In the 2000s, at the height of the reality TV boom, the media breathlessly chronicled the lives of pop singer Britney Spears and socialite Paris Hilton. They were mainstays of tabloid headlines and late-night punchlines, documented constantly yet rarely taken seriously.
“They were packaged into a consumer product,” said Allison Yarrow, the author of “90s Bitch: Media, Culture, and the Failed Promise of Gender Equality,” a book that reappraised Clinton-era newsmakers such as Lorena Bobbitt and Tonya Harding.
But there was always more to the story — and in recent days, the culture at large has been faced with reminders.
“Framing Britney Spears,” a documentary from The New York Times that debuted Feb. 5 on FX, painted a troubling portrait of her life under a court-sanctioned conservatorship — and examined how the star’s public image was distorted by the sexism and sensationalism of the news media.
Four days later, Paris Hilton described to Utah lawmakers the “daily” verbal, mental and physical abuse she says she suffered at a facility for troubled youth in the 1990s — adding important context to the life of a woman who was often ridiculed by comedians and others who shape public opinion.
Hilton’s emotional testimony came a week after Evan Rachel Wood — the “Westworld” actor whose relationship with Marilyn Manson became tabloid fodder in the late 2000s — wrote on Instagram that the musician “horrifically abused me for years” after “grooming” her as a teen. Manson has denied Wood’s allegations.
The revelations about all three women seem to have spurred a wave of reassessments, causing many to reconsider their perceptions and reckon with the celebrity-infatuated culture that critics say objectified Spears, sneered at Hilton and seemed to overlook Manson’s history of troubling comments.
“I think there was a lot we used to allow because of who got to tell the story and who had the power,” said Bea Arthur, a licensed therapist and social psychology expert, adding that the mainstream media has often been skewed toward the point of view of the “white suburban dad.”
In the days since “Framing Britney Spears” premiered, Twitter has been flooded with old headlines and television clips that critics believe show how the pop star, who struggles with mental health issues, has been victimized by the public, the press and the legal system.
ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer has drawn particular scrutiny for a 2003 interview with Spears that critics believe was laced with sexism. In the interview, Sawyer appeared to defend remarks by the first lady of Maryland at the time, who had said that she wanted to “shoot” Spears, then 21. ABC News did not respond to a request for comment.
Matt Lauer, the former “TODAY” show host who was fired by NBC News in 2017 amid allegations of sexual misconduct, has also faced criticism for a 2006 interview with Spears, featured in the documentary, in which he presses the singer on her “skills as a mom.” NBC News officials declined to comment. (Lauer has denied the misconduct allegations.)
Similarly, Wood’s post on Instagram was followed by renewed attention on Manson’s past comments. In a quote that resurfaced in various news articles about Wood’s allegations, Manson told Spin magazine in 2009 that he had called her 158 times one day after a breakup.
“I have fantasies every day about smashing her skull in with a sledgehammer,” said Manson, who first met Wood when she was a teenager and he was in his late 30s.
In response to questions by the music magazine Metal Hammer, Manson’s representatives said last year that his comment to Spin was “obviously a theatrical rock star interview promoting a new record.”
In many ways, the reappraisals of these entertainment personalities is a testament to a society that has been dramatically reshaped by the #MeToo movement and, generally speaking, pays closer attention to issues of trauma, mental health, body shaming and misogyny — and where those issues intersect with questions of identity.
“I think people thought the lives of celebrities were meant to be consumed as entertainment, which really erased their humanity,” Arthur said.
“What’s happening now is a postmortem,” Arthur added. “What did we do wrong? How did we fail these women?”
The impulse to investigate the realities underneath the cultural rumor mill may have been deepened by #MeToo-era documentaries such as Lifetime’s “Surviving R. Kelly,” about the R&B musician, and HBO’s “Leaving Neverland,” about Michael Jackson. (R. Kelly has denied allegations of sexual abuse. Jackson, who long professed his innocence before his death in 2009, was acquitted of child molestation charges in 2005.)
