A new Britney Spears documentary has highlighted once again the media’s power to elevate and destroy young women in the public eye. The singer was hunted and hounded, bullied and beleaguered until she cracked, while the cameras filmed it and we – the public – hungrily devoured the pictures and headlines. Tragically, Spears’ story isn’t an isolated incident – over history, we have routinely placed famous women on pedestals before unceremoniously tearing them down and mocking them as they fall.
So frequent is this pattern that it is impossible to list the many, many female public figures who have suffered as a result. Here, we have listed 10 women whose lives have been ripped apart by fluctuating media and public attention, but they are by no means the only ones. It’s easy to blame the tabloid press for what has happened to Spears, and to the many others, but more uncomfortably, we must look inward and recognise our own complicity in the way we may have judged and dismissed the women in the limelight, and how eagerly we’ve clicked on stories about their downfall, or gossiped about them with friends.
Even those who haven’t seen the New York Times’ documentary, Framing Britney Spears, will be familiar with the singer’s much-publicised breakdown in 2007. Following years of relentless press scrutiny, sexualisation from a young age (interviewers would openly ask her about her breasts and virginity), messy break-ups (crassly discussed and exploited by her ex Justin Timberlake), and a cruel narrative about her allegedly poor parenting, Spears cracked under the pressure, shaving off her hair and beating a photographer’s car with an umbrella. Rather than act with compassion, her fall from grace was eagerly lapped up by both the media and the public. Spears is now controlled under her father’s controversial conservatorship, first installed after her 2007 breakdown.
2. Courtney Love
Courtney Love is a maligned, complicated woman who is living proof that men are allowed to be messy rock stars in a way that women are not. She is berated for all the things her late husband, Kurt Cobain, was celebrated for – where he was seen as grungy and moody, she was seen as dirty and difficult; while his work was venerated, hers was dismissed and her success accredited to him. If he was ambitious, she was seen as opportunistic. Some even blame Love for Cobain’s suicide, dubiously claiming that she hired a hitman to kill him. Not only does this undermine his mental health struggles, but it’s also evidence of a woman still being held accountable for the wellbeing of her partner.
3. Jean Seberg
Jean Seberg first found fame in Jean-Luc Godard’s iconic film Breathless, which cemented her role as the face of French New Wave cinema. A few years later, she became disenchanted with the film world, and became involved with the Black Panther Party in the US. Once the FBI got wind of her support of the Black Panthers, they began a successful campaign in intimidating and harassing Seberg, culminating in the creation of a fake news story which was instrumental in the actress’ eventual breakdown. The widely-publicised article claimed that she was pregnant not with her husband’s child, but the baby of a member of the Black Panthers. Due to stress, Seberg went into early labour and the baby girl died two days later. Nine years after the death of her child, Seberg took her own life.
4. Jessica Simpson
Jessica Simpson grew up as a preacher’s daughter in Texas, singing in the church choir as a child. Her impressive vocals eventually led to a music career in the early ’00s, and she was regularly pitted against Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Over the course of her career, she was forced to erode her values to be successful. She was told, aged 14, to lose weight, leading to an unhealthy relationship with food, extreme dieting and the taking of diet pills for some 20 years. She details how her virginity and decision not to have sex until she got married was fetishised and used as entertainment by the media, even when she was still a teenager. She and her then-boyfriend Nick Lashay were invasively asked about their sex life, or lack thereof, at every public appearance. She was then blamed for ramming it down people’s throats. Marketed as a ‘sexy virgin’ by her management, Simpson was forced to deal with the contradictions and pressure that came with her very controlled, misogynistic image.
