In 2008, the marriage between pop-star Britney Spears and Kevin Federline collapsed. Following this, she lost custody of her two children. Following this, under the magnesium flashes of the paparazzi, she grabbed a clipper, and shaved all her hair. The same year, at a game show, one of the questions asked was to list the things Britney Spears had lost. The answers included: her husband, her hair, and her mind.
The previous year, another musical icon, Amy Winehouse, drug addled, while performing in Cornwall, kept slapping herself awake on stage as she sang Wake Up Alone. Later that year she overdosed on cocaine, heroin, alcohol, and crack, and was taken to the hospital. An intervention was staged, and the newspapers got access to entire conversations, no one knows exactly how. She was 23 years old. The following year when she was nominated for the Grammys for Best Female Pop Performance, the announcer noted right after, “Somebody wake her up this afternoon around 6 and tell her? Drunk ass.” After unraveling in public, the comedian Frankie Boyle, during a stage performance for Live at the Apollo, joked, “Did you see Amy Winehouse in the paper this week? My god! She looks like a campaign poster for neglected horses.” The audience laughed.
Both Spears and Winehouse had violent altercations with the imposing flashes of the paparazzi screaming for “money shots”. Both became the butt of easy jokes. Both struggled with mental health. But importantly, both inspired corrective documentaries to clear the air, and almost offer an apology for the lengths to which the absurdity of the media trial was stretched— Asif Kapadia’s Oscar-winning Amy on Netflix, and the New York Times’ Framing Britney Spears now streaming on Discovery+, which essentially makes the case for Britney Spears in her legal fight against her father’s conservatorship. Some have noted that this documentary perhaps went overboard in its support, not showing the same skepticism towards her #FreeBritney fanbase that decode her Instagram captions, that it did towards the wider culture of female celebrity harassment.
This correction, perhaps over-correction, was natural but necessary given the structural differences in the way male and female celebrities were and are treated. Britney Spears was asked if she was a virgin, while her then boyfriend Justin Timberlake was thumped on the back for “getting into her pants”. This over-correction is also a function of the paparazzi culture for whom invasion of privacy is a job description. Steven Holden, the New York Times critic noted that while Winehouse was vanquished by the demons, inner as well as outer, with Amy showing regular stretches of paps demanding her gaze, Janis Joplin’s fame, her heroin overdose, and documentary Janis: Little Blue Girls, did not have that invasive quality, “Fame and celebrity in the 21st century are far more toxic than in the early 1970s.”
When director Kevin Macdonald was initially asked to compile and direct the documentary on Whitney Houston, he wasn’t interested, “I largely knew [Whitney] from the tabloid coverage. To be honest, I was put off by her because she’d become such a train wreck. I knew her songs growing up in the 1980s, but I found it very hard to sympathize with her.” The documentary became, for Macdonald as well the audience, a way to reorient the viewfinder.
There is thus perhaps a gendered aspect to the genre. Documentaries on troubled female celebrities are often correctives because they were wronged. On the other hand, those on male celebrities like Allen V Farrow, and OJ: Made In America, are critical because they were wrong.
Even for non-celebrity figures like Lorena Bobbitt, who cut off her abusive husband’s penis after he raped her, in the 1990s leading to a trial—in the tabloids and in the court—the documentary format offered space to reclaim her side to the story. (As to what happened to the penis, Bobbitt told the police where she threw it, and they found it, preserved it in ice, and post a 9.5 hour urological and plastic surgery, it was reattached and restored to near full function.) Marital rape had just become illegal and was difficult to prove, nonetheless. Al Franken, the comedian implored Lorena to apologize to John’s penis on Saturday Night Live. Her husband was acquitted. In an interview with the New York Times, she noted that at that time, “it [was] like they all missed or didn’t care why I did what I did.” The documentary Lorena, produced by Jordan Peele, doing just that—asking why she did what she did— is streaming on Amazon Prime.
Even for vilified figures like Ma Anand Sheela, this format, and indeed this time where we look back at the horrors of sexism of the previous generation (much like the future generation will look back at the horrors of our generation), allowed to soften the harsh light cast on her. When she says, “What can I say, tough titties!”, we no longer see it as arrogance as much as confidence. She becomes a meme, the relatability is established. The corrective got her a lucrative book deal, and a Netflix documentary entirely dedicated to her return to India after her jail stint.
The flipside of this—to whitener and reframe legacy— however, is to define the women by the controversy before rolling out the apology tour. Both the documentaries on Amy Winehouse and Britney Spears were roundly criticized for not bothering to contend with their journey as artists who upended their respective musical landscapes. While they did use snippets of their songs and their voice, it seemed to merely pad the troubled artist narrative, with the emphasis and apology funneled to the “troubled” aspect. The framework here is apology, and the artistry is incidental.