Everyone called this celebrity a slut. She was trashy, a cheater, a liar, and crazy. Her most private and difficult moments were treated as a farce for public amusement, subject to memes and shaming. Making fun of her was fun; mocking her became a national pastime.
I’m talking about Britney Spears, but I could also be talking about Amber Heard. Heard’s ex-husband, Johnny Depp, filed a defamation lawsuit against her for a 2018 Washington Post op-ed, and the trial has become a national obsession. All the same insults that people once used against Spears have been flung Heard’s way. She’s a liar, a slut, and crazy. Her displays of emotion have been mocked, and her testimony about the alleged abuse she suffered during her marriage to Depp has been turned into viral memes on TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram.
But there’s a difference. In our current moment, the public consensus is that Spears was wronged. After the hugely popular 2021 documentary Framing Britney Spears detailed the tabloid media’s coverage of the pop star and her allegedly abusive conservatorship, people in seemingly every corner of the globe began to decry the narrative that had been constructed around her for so long. Journalists published somber piece after piece, framing the reexamination of Spears’ treatment as a moment of reckoning for the media, and American society as a whole.
It prompted plenty of self-reflection and debate: How could we have treated a vulnerable woman so cruelly? That would never happen today — we know much better now.