5. Billie Holiday
The insanely talented and brilliant Billie Holiday was subjected to abuse over the course of her life. She was born in the US in 1915 in poverty and was sexually assaulted and raped at 10 years old. She dated and married abusive, exploitative men who chipped away at her confidence, one of whom introduced her to drugs, which she became addicted to. Despite her talent, she battled with systemic racism; she wasn’t allowed to enter venues via the front doors or to enter certain restaurants, or even to stay in the same hotels as white performers. Holiday’s decision to sing Strange Fruit, a song about Black lynching, prompted the wrath of law enforcement. Not long after she made the track a key part of her setlist, the FBI began tracking her – ostensibly for drug reasons. They shot at her car, arrested her and imprisoned her for a year. She was also permanently banned from singing in venues that served alcohol, thus wiping out a vast amount of future income and forcing her to tour endlessly until she died.
6. Amy Winehouse
Amy Winehouse is one of the most talented, soulful singers of the past 100 years, and yet she was judged not for the work she produced, but for her personal struggles that were mocked and derided by the press. Her weight, drug addiction and marriage problems were pored over and used as entertainment, as her situation worsened. Pictures of her becoming ever frail and wearing bloodied ballet pumps were widely circulated, but never taken seriously. The public discourse around Winehouse’s addictions was relentlessly, chillingly cruel and her life was slowly degraded, photo by photo. The acclaimed documentary, Amy, also suggested that her father, Mitch Winehouse, exploited her to make a buck. She died of alcoholic poisoning, aged 27, in 2011.
7. The Duchess of Sussex
Such was the media bullying and harassment around the Duchess of Sussex that in 2020, she and husband Prince Harry left the UK and their senior roles within the royal family and moved to the US. As with many beautiful famous young women, it started well for the then-Meghan Markle – following her engagement to Harry, she was placed on a pedestal, then swiftly torn apart. The shift began in earnest after Meghan fell pregnant; her way of being pregnant somehow started to annoy everyone. Tensions rose again after the couple bucked another royal tradition and decided not to pose for pictures outside the hospital following the birth of their son, Archie. Her parenting was then cruelly criticised. Throughout all of this, she was subjected to racism, and then accused of being ostentatious for renovating their family home using taxpayer money. Eventually, Meghan and Harry decided to relocate and really, who could blame them?
8. Caroline Flack
Caroline Flack presents another all-too-recent tragic example of a famous woman who was hunted, hounded and destroyed by the media. A popular TV presenter, Flack’s reputation was ripped apart after she allegedly assaulted her boyfriend. From the moment her arrest was made public, open season on the star began and the tabloids capitalised on the titillating opportunity to shame a famous young woman. As the Guardian proved, she came under enormous media scrutiny following the incident and negative coverage notably increased. Flack couldn’t leave her home without facing photographers, and discussed her fragile emotional state on Instagram. It wasn’t until after her suicide in the weeks that followed that anyone – public or press – showed her any compassion or kindness, forgetting how they had devoured the very articles she was hounded over.
9. Janet Jackson
In 2004, Justin Timberlake was performing with Janet Jackson at the Super Bowl when he ripped off part of her bra mid-song, exposing her breast to the 143.6 million viewers for about a half-second. Adding insult to humiliating injury, and despite having not caused the incident, it was Jackson, not Timberlake, who received a huge amount of consequent vitriol. While Timberlake sailed on into a sea of global adulation, Jackson was widely blamed – the Grammys banned her from performing and even attending (meanwhile Timberlake won two awards), and MTV blacklisted her singles and music videos. MTV’s CEO Tom Freston gave an interview in which he claimed that the “stunt” was all Jackson’s fault. Not only was she the victim of the incident, but she was also shamed for it.
10. Jade Goody
The UK’s first TV reality star to go big-time, Jade Goody was raised up only to be brought crashing down. When she was first cast to star in Big Brother, she was just 20 and from a tough working class background with dreams of a better future. At first, she was ridiculed for both her appearance and intellect; she was compared to a pig and vilified for how she spoke and looked. The press and public, as fickle as they are, then switched tact once details of her difficult background emerged and she was lauded for her authenticity and candour. Following a racist incident involving Shilpa Shetty on 2007 Big Brother, Goody’s image was destroyed and she once again became a figure of public hate. She died two years later of cancer, still reeling from a brutal life filmed on camera. Many of us watched her fall.
From Harper’s Bazaar UK