’t mean that what’s being done today is acceptable. Just because things were once worse doesn’t mean we should turn a blind eye to misogyny in the media now. As we spend this month honoring women who made a difference before, we have to look at how we treat the women making a difference today.