“We have a generation now where young people are much savvier consumers of media and much more skeptical about narratives presented to them than I think teenagers were in the 1990s and early 2000s,” Yarrow said.
Yarrow added that one crucial difference between the media landscape of 20 years ago and today is that celebrities can “craft their own personas” through social media platforms, undermining the influence of paparazzi photographers and other image-makers.
Twitter and Instagram, in particular, are forums where average people can advocate for high-profile figures they believe are unfairly maligned — a phenomenon documented in “Framing Britney Spears.”
#FreeBritney, a social media campaign led by fans who believe Spears is being effectively imprisoned by her conservatorship, has been fueled partly by young people who feel a spiritual kinship with the popular artist and deep empathy for her mental health challenges.
Although many members of Gen Z were not alive or were merely infants when Spears first burst onto the pop culture scene in the late 1990s, members of Gen Z have found strength in Spears’ music and her life story.
When Daniel Read, 23, who lives outside Coventry, England, was a child, his mom used to play pop music while she vacuumed. That’s when Read first heard the hit track “Baby, One More Time,” kicking off a lifelong affection for Spears.
“After 2007, I just started to love her even more because at the time I was going through bullying at school and obviously you could see she was going through all this stuff. I just thought she had so much strength to be able to go through that, and I think it really helped me,” said Read, who is part of the #FreeBritney movement on social media.
Britney deserves basic human rights. Gen Z and stan twitter do your damn work. Lets get her free. #FreeBritney
— seemeunbothered ⁷ ❁ || 💛💛 era || (@repwhiskey) July 5, 2020
If Gen Z can single handedly prank the president of the United States through tik tok then we can absolutely #FreeBritney
— sarah (@sebashford) July 5, 2020
On TikTok, one of the primary platforms where Gen Z humor, culture and trends are shaped, the hashtag #BritneySpears has been viewed more than 1.6 billion times and the #FreeBritney hashtag has been viewed more than 421 million times. On Twitter, accounts belonging to stans — fervent followers of pop stars — have begun including the #FreeBritney hashtag in display names and profile bios.
Although Spears’ support on social media is larger than Hilton’s, there has still been an outpouring for Hilton, too. Many users on platforms like Twitter have thanked Hilton for not only opening up about her abuse but also testifying about it to a Utah court.
The way Gen Z has rallied behind Spears and Hilton could be linked to the generation’s openness to mental health issues and the likelihood that its members have received treatment for such issues.
A 2018 report from the American Psychological Association reported that “members of Gen Z are more attuned to their own mental health than previous generations,” and said Gen Z made up the largest percentage of any generation receiving psychological help.
Social media culture has helped Gen Z to destigmatize these issues and reclaim mental health conversations as a form of power, rather than a punchline. Young women on social media have also made strides to destigmatize femininity, mental health challenges and female sexuality.
“In my lifetime, it’s short, but there wasn’t a change in the way I felt until I got on the internet and was seeing people being authentically themselves. That gave me that push to be authentically myself,” said Chrissy Chlapecka, 20, of Chicago, a TikTok creator with more than 2.4 million followers who makes sex-positive, anti-misogynistic content promoting the power of femininity.
Thank you, @ParisHilton for testifying today in Utah in support of SB 127, a bill that would regulate and end abusive Troubled Teen Industry warehouses. We see you, we hear you. We are grateful for your advocacy.
— RGerstung (@Statebird2) February 8, 2021
Members of Gen Z say they hope these movements push society away from seeing women like Spears and Hilton as objects of ridicule and closer to a world where both they — and women like Wood — can be empowered to speak up without fear of being stigmatized or of toppling their own careers.
“My generation is looking at things and being like, ‘Why? Why are we doing this? Why is it like this?’ We’re taking everything, we’re questioning everything and we’re saying, ‘Oh, that’s bulls—.’ I think there’s potential for a lot of change,” Chlapecka said.