The Hypersexualization & Exploitation of Britney Spears in the Media

by Randi Ford & Elizabeth Mathews

Introduction

Britney Spears exploded into stardom in 1998 as a bubbly 16 year-old girl from Kentwood, Louisiana and managed to successfully produce six number one albums on the Billboard charts. While Britney’s fame brought her plenty of success in the pop music industry, she faced a lot of criticism in the media regarding her risque clothing choices and sex life. The pressure of working countless hours combined with the pressure of being under the harsh microscope of the media ultimately led to Britney’s mental breakdown that caught the attention of the nation. Still, Britney’s mental health battles were not a private matter as the media plastered her struggles across headlines and made her mental illness into a cover story.

Following her successful debut album, Britney Spears filmed and released a music video on October 23, 1998 for her song Hit Me Baby One More Time, at just 17 years of age. Throughout the video, we can see Britney wearing a school uniform that has been styled in a way that shows part of her abdomen, which sparked controversy throughout the media. Britney faced a lot a lashback for her racy outfit choice, even though she was only 17 years old. Britney stated in an interview “There are so many other teenagers out there that dress more provocatively than I do and no one says anything about them…I don’t see myself as a sex symbol or this goddess-attractive-beautiful person at all. When I’m on stage, that’s my time to do my thing and go there and be that — and it’s fun” (Goldstein, 2018) exhibiting how the media sexualized Britney from a very young age.

https://www.redbookmag.com/fashion/g3997/scandalous-dresses/?slide=23
Britney’s so-called scandalous outfit in her Hit Me Baby music video

But the criticism did not stop there, in 1999 Britney Spears was shot for the cover of Rolling Stone magazine and her photo, once again, sparked major controversy due to her fashion choices. Britney can be seen laying on a bed wearing a push-up bra and polka dot shorts with a phone in one hand a doll in the other. This revealing photo caught the attention of the media and she was questioned on her choice of clothing for the photo. In a 2004 article written by Adam Sternbergh, he accuses Britney of “sexual doublespeak”, meaning that even though she denies to accept the sexy persona the media has given her, Britney’s creative choices discredit her words. This publication by Sternbergh is prime example of how the media was obsessed with sexualizing Britney, even though she did not want the persona to be attached to her name or career. Her clothing and music choices should not give the media permission to sexualize her every move, but they still chose to sexualize an underage girl.

In addition to the sexualization from the media, Britney Spear’s mother, Lynn Spears, would push her daughter to adopt a sexy persona to compete with sexier and older pop stars, like Mariah Carey. Lynn insisted Britney should be marketed as a Lolita, even if that meant Britney would be treated as a sex object by the media. After Britney began to frequent bars at the age of 16 and dabbled in drugs, Lynn began to regret handing over Britney’s career to managers that would put her in raunchy videos and treat her like a sex object. However, the emotional damage to Britney came to the surface as her mental health plummeted and her mental break became a show for the media.

https://www.redbookmag.com/life/g29961148/britney-spears-biggest-moments/?slide=3
Britney’s scandalous “nude” costume at the 2000 VMAs.

Interestingly, the media had a love hate relationship with Spears.  They adored her music, but claimed she was setting a bad example. The paparazzi invaded her private life, while also expecting her to cater to them.  To make matters worse, Britney, who openly talked about how important motherhood was to her, was then criticized for that too.  A specific incident incited many accusations that she did not care for her children or that she was unfit as a mother.  Whilst leaving a restaurant, Britney, holding her son, was stormed by paparazzi, and in a rush to get to her vehicle, she stumbled, almost dropping the baby.  This spread through the media like wildfire, many people stating that she cared more about the drink she had in her other hand, rather than her own child.  Conveniently enough, the actions of the hoards of people who put both her and her baby’s life in danger, were brushed off.  It’s important to note that women like Spears that work in the industry do become sex symbols of sorts, and although they do receive praise initially, it’s often that these same women are victims of unwarranted criticism, and unfortunately, often at the hands of other women.

https://www.chinadaily.com.cn/entertainment/2006-05/19/xin_1505031913486552642611.jpg
Uh-oh! Britney’s parenting has become a spotlight for the press.

