In the days following the release of the New York Times/FX/Hulu documentary Framing Britney Spears—or, what I like to think of as a very helpful visual explainer for the essay I wrote back in November—there’s been a wild rush online by women’s magazines, celebrities, and fans to parse who owes Britney an apology and for what, exactly.
For example, on February 9, comedian Billy Eichner tweeted “Lots of virtuous folks on here pretending they didn’t read Perez Hilton or Us Weekly’s abusive coverage of Britney religiously in 2005. We are all to blame.” And because nothing ever truly dies on the internet, within hours Twitter users had compiled a small collection of Eichner’s own tweets making fun of Britney.
Likewise, as fans demanded Sarah Silverman apologize for her own cruel roast of Britney following her 2007 VMAs performance, Silverman half admitted she was responsible but not really, replying to a tweet asking her to explain herself with “I was known then 4 roasts. MTV asked me to mini-roast Britney after her big performance. While she was performing I was having diarrhea & going over my jokes. Had no idea she didn’t kill. Unfortunate. Art changes over yrs as we know more & the world changes.”
“Art changes” is virtually the same sentiment as “We are all to blame,” in that both acknowledge the fact that it was so normal to make fun of Britney Spears back then that South Park devoted an entire episode to the phenomenon, with characters mocking and harassing a fictionalized Spears until she attempts suicide.
The defense that the world has somehow changed since the industry nearly bullied Britney to death is a pretty flimsy one, since even South Park could see at the time that the abuse was constant and wrong. Another video that has resurfaced in the past week is one of Craig Ferguson vowing to stop making fun of Britney in 2007. And who could forget Chris Crocker, another target of public mockery for tearfully demanding that Britney be left alone?
When Glamour published a blog called “We’re All to Blame for What Happened to Britney Spears,” I assumed it would be some sort of letter from the editor explaining that the beauty industry was deeply shitty to all women for a very long time—in fact, in 2007, Glamour still routinely published candids of women on the street dressed in outfits their editors deemed bad published for readers’ amusement. Instead, it was a piece about how the “media” needs to do better for all (famous) women, and the “we” in the title does not mean Glamour, it means, well, who can say. Everyone on Earth, maybe?
And as calls for apologies from other celebrities mentioned in the documentary abound—Justin Timberlake, Diane Sawyer, alleged rapist Matt Lauer—the question remains: What the fuck good does that do Britney?
She is an adult woman who has been locked in a conservatorship that makes her legally a child, reportedly unable to vote or even drive a car without her father’s permission. Apologizing for building a career around laughing at her as she got that way does not atone for or rectify the fact that celebrities and major news outlets watched a Victorian horror story playing out, then packaged and sold it like a comedy to a public grown so accustomed to seeing these comedians and news outlets treat women like shit that they happily bought it. Publicly stating that “We are all to blame” is not only obvious, it’s performative, and anyone who didn’t apologize in 2007 shouldn’t get the chance to now.
In a fairy-tale scenario, Diane Sawyer and Matt Lauer would be forced to sit on the other side of the interview couch, sweating under questions about why they thought they had the moral high ground despite one of them reportedly having a button in their office that locked the door to trap women inside at the very moment they were asking Britney why she was such a bad mother. Justin Timberlake’s Q Score would remain as low as Janet Jackson’s after he ripped off her clothing during the Super Bowl then let her take the blame for it so long that by the time it recovered, a return to the full magnitude of his stardom at its height would be completely impossible. Britney would get the last 12 years of her life back.
But none of these things are likely, and in Britney’s case, they’re impossible. Making blanket statements about “our” responsibility or even self-flagellating reeks of the exact same thing that got Britney into this mess in the first place: A bunch of people with large platforms saying whatever sentiment is popular to say about Britney Spears for applause.
In her two-tweet bid for absolution, Sarah Silverman wrote “I wish I could delete it but I can’t. But you are posting it for people to see. So r u trying to be kind or right?” But if you were wrong the first time, for the next two weeks or so, until everyone forgets about Britney again, it certainly will not do any further harm to just shut up and be neither.