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Lithium Oops!... we did it again: why we get off on women's pain

Mar. 29, 2021
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On February 5, 2021, The New York Times dropped a feature-length documentary chronicling Britney Spears’ turbulent rise to pop stardom. While Britney stans well-versed in #FreeBritney discourse may not have learned anything new, for those whose understanding was shaped by tabloid coverage, Framing Britney Spears offered a more sympathetic portrait. Most of the archival footage, from magazine covers to on-camera interviews, did not age well. The documentary was met with an outpouring of support from viewers who, now armed with hindsight and a working knowledge of misogyny, quickly compiled a list of all the celebrities, media personalities, and executives that owe Spears an apology.

“What did you do?” Diane Sawyer asked in a 2003 interview. Britney’s ex-boyfriend Justin Timberlake had been running his mouth on television alluding to something she had done to break his heart. He had also just released a music video for his single “Cry Me A River,” which featured him committing a litany of crimes including property damage and home invasion so he could get back at his philandering blonde girlfriend. Subtlety was not a hallmark of the era. 

Sawyer prodded further, asking a 22-year-old Spears to confirm the number of notches on her belt on national television; Spears, noticeably uncomfortable, dodged the question. When Sawyer pressed on asking Spears how she was handling the onslaught of coverage about the break-up, her entire demeanor changed. She tossed her head back and laughed, catching herself on the brink of tears, but it was no use. Her voice broke as she started to cry, “I’m embarrassed. Can we stop?” Even at a young age, she knew that, like sex, pain sells—and she wasn’t interested in playing that game.

In a society shaped by misogyny, the emotions of women and anyone coded as feminine are routinely dismissed as frivolous. When expressed by women, joy is obnoxious, mild annoyance is aggressive, and discomfort is just an invitation to try harder. But our reaction to women’s grief on display is something else entirely, often teetering between suspicion and the same sick curiosity that makes us crane our necks to get a better view of a car crash. Why do we get off on seeing women in pain?

Trauma porn is nothing new; people have always had a “perverse fascination with other people’s misfortune,”and because it drives clicks, the media gives us a perpetual stream of it. Like most forms of systematic mistreatment, trauma porn isn’t particularly unique to women either. People who are racialized, disabled, queer, trans, undocumented, poor, or struggling with addiction are also subject to media coverage that capitalizes on their pain. However, since we still live in a patriarchal world, when it comes to women and femmes, trauma porn often takes on another level of cruelty. While in some cases celebrities are insulated from the difficulties of real life by money and power, it’s a common belief that they also traded any inherent entitlement to privacy for fame. We’ve followed the tragic downfalls of women like Anna Nicole Smith, Amy Winehouse, and Whitney Houston. We’ve seen starlets like Lindsay Lohan and Amanda Bynes mocked for their public struggles with addiction and mental illness. This past year, we watched as Megan Thee Stallion took to Instagram Live to call out people laughing at and vilifying her after being shot by her ex-boyfriend Tory Lanez. After each of these instances, we’ve experienced a collective whiplash wherein we promise to be kind because “you never know what people are going through.”

Our fascination with watching lives unravel has never been limited to public figures nor to the pages of Us Weekly, but social media has given us unprecedented access to the inner (albeit curated) dialogue of millions of ordinary people. On February 3, 2021, Tessica Brown was the star. Brown, dubbed “Gorilla Glue Girl,” went viralon TikTok after she confessed to using Gorilla Glue, a heavy-duty construction adhesive, to style her hair instead of the Got2b Glued Blasting Freeze Hairspray she’d run out of. After spending a month scrubbing in vain, she pleaded for help. Depending on which side of the algorithm you fall on, your timeline might have been flooded with light humor and empathetic concern like mine was. But because I like to upset myself, I decided to wade through comments in search of devil’s advocates. Some critics rolled their eyes and mocked her stupidity, and others accused her of faking it for clout; all overlooked the fact that, regardless of her ignorance or intention, she was most likely experiencing inconceivable amounts of discomfort and anxiety. 

In the days it took for Brown to find help, rumors circulated claiming she planned on suing The Gorilla Glue Company. Even though hundreds of people crowdfunded the money necessary for Brown to seek medical treatment, she decided to donate the proceeds—nearly $24,000—to charity rather than subject herself to more criticism. In what should have been a happy ending, a surgeon freed Brown’s hair using a medical-grade solvent free of charge, and then she got signed by Gitroni, an agency that reps celebs like Blac Chyna and Lamar Odom. But critics used this news as evidence that fame was always part of her master plan. The entire ordeal took a toll on her mental health, so if a talk show appearance, reality show, or line of hair products is a slim silver lining for Brown after this nightmare, what’s wrong with that? Regardless of how she moves forward, the insults Brown has endured over the past few weeks are the fruits of a culture that still sees women as inherently untrustworthy and senseless.

We can’t ignore the ways race and class may have played a role in Brown’s story. While white starlets are certainly subjected to a disproportionate amount of public scrutiny, they’re also more likely to have the resources necessary to deal with it. Not only was Brown probably unprepared to cope with the spotlight, she was also already at a disadvantage when it came to finding support. Misogynoir (the unique brand of racism Black women and femmes are subjected to) can have detrimental consequences—especially when it comes to healthcare. Black women have reported feeling “unseen, unheard, and misunderstood” by their doctors, and studies have shown that racial bias leads some doctors to believe the myth that Black women can actually withstand more pain than white women. The same biases that leave Black women unprotected in the medical system follow us in our everyday lives and shape the media’s portrayals of us. Rather than being treated as an opportunity to have important conversations about a Black woman’s experienceTessica’s trauma was a punchline. 

Media often prizes growth over ethics, driving publications to sensationalize and stereotype to keep us subscribed. The only thing that captivates us more than fame is infamy, and we love a fall from grace. We jump at the opportunity to bring women like Brown and Spears to fame just to tear them down. When Framing Britney Spears debuted, Media Twitter began to reckon with their insensitive coverage of Spears and other starlets of the early aughts. In a tweet that’s since been deleted, media personality Billy Eichner wrote: “Lots of virtuous folks on here pretending they didn’t read Perez Hilton or Us Weekly’s abusive coverage of Britney religiously in 2005. We’re all to blame.” Eichner’s sweeping projection only served to absolve him and his colleagues of their wrongdoing, ignoring the fact that many of us were just kids. The ways the tabloids framed their stories about women had real consequences on young people who used pop culture to make sense of the world. While we aren’t all culpablewe were all deeply affected by the oppressive societal norms the tabloids perpetuated.

It’s no longer as lucrative as it once was to publish unnecessarily cruel stories about celebrities, but as Brown’s Gorilla Glue incident and countless other viral moments have shown, regular people are still fair game. As Jordan McDonald wrote in her analysis of the Gorilla Glue Girl discourse and Jeffery Bloom broke down in his critique of Framing Britney Spears, our obsession with projecting our own insecurities and motivations onto women in the public eye strips them of their autonomy and leaves them struggling to take back their own narratives. Breaking this cycle will take a cultural shift toward nuanced stories and away from ones that capitalize on trauma, humiliation, and shame; publications like Bitch Media, them, and Teen Vogue, as well as writers like Hunter Harris, Angelica Jade, Morgan M Page, and Scaachi Koul, are already helping to drive this change. It’s up to readers to support better journalism and think about the consequences before sharing their unfiltered hot takes on social media. Britney Spears’ legal battle will continue and inevitably, someone else will take Tessica Brown’s spot as the internet’s main character, and I can only hope that we manage to break this cycle before someone else gets hurt.

Illustration by Yoo Young Chun