Caroline Flack, Britney Spears, and Meghan Markle
Celebrity

Women in the media spotlight: how many more have to suffer before we learn our lesson?

The recent discussions around the treatment of Britney Spears, Caroline Flack, and Meghan Markle in the press are just the tip of the iceberg.

Warning: this article contains references to self-harm and suicide that some readers may find triggering.

Following her shocking 24-minute testimony in court on 23 June, social media has been flooded with dismay and concern for a “traumatised” Britney Spears, who has asked to be released from the conservatorship she’s been living under since 2008.

As Rose McGowan put it: “Britney Spears has every right to be angry. How would you feel if your life was stolen, dissected, mocked? I pray she gets to live your life on her terms. STOP CONTROLLING WOMEN.”

It’s a sentiment that we, all of us, might want to consider – particularly when we reflect on the role that some media outlets have played in the demonisation of women in the spotlight.

As we reported in March, Channel 4’s moving documentary, Caroline Flack: Her Life and Death, left many viewers saddened with its sensitive analysis of the invasive paparazzi headlines that chipped away at the TV presenter’s spirit – particularly those tabloid stories published in the months leading up to her suicide on 15 February 2020.

“I have never had the kind of exposure or press intrusion that Caroline had. That’s ultimately what killed her, I believe,” Natalie Pinkham, a close friend of Flack’s, tells the filmmakers at one point.

“And I’m sure many others do, too.”

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Flack’s story is undoubtedly heartbreaking, but hers, much like Britney’s, is sadly not unfamiliar; indeed, it is one of far too many stories about women who have been hounded by the paparazzi and on social media.

Earlier this year, Meghan Markle revealed to Oprah Winfrey that she had found her time in the public eye to be almost “unsurvivable,” explaining that she was plagued by suicidal thoughts.

“I just didn’t want to be alive any more,” the Duchess of Sussex said simply. 

“That was a clear, real, frightening and constant thought.”

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex on Oprah With Meghan And Harry: A Primetime Special
Meghan and Harry told Oprah how the former’s mental health had been impacted by her time as a royal.

Sienna Miller, too, has shared her relief at surviving the invasive press intrusion she suffered at the beginning of her career.

“It was at the height of all that paparazzi madness, and in London where there was an epidemic of bad behaviour,” she recalled in a recent interview with The Daily Beast. “They knew where I would be every night.”

She added: “There’s a whole six weeks of that experience that I don’t remember… I was in so much shock over it all.

“It was incredibly aggressive.”

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Paris Hilton has also reflected on the paparazzi intrusion she has endured throughout her career, revealing that at one point it was so bad that she had people climbing over her gates and looking through her trash.

“I remember one time I came home, and there was paparazzi out there and they were like, ‘By the way, some guy was looking through your trash, taking everything with him, and he’s been doing this a couple times,’” she said during a Hot Ones interview

“It was just creepy that someone was doing that.”

Jameela Jamil has also spoken about the damaging impact of intense scrutiny, recalling how she was forced to deal with “false accusations” that she had made up her health problems and people “mocking my disability.” 

“Just a year ago I was totally suicidal,” she said in a virtual appearance at The BodCon, a conference focused on body confidence. “This week is my birthday week. I was totally suicidal on my birthday last year because of how much people were just mocking my disability, or like, mocking my mental health and I was like, what an ugly world, I don’t want to be here anymore.”

She added: “Look at the way we treat women in the public eye… look at Britney Spears, look at Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Amanda Bynes, like Anne Hathaway, Jennifer Lawrence, Greta Thunberg – we do this to every single prominent woman. 

“When we don’t like a man we just don’t learn anything about him – we don’t learn his name. We don’t follow him on the internet, we just don’t care. When we don’t like a woman, we will investigate every single thing she’s ever said, ever done…scrutinise her obsessively. It’s really weird.”

Britney Spears announces new charity with The Giving Back Fund - The Britney Spears Foundation on November 22, 1999 at the Hollywood Palladium in Hollywood, California.
A recent documentary about Britney Spears underlined the damaging impact of the tabloids.

Then, of course, there’s the Framing Britney Spears documentary, which, while digging into the singer’s conservatorship at its core, underlined exactly how the unreality of tabloid journalism has become mainstream – particularly when it comes to young women in the public eye.

