By Phoebe Martin
Recently, there has been a wave of documentaries revisiting the lives of women who were the targets of Hollywood’s fascination and denigration during the 1990s and 2000s. Most notably Britney Spears, and recently Pamela Anderson. These two ‘blonde bombshells’ reflect a dominant cultural fascination with a certain kind of femininity and sexuality. Yet, they have both experienced trauma and violence in the public eye. These recent films – Framing Britney Spears, and Pamela: A Love Story – aim to put their experiences in a new light and show the public how we have misunderstood them. Yet, their stars still struggle to be able to choose the terms on which they are represented.
Framing Britney Spears is one of the best-known recent examples of this genre of film. The 2021 film, produced by The New York Times, charts Britney’s meteoric rise to fame as a teenager and subsequent struggles. Interview clips with a younger Spears are used to shape the film around fame, control, and sexuality. Some of her early videos were controversial for portraying the young star in an overtly sexual way, and she was castigated by the press for being ‘too sexual’. The film contrasts this with interview footage that shows the double standards she was held to. We see a 17-year-old Britney being asked about her breasts by an interviewer. At one point she is brought to tears in another interview, where she is lambasted by the host for being a bad influence, a charge not brought to her male peers.
The latter half of the film focuses on her breakdown and the conservatorship she was placed under in 2008 with interviews with lawyers and members of the #FreeBritney movement. The conservatorship reflects the paradox of celebrity femininity. On the one hand, she is infantilised: incapable of looking after herself or making decisions about her life or work. On the other hand, she is able to perform night after night, making millions of dollars for her father, who controlled her finances through the conservatorship. During her breakdown, her sexuality was used against her to portray her as a bad mother and wife, who therefore can be blamed for all her wrongdoing. Her sexuality can be used by others for profit or to blame her, but if she seeks to control it herself then she is punished.
The 2023 Netflix documentary Pamela: A Love Story takes a similar approach in revisiting the media’s representation of its star and her sexuality. In it, Pamela Anderson reflects on her upbringing and the experiences she went through as a so-called “international sex symbol”. The film focuses on the stolen sexually explicit home videos of her and then-husband Tommy Lee that were then distributed online without their consent by Internet Entertainment Group (IEG). This ‘sex tape’ was one of the first viral videos, causing unprecedented traffic issues for the late-90s internet. Anderson recounts the experience of attempting to sue IEG to prevent the distribution of the video. The defending lawyers argued that since she had posed nude in Playboy, she should have no problem with her naked body being exposed again in this video. According to this line of argument, her previous nudity had revoked her right to consent, and to privacy. Suggesting that anyone who sexualises themselves then consents to all other forms of sexualisation. As she puts it in the film: the process told her “I’m just a piece of meat. That this should mean nothing to me because I’m such a whore basically.”
The film neatly illustrates how her control over her sexuality and image is taken away from her: not only by IEG but interviewers, talk show hosts and comedians who only ask her about her sex tape or her breasts. She laughs these off, but in the present-day shots of the film, the harm this caused her is clear. This would be traumatising on its own, but in the film, Anderson also recalls the numerous instances of sexual abuse she experienced, including being raped as a child. There is something deeply disturbing about a survivor of sexual violence, being turned into a sexualised joke.
These films explore the right to control one’s own narrative. This is clearly important for women like Spears or Anderson, whose experiences have been memorialised in pop culture as the punchline to a joke. Yet, the films differ in their relationships to their subjects: Anderson and her son Brandon were producers of the documentary. This is reflected in the at times soft-focus approach the film takes to some of Anderson’s more controversial activities: support for Julian Assange or early comments on the #MeToo movement. On the other hand, in Framing Britney Spears the star does not get to speak or comment on the film. This is in part due to the restrictions placed on her through the conservatorship. However, later she commented via her Instagram in a now-deleted post that “I was embarrassed by the light they put me in … I cried for two weeks and well … I still cry sometimes!”. Spears still does not get to consent to how her life is portrayed. We see the impact of this in Pamela, when Anderson reacts to the news that the 2022 television series ‘Pam & Tommy’ has recreated her experience at the hands of IED, once again without her consent. In the film, she is visibly upset and feels physically sick at the news. In different ways, these women are punished for being publicly sexual by having their consent removed – consent to telling their own stories and controlling their narratives.
The paparazzi emerge as a key theme in both films. Footage of these women being followed and yelled at during extremely vulnerable periods: Spears during a mental health crisis, Anderson during a miscarriage. They epitomise the mediatic gaze that frames these celebrities. In many ways, this gaze is sexually violent: consider the craze for shooting photos up the skirts of young famous women in the early 2000s (something that is now illegal in the UK) or capturing so-called ‘wardrobe malfunctions’. The photographers make the argument that the women ‘need’ them for their careers: that they consent to be photographed by simply existing in public. If we only see victims through this violent gaze, this contributes to how we understand and remember sexual violence. Taking back control of the narrative around their experiences allows victims to tell their own stories.
These films are part of a wider societal reckoning with the pervasiveness of sexual violence that came about through the #MeToo movement. In recent years, the idea that sexual violence can and does happen to anyone has become more accepted. Yet, the fascination with the narrative of white female celebrities and their sexuality, as epitomised by these films, underlines where these discussions are lacking. Both documentaries follow a similar narrative structure: a young blonde girl from a small town making it big and being taken down by the ‘evil Hollywood machine’, without asking audiences to reflect on their complicity or the structures that allow this to keep happening. These narrative framings obscure their subjects’ complexity: they do not get the chance to be bad survivors.
The focus on a certain kind of victim – white, young, women – obscures other victims of sexual violence. Victims who are not white, or are poor, sex workers, or LGBT+, do not fit into this media narrative and are often forgotten or obscured. While these films reveal the damaging power that the media can have in causing and perpetuating sexual violence, it is also worth considering which stories we focus on, and what that tells us about which victims we are listening to.