Why did pop culture treat one of its greatest stars 14 years ago so cruelly, try to deny her problem, stick a clown mask? Can we do more today? How do we treat people with mental health conditions and their spectrum?
In 2007, we learned about Britney Spears’ serious mental problems – the singer, suffering from a nervous breakdown, moved away from public life for a year. The media treated the situation as a spicy episode – an immature starlet pays the price for international success. A convenient narrative is adopted: she is young and spoiled, so she is punished justly. When she came back a year later, with a new album and announced a concert tour, she was deemed to have won. In the American style, she turned weakness into success and everything will be fine from then on.
It was the easiest way for producers – to create a stumble story that fans will identify with, release an interview with a sloppy “life” story to warm up interest, and then earn profits from the sale of records, tickets and everything that would be able to promote with her face, from teen clothes and perfumes after the TV show. The drama fueled the marketing product that would be Britney from the start. And although the star’s glow faded because she grew out of the role of a teen idol, she still remained in the industry – as a juror of the American edition of X-Factor (2011-12), star of the Super Bowl spot (2015) or an Apple Music advertisement (2016). But years later, the infantile message of the media and the naivety of the fans collided with reality.
Britney Spears: Show business without retouching
On February 5, 2021, in the series “The New York Times presents”, Samatha Stark’s documentary “Framing Britney Spears” premiered, which shed a new light on her character. We learned that Britney, 39, the mother of two sons, has been seriously ill and undergoing psychiatric treatment for years. The incapacitated lives under the tutelage of her father, whom – it seems – truthfully accuses him of many abuses.
Despite the declared improvement in health, she is unable to free herself from the cage that has been slammed by the legal system and a member of the immediate family.
The scene, which appeared on YouTube in 2009 and is still being watched on the website, has acquired a new meaning. Here’s Britney with a toddler in her arms enters a cafe, where a group of paparazzi catches her. The star smiles at first, then loses confidence and tries to turn her face away. The paparazzi laugh and push harder and harder. The staff is unresponsive and guests follow the events like a thrilling spectacle. Spears can’t stand the tension and cries. Humiliated, she tries to cover her face, hugging her little son.
With Framing Britney Spears, we suddenly realized that we all – fans past and present, as well as scoffers liking spicy news headlines – are all creating a monstrous showbiz machine held hostage by Britney. We are jointly responsible for her deep suffering.
Something groundbreaking has happened – the tone of the singer’s life in the media and social networks has changed. Instagram hashtag #FreeBritney has already appeared over 460,000. times, involving both fans and influential pop culture figures, incl. Mariah Carrey, Christina Aguilera or Paris Hilton. Last week, a bill was submitted to the US Congress to help people in the position of the singer free themselves from the guardianship of undesirable guardians.
The Spears case is so engaging that journalists have called it a movement, not just the #FreeBritney action.
Will Britney Spears’ experience translate into patient acceptance?
In this situation, it is worth asking yourself: Can we do more today? How do we treat people with mental health conditions and their spectrum? Do we allow them to openly admit their illness? And can we accept them?
Spears was really exposed in the movie. Nobody who watched it, there is no doubt that she is seriously ill, everyone learned the mechanisms of the disease and the deep sense of shame that accompanied the star. This is of great educational value, especially against the background of other media denominations, such as depression, which has never been diagnosed and is probably confused with melancholy or plain sadness. The case of Spears, as true and uncensored, can also bring real comfort to the sick who see the thread of their own history in the experience of the star. But is it enough?
– Wondering if the Britney case could change the perception of people with mental health problems, I remain skeptical – says Ewa Pragłowska, clinical psychologist, psychotherapist at the Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Clinic of SWPS University. – Britney Spears is still seen as a successful person, so in the subtext – she has a lot of money and she can do it. I think that her personal story and drama may evoke sympathy, but it will not translate into a better understanding and acceptance of her cousin suffering from alcohol addiction or offering a walk to a neighbor who has just been discharged from a mental hospital.
Psychologist: Language portends change
The psychologist notes, however, that the real change is the language used in the media coverage of the Britney Spears case. The headlines, rather than a cynical evaluation, are reporting, weigh the words, and at least pretend to be empathetic. The authors of the texts do not offer simple diagnoses, they rely on statements and facts. Ironing or ridiculing the disease is already in the tabloid press faux pas. And that means a new standard for all of us. – In psychology, the word precedes action – notices Ewa Pragłowska, suggesting that language is a swallow of moral changes.
This is important because the topic of mental illness, including depression, is common – it concerns up to 30 percent. adult Poles (EZOP research in the group of 18-64 years in 2012), and everything indicates that the percentage will increase.
– This is indicated by epidemiological data on people who experience, for example, depression, anxiety disorders, addiction to psychoactive substances, sleep disorders or eating disorders. – says Ewa Pragłowska. – There are many reasons – ubiquitous stress, change in the form of interpersonal contacts, random events, such as the COVID pandemic, migrations, loneliness despite being in the “network” – lists and adds: – As one of my patients said: People are divided into those who have been mentally ill, or will be ill.
Dr. Ewa Pragłowska – clinical psychologist, psychotherapist in Department of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy at SWPS University.