In the New York Times’ film, we learned that Spears, just like Flack, saw her own sex life dissected by TV pundits and in clickbait headlines. Through archival footage and interviews, we watched as her outfit choices are criticised, and her perceived conduct towards ex-boyfriend Justin Timberlake was used to discredit her.

And in one particularly discomfiting clip of a 2003 interview, conducted by a puritanical Diane Sawyer, we were offered the chance to understand the impact all of this intrusion had on Spears. Because, as Sawyer hurled accusations at her and demanded to know what she did to break Timberlake’s heart, the musician broke down in tears and begged for the cameras to stop rolling. 

Throughout the documentary, we witness the impact that instances like the above had upon Spears’ wellbeing – and how the media narrative surrounding the singer framed her as a “crazy” person, according to producer and director Samantha Stark.

It is this, she feels, that directly contributed to Spears’ father, Jamie Spears, becoming her conservator (meaning he controls her finances and essentially every other aspect of her life).

“The kind of conservatorship that Britney is under is the kind that is often used for people with Alzheimer’s,” explains Stark to Variety. “The point of it is to protect the person and act as the person would have acted as if they were in their right mind, so whoever is the conservator is supposed to know what’s in the person’s best interest and know how they would act. 

“With Britney, it’s really odd because she was 26. This is usually for a person who is dying, and a family member is usually in charge, and it’s so hard to get out of a conservatorship because the person usually dies during it. Somebody, usually a family member, has to file for it and they nominate themselves or another person to do it. So, her father was the one who filed for it.”

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Stark adds: “The way the system is set up, she pays for her attorney, for her conservators and for her conservators’ attorneys. Britney right now is filing for her father to not be in charge and she’s paying for her own attorneys and her fathers attorneys that are fighting against her attorneys. 

“It was estimated last year at $1.2 million in legal fees, and I would imagine it would be more this year because more is happening. So, it’s really confusing.”

A close-up of Britney Spears on the red carpet wearing a red dress
Britney Spears is fighting to be released from her conservatorship.

We are, thanks to stories such as these, becoming increasingly aware of the toll that the tabloids and social media can have upon the mental health of those in the public eye.

But have we learned anything? Has anything really changed? Speaking ahead of the release of Caroline Flack: Her Life and Death, Caroline’s mother, Christine, has expressed her concern that we have not.

“I don’t know if [the press will] take away anything,” she said. “I hope they take away that before they print anything, they should at least find out if it’s true, that would be one thing. Just find out the truth behind it.

“It’s someone’s life, it’s someone’s child. It’s someone’s sister or brother. I don’t think they’ve learned yet.”

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Christine added: “The same papers that wrote all the horrible things of Carrie after she died got in contact with me to say, ‘We’d love to do a lovely article about her.’ You think, ‘What? I don’t understand it.’ And you are frightened to say anything, I shouldn’t be saying what I’m saying now because there’ll be a backlash. But someone’s got to say something sometime and not be frightened about backlash because of what the paper will do to you.

“You have to keep on the good side of journalists. That can’t be right, can it? Should they follow you all over town? They followed me and two other 70-year-olds across London, the night after I cleaned up the blood in Carrie’s flat. That’s how bad they were.”

A production still from Caroline Flack: Her Life And Death
Caroline Flack with her mum, Christine, and her twin sister Jody. Photo courtesy of Channel 4

What can we do, then, to foster a kinder and more open environment? Well, to echo the words of Laura Whitmore, “only you are responsible for how you treat others and what you put out in the world.”

“Caroline loved to love,” she said in the weeks after her friend’s death. “That’s all she wanted. Which is why a show like Love Island was important to her, because the show is about finding love, friendship, having a laugh. The problem wasn’t the show. The show is loving and caring and safe and protected.

“The problem is, the outside world is not. Anyone who has ever compared one woman against another on Twitter, knocked someone because of their appearance, invaded someone else’s privacy, who have made mean, unnecessary comments on an online forum – they need to look at themselves,” she said.

“And to paparazzi and tabloids looking for a cheap sell, to trolls hiding behind a keyboard? Enough.”

Samaritans (116 123) operates a 24-hour service available every day of the year. If you prefer to write down how you’re feeling, or if you’re worried about being overheard on the phone, you can email Samaritans at jo@samaritans.org.

Caroline Flack: Her Life and Death is available to stream on All 4.

Images: Channel 4/Getty

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