Britney Spears and the empowerment of taking back your narrative

  • For years, Britney Spears and Pamela Anderson have been mistreated and exploited.
  • Now, they’re reclaiming their narratives: Spears is writing a memoir, and Anderson announced a documentary.
  • Experts in trauma, gender and media say it’s damaging when others tell your story for you.
  • However, taking control over your narrative is a liberating part of trauma recovery.

Nearly two decades later, we’re finally acknowledging how we’ve failed Britney Spears and Pamela Anderson. Recently, the #FreeBritney movement along with documentaries like “Framing Britney Spears” exposed how the media exploited Spears and her mental health, and “Pam & Tommy” revisited the sexist mistreatment of Anderson after her sex tape was stolen. 

But there’s still a problem: These stories have been told by others, without the permission of the women they are about.

“Anytime a woman’s voice is taken away from her, that takes power away from her. And whether they intended to do that is a different story, but the fact that Pamela and Britney didn’t have that agency and voice is definitely a problem,” says Stefanie Davis Kempton, an assistant professor of communication at Penn State Altoona.

But now, both Spears and Anderson are setting the record straight – on their own terms. In March, Anderson surprised fans by announcing her upcoming Netflix documentary. And in a deleted 22-minute video that was posted to YouTube and Twitter Sunday, Spears shared emotional revelations from her conservatorship, which was terminated in December, in her own words and voice.

“I woke up this morning and I realized that there’s a lot going on in my head that I haven’t really shared with anyone really,” Spears said, as she detailed her thoughts on her 13-year conservatorship, her family members’ lack of support and the impact of the #FreeBritney movement. 

“I never remember feeling so demoralized, and they made me feel like nothing. And I went along with it because I was scared and fearful,” she continued.

‘It’s actually healing and therapeutic’:Britney Spears confirms she’s writing a memoir

Experts say it’s important that these high-profile women are finally taking back their narratives, because doing so can be a crucial step in healing from trauma.  

“It’s your story to tell, and it doesn’t belong to anyone else. So when that’s taken from you, it’s painful. It’s traumatic,” says Jessica MacNair, a licensed professional counselor. “So for (Britney and Pamela) to reclaim that and do it on their own terms is inspiring and even healing.”

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Most people cope with traumatic experiences privately. But celebrities like Spears and Anderson don’t have that luxury. 

The 2021 FX documentary “Framing Britney Spears” dived into the singer’s battle to regain control of her life and prompted pop culture fans to reconcile with the public mistreatment of Spears. Nearly a year later, the Hulu biographical drama series “Pam and Tommy” revisited the viral fallout of the “Baywatch” star’s stolen sex tape that was leaked in the ’90s.

Lily James stars as Pamela Anderson in the Hulu biographical drama series "Pam and Tommy."

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Kempton, who specializes in women’s representation in the media, says efforts to profit from their stories without their consent are inherently “exploitative” and “damaging” – intentional or not. 

“Most times when someone is talking for you, they’re also talking over you,” she says. “So even if there are good intentions in telling someone else’s story, taking away their voice in favor of your own is actually doing a disservice.”

Celebrity or not, all survivors of trauma have a right to process their past at their own pace, in their own words.

Carla Manly, a clinical psychologist and author of “Joy from Fear,” adds that having others tell your story for you can be re-traumatizing. It’s triggering to relive your past unexpectedly, and it can add trauma if your story has been misunderstood, phrased inappropriately or told inaccurately.

“We all have the right to work through our trauma at our own pace. Once it’s taken out of our control, not only does it take away from the healing process, but it can also feel violating and re-traumatizing,” Manly says. “It can add this new trauma of: ‘Oh my God, that’s not what happened to me. I’m not being seen or understood.'”

‘Glimmers’ are the opposite of triggers:Here’s how to embrace them.

‘Not a victim, but a survivor’: The empowerment of taking back your narrative

In her video, Spears acknowledged it was difficult to process all her thoughts on the conservatorship. But she said it’s also important to express herself openly and publicly.

“I’m here honestly just to open myself to others and try to shed a light on – if anyone out there has ever gone through hardships – just to put a light on it so that person doesn’t feel alone because I really know what that feels like,” she said at the start of the video.

Though it’s impossible to erase trauma, experts say, revisiting and processing your past is a crucial part of recovery.

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“One of the main reasons people want to write or talk about their trauma is to create an understanding of their inner story. Working through all the dark moments, making sense of it – that alone can be deeply healing,” Manly says.

MacNair adds that it’s also empowering to take back control of your narrative, especially when it was exploited by others. For instance, Anderson referred to herself as “not a victim but a survivor” when promoting her documentary, which includes archival footage and exclusive interviews

“When you experience trauma, it feels violating and there’s a loss of control, so being able to take some of that back by sharing or not sharing what you want on your own terms can be liberating and healing,” MacNair says. 

Are we too late?

Unfortunately, Spears and Anderson are only two victims of a bigger problem in Hollywood. 

When Spears shaved her head at the peak of her career, she was met with ridicule rather than compassion. And in the midst of a violating moment in her life, Anderson was further objectified and sexualized.

Paris HIlton, Jessica Simpson:Why women of the ’90s are triggered by Britney Spears doc

The #FreeBritney movement inspired many fans to seek justice for Britney Spears, who faced ridicule by the public and media in the 1990s.

And some question how much progress we’ve really made since. Juliet Williams, a professor of gender studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, argues that women shouldn’t feel the need to expose intimate details of their lives, even if there is power in Spears and Anderson sharing their stories. 

“These women are caught in a double bind where the choice is to be exploited by others or self-exploit,” Williams says. “I totally endorse, support and celebrate the move away from objectification, but I don’t think the final place we want to get to is for women to expose themselves in order to be treated with respect and dignity. That’s not what true autonomy and liberation is.”

But experts are hopeful this is a start.

“Having two huge names, international ones like Britney and Pamela, lead the way is a really great start to having women take a step back and say, ‘No, I’m going to tell my story,'” Kempton says. “The more people are like that, the more people will accept that this mistreatment is unacceptable.”