With the media constantly fixated on her private life,  she tragically fell victim to constant scrutiny from the public, and no matter what, it seems she could not win.  It all came to a head in 2007, the year that tabloids took their harassment to another level, and the year Britney entered a conservatorship, wherein her father had control over her life and her finances.  This is a situation that has lasted over a decade, and it isn’t until now, fourteen years later, that the horrifying details of her conservatorship are being revealed to the public.

https://static01.nyt.com/images/2021/02/13/arts/12britney-media7/merlin_183591543_8703857e-4575-4bdb-9c55-d96a5ef1df9e-superJumbo.jpg?quality=90&auto=webp
Headlines exposing Britney Spear’s mental breakdown

Understandably, being under constant surveillance from the public took a toll on Britney’s mental health and she had to enter rehab.  Additionally, this same year, she entered a custody battle with her husband, Kevin Feterline, who she finalized her divorce with later on that year. Upon returning from rehab, she impulsively shaved her head, an act that sent the media into a frenzy, with headlines everywhere describing Britney’s mental health crisis as a “meltdown” or “breakdown”.  Long after that, this situation was treated as a joke and was often parodied or referenced in television shows, movies, and other media platforms. Towards the end of the year, Spears attempted to make a comeback at the 2007 MTV Music Awards, where she was met with criticism about her body and weight, many people saying she was fat. 

https://www.lifeandstylemag.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/britney-spears-september-2007.jpg?fit=1000%2C1333
Britney’s 2007 comeback performance at the MTV Awards

Conclusion

Many of Britney’s experiences, although horrific, are unfortunately common within the entertainment industry as a whole.  Young women are often preyed upon and used as marketing tools to appeal to a wide demographic, because, as the saying goes, sex sells.  In an article by Frances Kindon, it was stated that every aspect of Britney’s appearance was controlled by her superiors, even her underwear.  It’s unimaginable to think that even at such a young age, her life was being controlled by the men around her.  To that point, the effects of misogyny and internalized misogyny within women can be directly linked to the male gaze and its hold that it has on Hollywood.  Even today, especially within the music industry, the sexualization of women has continued, and even more so, intensified.  It’s very rare that new mainstream female artists are not sexualized in some way, whether it be due to their own preferences or those of others.

Works Cited

Andreas M. Kaplan, Michael Haenlein, The Britney Spears universe: Social media and viral marketing at its best, Business Horizons, Volume 55, Issue 1, 2012, Pages 27-31, ISSN 0007-6813,  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bushor.2011.08.009. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0007681311001248

Hawkins, S., & Richardson, J. (2007). Remodeling Britney Spears: Matters of Intoxication and Mediation. Popular Music & Society, 30(5), 605–629. https://doi-org.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/10.1080/03007760600881359

Kindon, F., X17Online.com), (I., 5), (I. C., & WireImage), (I. (2019, October 31). Disturbing reason Britney Spears shaved head confirmed 12 years after breakdown. Mirror UK. https://www.mirror.co.uk/3am/celebrity-news/disturbing-reason-britney-spears-shaved-20757154

Reporter, D. M. (2008, September 4). ‘Britney started drinking at 13, lost her virginity at 14 and took drugs at 15,’ says her mother in shocking new book. Daily Mail Online. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/tvshowbiz/article-1052356/Britney-started-drinking-13-lost-virginity-14-took-drugs-15-says-mother-shocking-new-book.html. Sternbergh, A. (2004, October 28). Britney Spears. Slate Magazine. http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/assessment/2004/10/britney_spears.html.

Schick, L. (2014). “Hit Me Baby”: From Britney Spears to the Socialization of Sexual Objectification of Girls in a Middle School Drama Program. Sexuality & Culture, 18(1), 39–55. https://doi-org.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/10.1007/s12119-013-9172-7

Sternbergh, A. (2004, October 28). Britney Spears. Slate Magazine. http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/assessment/2004/10/britney_spears.html.

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