It’s difficult to define Britney Spears. Despite this, the media have tried to in the past and continue to do so. Innocent, virginal, slutty, an unfit mother, crazy! Before the Free Britney Movement came to the fore, very few questioned the labels that were placed upon her. After her public breakdown in 2007, she was deemed unstable and was never really redefined in our eyes. To say Britney is crazy is uncomplicated and requires little reflection. Yet, this view allowed Britney’s conservator to take control of her life, despite her early protestations, while the world stood idly by. The New York Times’ Free Britney documentary and its incredible account of the role of the media in her life left me wondering how women are defined by the media today and if anything has changed in the years since Britney’s “breakdown”.
Even in 2021, many women continue to be defined by the media in a one-dimensional way. Some are sexualised to sell papers with recent headlines such as “Demi forgot her clothes” or “Kendall Jenner sizzles in barely-there thong” coming to mind. While these women are undoubtedly consenting to this exposure and at times benefitting from it, society at large suffers negative consequences as a result of this portrayal of women purely as sex objects. As people like the Kardashians are over-sexualised, some women are vilified, creating a narrative that can be used time and time again. Celebrities such as Taylor Swift have been portrayed as slutty, while men who have had many relationships never get associated with this term. Meghan Markle is constantly portrayed by the British media as difficult and manipulative. This simplistic, one-dimensional portrayal of women in tabloid media makes it easier for us to consume but it has real world consequences.
The effects of the one-dimensional coverage of women are profound. Sometimes similar stories are handled differently. Undoubtedly, society at large suffers from women being so singularly defined by the media.
The contrasting ways newspapers covered abuse allegations against Caroline Flack and Ryan Giggs highlights how similar stories can be handled differently by the mass media. Flack was vilified from the outset, with headlines such as “Flack’s bedroom blood bath” appearing in media coverage. She was made out as a deranged, violent woman who beat her boyfriend with a lamp, allegations he expressly denied. The “blood bath” referred to was from Flack herself engaging in self harm, yet tabloids still sensationalised the event, casting doubt over whether the blood was hers and likening it to a scene from a horror movie. Her boyfriend, clearly perplexed at the misleading nature of the coverage was quoted at the time as saying “Can everyone stop now?”. He, more than anyone, saw the devastating effect the sensationalised coverage was having on her mental health and its role in her subsequent suicide.
Ryan Giggs has been treated differently in the aftermath of the allegations of abuse that surfaced against him, with the BBC running the headline “Ryan Giggs denies assault allegations after arrest.” This appeared to highlight his proclamation of innocence and not the allegedly violent abuse suffered by his partner. When Giggs could no longer fulfil his role as Wales manager owing to the charges against him, the Sun declared that he still planned to help Wales in their Euro soccer bid on an informal basis. The level and nature of the coverage received by Giggs was incomparable to that of Caroline Flack. While Caroline was vilified again and again by the British press labelled a violent abuser despite protestations from her partner that what had happened was being mischaracterised, the coverage of Giggs highlights his willingness to “clear his name” despite ample evidence of his guilt.
“When the media furthers the perception of women as sex objects, that has knock–on consequences throughout the society.”
So why does one-dimensional coverage of women in media matter? Newspapers and magazines inform people’s views and opinions. It affects how we as society see women unconsciously. When the media furthers the perception of women as sex objects, that has knock-on consequences throughout society. In Women Aid’s recent project ‘It’s time to flip the sexist script,’ they highlight how the sexual objectification of women “underpins domestic abuse” and furthers the belief in some men that they own their partner. While this is an extreme consequence of objectification, it is not the only one. Defining women so narrowly in news and entertainment media perpetuates stereotypes that continue to permeate throughout society with women more frequently defined as crazy or diva-like, while these terms are not commonly associated with men.
Women can be sexy, slutty, demanding and difficult – but so can men. Defining female celebrities so singularly in tabloid media is dangerous. For Britney, it inflicted untold pain, as the narrative around her was changed and sensationalised by the press. The coverage around women should reflect all of the nuances and imperfections that come with being a person, not caricatures solely defined by a characteristic from which it is easy to create a narrative. Britney cannot be defined so singularly, just like women all over the world cannot be defined by one or two labels. It’s time all media coverage starts reflecting this, and women start demanding it.
Featured photo by Charisse Kenion
This article was supported by: STAND Women Editor Ellen + Programme Assistant Alex