Britney Spears is sitting in an interview chair across from famed reporter Diane Sawyer. During that "no holds barred" interview in 2003, the then-21-year-old pop star was attempting to take back the narrative that painted her as a slut and a cheater. Sawyer notes that the pop star has had a rough year following her breakup with Justin Timberlake, which causes Spears to become visibly uncomfortable and to begin to cry. As the conversation about the breakup continues, Sawyer says, "You did something that caused him so much pain, so much suffering. What did you do?"
That scene has become one of the more talked about moments in Framing Britney Spears, the latest documentary from the New York Times (available on Hulu). The documentary follows the platinum-selling megastar's ongoing battle over her complicated 12-year-long conservatorship, which puts all personal, business, and estate decisions in the hands of her father, Jamie Spears and, following a court decision in 2020, financial company Bessemer Trust. Spears, who was placed in a conservatorship in 2008 following public mental health issues, is refusing to work until the conservatorship is lifted.
While the documentary has added fuel to the fan-led #FreeBritney movement that calls to have Spears's conservatorship removed, it’s also shed a glaring light on the harassment and treatment Spears endured from the public, paparazzi, and the media. The Sawyer interview is a perfect example of this, and it led Britney fans to bombard Sawyer on social media demanding that she apologize to Spears. It's impossible to not see how everyone was complicit in her cruel and unrelenting persecution, and how rampant misogyny within media culture and society as a whole intensified that. That includes those who made jokes and laughed off what was clearly a breakdown. But the documentary reminds us of one particular person we should hold to the fire for their participation in Spears' harassment and others: Justin Timberlake.
Framing Britney Spears lays out the ways in which Timberlake took the narrative of their breakup and used it to burn Spears at the stake, exploiting the video for his 2002 solo single "Cry Me a River" to cast himself as the wounded lover seeking revenge against a cheating partner who happened to bear a striking resemblance to his ex. While that's certainly a cheap shot, he took his jilted ex story on tour, airing out the private details of their sex life in countless interviews so as to tarnish the image that of the innocent virgin that had been crafted for her. As NYT critic at large Wesley Morris notes in the doc, “The way that people treated her, to be very high school about it, was like she was the school slut and he was the quarterback.” Timberlake is undoubtedly among those who fueled the hatred against Spears by trashing her at every opportunity, using their breakup to build a solo career and a culture of misogyny to be the "winner" in that relationship. Framing Britney Spears plays a clip of Timberlake jovially dishing on a radio show about about having sex with her, and shows a Details cover that applauds him for getting "in Britney's pants."
"I'm not technically saying he's wrong, but I'm not technically saying he's right either," Spears tells Sawyer in that infamous interview, acknowledging her own faults in their relationship yet making it clear that their breakup wasn't all her doing. The move was classy, especially considering how much she probably could have said about the situation, and how much Timberlake aired out to turn the public against her.
The fact remains that Spears didn't need to be made the villain, in a manner so harsh that it undoubtedly fueled part of her breakdown. They dated from 1998 to 2002, and yet Timberlake constantly, and for years, continued to bring her up in interviews, make digs at her in public forums, and released another possible song about her ("What Goes Around Comes Around") in 2006, four years after their breakup, when she was already married with a second baby on the way, and when her mental health struggles had become tabloid fodder. And all the times he viciously took public digs at Spears to build on his own fame and strip himself of the boy bander image, people laughed and the media covered it like it was salacious shit-talk behind the school gym. Timberlake seemingly relished in slut shaming Spears, and saw his star and sex appeal rise by using the whore narrative to his favor, all while the media and paparazzi became increasingly more cruel and intrusive to Spears.
It was easy to turn the public against Spears when questions about her personal life, her body, what she wore or didn't wear, and her virginity were lobbed at her with no consideration for how gross, sexist, and wrong that is. The doc shows one reporter asking Spears point blank about her breasts, to which she uncomfortably laughs, put on the spot and unsure of how to even answer. A sexualized woman is seen as a threat, and Spears became that. When sex was the potential reason for their breakup, the public had no issue painting her with a big, nasty scarlet letter. Considering Timberlake's own recent tabloid accusations of infidelity, it's hard not to see the double standard between how he's been treated in the press compared to Spears.
Throwing women under the bus has clearly been Timberlake's M.O. when it's come to building his career. When Janet Jackson was the recipient of endless backlash following their Super Bowl XXXVIII “wardrobe malfunction” in February 2004, during which Timberlake ripped off part of her costume and accidentally revealed the legend's bare breast, Timberlake wiped his hands clean of the situation and allowed Jackson to take the fall. And once again, it was an easy mark because Jackson is a Black woman, inherently viewed as a threat to “American values” because of her race and sensuality. Her career took a serious hit, while his continued to grow: she was banned from that year's Grammys while Timberlake was asked to perform; she was blacklisted by TV and radio network Clear Channel Communications, which damaged sales of her 2004 album Damita Jo; she has never since performed at the Super Bowl while he went on to perform again in 2018. He eventually apologized, two years after the Super Bowl fiasco, telling MTV, "I probably got 10 percent of the blame, and that says something about society. I think that America’s harsher on women. And I think that America is, you know, unfairly harsh on ethnic people.” But the damage was done to Jackson's career. Terron Moore, editorial director at MTV and Logo, tweeted, "the ascent of justin timberlake in the wreckage of both britney spears and janet jackson is really something we have to answer for."
Even though Spears rebuilt her career, slowly and with some shaky moments, dropping several successful albums, including Blackout and Circus, and performing a record-breaking residency in Las Vegas, her personal life has still been a work in progress. Though she never discusses conservatorship or her mental health in public, we can only know based on her Instagram, where she often dances (even to Timberlake songs) and shares memes and videos of herself chatting about her favorite things, that she's trying her best to be happy. After 12 years of fighting to gain full control of her life back, and rumors (shared online and in the doc) that her father has threatened to take her sons away, she's working towards creating a life wholly her own. But she'll never be rid of Timberlake and what he's done to her. It will always be part of her story, while he continues with a successful career that was built, in part, on her shame.
The late 90s and early aughts were certainly not an era where terms like slut shaming, body autonomy, or even mental health were widely in the discourse and universally understood. Women in Hollywood and in the music industry as a whole have made it clear through the #MeToo movement and other public statements that predatory and misogynistic behaviors will not be tolerated. Timberlake may have apologized to Jackson, but he's never concerned himself with showing Spears the same grace, even if solely for a PR move. That speaks volumes about his character, and at least now we have the hindsight to demand better from him. Sawyer may have found it appropriate to ask Spears how she caused their breakup, but now we now know what Timberlake did to continuously build a career off her trauma.
Alex Zaragoza is a Senior Staff Writer at VICE.