If it was reported, it can be reconsidered. Reckonings are everywhere in pop culture this week.
It started with the Feb. 5 release of the Hulu documentary Framing Britney Spears. It continued Feb. 10 via social media, as stars from the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel called out their showrunner, Joss Whedon, for alleged abusive behaviour – echoing similar allegations made against Whedon in July, 2020, by Justice League star Ray Fisher. And Feb. 11, The New York Times ran a story about the hundreds of current social media accounts created in support of Lyle and Erik Menendez, brothers who were sent to prison for life in 1996 for murdering their parents, despite their defence that their parents abused them.
The Menendez case dominated the news in 1993, and helped launch Court TV (it’s all on YouTube). Rumours of Whedon’s alleged abusive behaviour have swirled since Buffy went off the air in 2003. And it became evident that Spears was struggling with fame, and perhaps depression, when she shaved her head in February, 2007. But audiences are looking at these stories anew, with a contemporary, more compassionate lens on the issues they raise: misogyny, abuse, mental health. Not only are younger viewers finding empathy for the subjects, they’re castigating the media that sensationalized, condescended to and condemned them.
I was living in Los Angeles during the Menendez trial – the father, Jose, was an entertainment executive – and I cannot overstate how it dominated the conversation. Dominick Dunne was filing dispatches for Vanity Fair. Sordid details led the nightly news. The brothers, the story went, killed their parents with shotguns, mob style, and then filled their Beverly Hills mansion with new Rolexes and Mercedes. Saturday Night Live, Law & Order and Lifetime all aired damning takes. Across the board, the brothers’ claims of domestic violence and sexual abuse were dismissed as a ploy. Celebrity attorney Alan Dershowitz even wrote a book about it, The Abuse Excuse (1994).
Framing Britney Spears, made under the aegis of The New York Times, also makes a case that the mainstream media vilified Spears. (It isn’t available to stream in Canada yet, but scores of articles dissect it in detail.) Her fame dovetailed with the heyday of tabloid television, when paparazzi earned up to $1-million for a damning photo. When Spears was successful, the narrative went, she was a biddable Barbie doll that others were manipulating. When she broke down, well, that was her own fault. (I’m sure she shaved her head in the same spirit thousands of girls shave their Barbies’ heads – “nope, unh-uh, not doing this any more.”)
People magazine and daytime talk shows scolded Spears for her sexuality. Late-night hosts made her a running gag. In early 2008, Family Feud created a category, “Things Britney Spears lost” – “Her mind!” earned 15 points, and the audience clapped. Justin Timberlake spun his version of their breakup – that Spears was a slut who broke his heart – in lad mags and radio call-in shows. In November, 2003, Diane Sawyer, in arguably the nadir of her career, devoted an entire episode of her news magazine series Prime Time to a Spears interview. Sawyer screws her face into an expression of pseudo-compassion, and then condescends to and pushes Spears until she cries. (The entire interview is available on YouTube, and it is painful to watch. Sawyer grills Spears about shopping and sex, yet asks zero – zero – questions about her work.)
This bad press mattered, the filmmakers argue: Spears’s father, Jamie, who has been in and out of her life, used it as evidence that Spears was unfit to manage her person or her money, and set up a legal conservatorship that gave him control of both – for life. A grassroots social media movement, #FreeBritneySpears, recently rose to her defence. She is currently challenging her father’s role.
Whedon, by contrast, allegedly created a culture of abuse on his sets that persisted for years. He was a hot commodity in the film and TV worlds, Oscar-nominated in 1995 for co-writing Toy Story. Buffy, which launched in 1997, quickly became a cult hit, and Whedon was awarded a spinoff, Angel, in 1999.
But in a lengthy Instagram post this week, Charisma Carpenter, who played Cordelia in both series, accused Whedon of abusing his power: disparaging and threatening her, calling her fat when she was pregnant, and pitting her against her colleagues, triggering a “chronic physical condition” from which she still suffers. “I felt powerless and alone … I swallowed the mistreatment and carried on,” Carpenter wrote. “Joss was the vampire.”
Within hours of Carpenter’s post, three other Buffy actresses posted declarations of support and/or echoed the allegations: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Michelle Trachtenberg and Amber Benson. Whedon has not commented. But over the summer and fall of 2020, Warner Bros. investigated Fisher’s similar claims from the set of Justice League, and on Dec. 11 issued a cryptic statement: “The investigation … has concluded and remedial action has been taken.” In November, Whedon left the HBO series he created, The Nevers, due in summer 2021.
These stories are just the most recent examples of how younger generations are re-examining human motives and media reactions – others include the skater Tonya Harding; the serial killer Aileen Wuornos; the former White House intern Monica Lewinsky; and Lorena Bobbitt, who cut off her husband’s penis, she said, after he raped her.
Young people now are acutely aware of what the Spears documentary calls “the infrastructure of misogyny,” as well as old media’s complicity in monetizing suffering. Social media users are calling for Sawyer and Sarah Silverman, who roasted Spears at an MTV Awards show, to apologize. They are lauding Craig Ferguson for a monologue he delivered on his talk show in February, 2007, in which he promises to lay off Spears jokes because she’s obviously in distress. Tellingly, the audience keeps laughing, waiting for a punchline.
Older generations may dismiss this reckoning as snowflakery, but I think it’s strength. During the Brett Kavanaugh U.S. Supreme Court hearings in September, 2018, I had dinner with a group of millennials, and we discussed the thousands of women who were posting about their own abuse. One young woman said to me, kindly, “You Boomer women put up with a lot.”
At first I defended myself: We didn’t have a choice. Society only worked one way. You decided how you’d “handle” the inevitable racism and sexism – make jokes, ignore it, cry in the bathroom – but you could never simply say no to it. Now I’m re-examining that, too. Perhaps millennials and Gen Xers can be more empathic because we paved the way. Or perhaps we should have been, all along.
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