BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM essays the current obsession with Britney Spears, a symptom of a wider schadenfreude and malaise linked to mass media, audiences and celebrity, eerily prophesied by Sidney Lumet’s 1976 film Network.

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I ALWAYS thought the 1976 film Network was a rotten satire. Unfunny, hysterical and obvious, I’d always ranked it as one of the more overrated films of all-time. In that film, a news anchor gets slightly deranged on air, but this leads to higher ratings. He threatens to commit suicide on air, which only makes more and more people tune in. His catchphrase “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore” becomes a cultural phenomenon. However, as I see more and more coverage given to celebrities and their problems, I’m starting to wonder how accurate Network really was – there’s a weird schadenfreude that the media and the audiences seem to be getting from some particular celebrities. What is the general public asking from people like Britney Spears? If it’s nothing, then she wouldn’t be as ubiquitous as she currently is – the media are only responding to what people are interested in after all (though I do note the irony of me complaining about the ubiquity of Spears and then writing an article on her).

Isn’t it funny that Spears doesn’t like underpants? Did you know Spears’ kids were taken away from her to a more ‘trashy’ parent? Isn’t it hilarious that she shaved her head? Wasn’t that video where some guy was crying about Spears great? Etc. Etc. What do people want her to do next? One can only imagine people frequently checking updates on stuff.co.nz or perezhilton to see what has occurred next in this continuing saga. Total mental breakdown? Suicide? A murderous rampage where she takes out “K-Fed”? Wouldn’t that be hilarious. Spears has moved simply from being a minor car crash that causes a traffic jam when everyone has a peek, to a full blown pińata; she’s a figure who has been constructed to be laughed at, poked at, smarmily looked at in a sanctimonious way as an example of the pitfalls of being rich and successful.

Of course I don’t give much credit to the mass media. I gave up expecting them to give me proper details on the Niger Delta conflict, Darfur, Chad etc, Burma, climate change a long time ago. As Malcolm Lowry wrote “if our civilization were to sober up for a couple of days it’d die of remorse on the third”. I can understand (though not necessarily condone) why a media organisation that has profit as its biggest motive, rather than actually reporting the news, doesn’t want to simply show everyone the bad stuff that’s happening in the world. But it does seem a little scary that all the mainstream news organisations in New Zealand (at least) seem to have given themselves the task of chronicling someone like Spears’ everyday life. There were ten articles on stuff.co.nz between the 8th of October and the 19th of October on Spears, including how she doesn’t like wearing underwear, how she met a shaman at a reservation and how a video of her pretending to be a stripper has made it onto the internet. Nzherald.co.nz hasn’t been much better with stories speculating whether Spears might end up at the same rehab centre as Lindsay Lohan, Spears was booked on driving charges etc. etc. Of course this sort of stuff has been the staple of gossip magazines for years, but when stories like this make areas like the music and world sections, radio, Breakfast television and the evening TV news, then something different is happening. Of course commentators have often stated that the news is more about entertainment than information, but the pleasure in non-stories seems to have hit an all-time high.

The treatment of Spears arguably points to a wider malaise. Only someone especially naďve would consider modern pop music to not be strongly misogynistic, whether it’s the proliferation of commercial hip-hop with the dancing hoes, or burlesque groups like the Pussycat Dolls dominating the charts. But the almost joyous reaction to Spears’ musical performance show how just how little women have progressed since the 60s. For all the people who say women have achieved equality, there’s a nagging undercurrent that not much has really changed. This schadenfreude on Spears is predominantly focused on her body, her clothes, her hair, her mothering – those very stereotypes that women have been subjected to for millennia. No one seems to care when a male actor is revealed to be a terrible parent or puts on a bit of weight, but when Spears does it, it becomes ammo for water-cooler conversations and news headlines. For example, the commentary on her performance at the MTV Video Music Awards has been judged on how she was “fat”, how she was “bleary eyed”, “unfit” and “trashy”. Of course MTV put Spears up as a Queen of Fools but there was barely a mention of her actual performance or heaven forbid, the song itself. I’m certainly not a fan of her music, but to hear strong feminists taking pleasure in the fact Britney looked fat rather than actually critique her music, makes me wonder what messages are being sent to women who want to be successful. Of course, people can laugh it all away by saying things like ‘it doesn’t mean anything really”, or that it’s “okay because I can acknowledge that it’s sexist” or that it’s “only pop music”.

Sure, it’s easily ignorable – I don’t spend my hours considering pop music – but considering who the target audience of pop music really is and the total dearth of female pop stars who aren’t being objectified (and willingly submit to this view – because let’s face it, many women are as complicit as many men in this regard), surely this all should be a cause to worry. After all, the target audience of pop music is young girls, who the media generally argue to be highly impressionable to anorexia, alcohol, sex, drugs, chat-room paedophiles etc. yet assume are able to ignore the sexist discourses surrounding pop music. But it’s not just young people either. Perhaps pop music shouldn’t be easily relegated to a minor example of sexism, because if it was so minor, it wouldn’t be getting all this coverage. Would audiences and media be taking so much perverse pleasure in the decline of Spears if this was so easily ignorable? I wonder why concerned parental groups spend so much energy on relatively minor areas like porn films and Film Festival films, yet ignore the pervasive messages that the most consumed and accessible form of music is sending out. And not only that, ignoring how that form of music is being framed and discussed by the media.

It’d be ridiculous to simply accuse the mass media of harbouring some sort of conspiracy to dominate women and divert our attention away from more pressing issues. The audiences who are making Spears the most viewed story on websites, laughing about Spears’ mental state or passively accepting the mainstream news coverage are just as complicit in it. It disturbs me when people seem to be taking pleasure in the mental collapse and misfortunes of a twenty-five year old individual. I don’t want to simply call her “Britney”. I don’t know her and don’t want to reduce her to a “thing”, to an object, so I can feel less culpable about laughing at her misfortune. I don’t want to wait with anxiety to see exactly how Spears is as mad as hell. I just kinda want to say I don’t want to take it anymore.