Britney Spears’ conservatorship has led many to take a long, unsettling, and well-deserved look at how the press treats female celebrities.
In 2007, the 24-year-old pop sensation was wrongfully put through the wringer in the tabloids at a particularly low point in her life. But let’s be real: The media’s habit of chewing up and spitting out shiny new things for profit has been a toxic practice for much longer than that.
The impossible standard society holds the world’s most beloved female figures to has always been cruel and unfair. Arguably, the media’s treatment of these women is also indicative of what all women are presumably “allowed” to do and be.
Here are 13 female celebrities horribly mistreated by the media.
Oftentimes, the more iconic a female celebrity becomes, the more the press seems to relish in their downfall. Marilyn Monroe is perhaps one of the most quintessential examples of a Hollywood figure forever hounded by the press.
Norma Jean Baker reinvented herself, not only finding fame and fortune but also becoming Hollywood’s brightest star. Dubbed “the blonde bombshell,” her widespread popularity made her a constant media target, often crippling her personal relationships and gradually allowing her no breathing room.
At the age of 36, Marilyn Monroe died from a drug overdose in her Brentwood home. Despicably, the press was on the scene right away, still taking pictures and still dehumanizing Monroe as nothing more than a sex symbol and profitable headline.
The media has been primarily blamed for Princess Diana’s death for years. And rightfully so. In the 1990s, “the people’s princess” became the most hunted celebrity in the UK.
There was no length the tabloids wouldn’t go for a photograph and their ruthless quest led to a tragic chain of events. In 1997, one high-speed car chase turned fatal.
It was one of many times the paparazzi followed Diana, driving on the wrong side of the road and doing whatever it took to get the best shot. But this time, the car racing away from the paparazzi crashed, killing Princess Diana and her then-fiancee Dodi al-Fayed.
In 1960, Jean Seberg rose to international fame in Jean-Luc Godard’s unforgettable film Breathless.
The American actress was immortalized as a French New Wave cinema icon. She was one of the most beloved actresses of her time… until she became involved with the Black Panther Party.
The FBI, the L.A. Times, and J Edgar Hoover concocted a smear campaign that led to Seberg’s highly publicized breakdown. A “fake news” story claimed she was pregnant with a Black Panthers member’s baby, not her husband’s.
The stress caused by ongoing media harassment sent Seberg into early labor. Her baby died two days later. Nine years after that, she died at 40 years old. Her untimely death was ruled a “probable suicide.”
No woman knew the blues quite like Billie Holiday. The legendary singer grew up in a poverty-stricken environment and dropped out of school in fifth grade. She reportedly began running errands for a brothel at 10 years old, and things only got worse from there.
When her career began, Holiday was repeatedly exploited by her lovers, who introduced her to drugs and enabled her addictions. And even at the height of her fame, she could not escape systemic racism.
When Billie Holiday sang, people listened. When she released Strange Fruit, law enforcement famously tried to silence Holiday and diminish her growing power. She added the track to her setlist, and the FBI began tracking and threatening the singer, citing her drug use as the reason. She was shot at, arrested, and eventually imprisoned.
Following her year-long sentence, the beloved performer was permanently banned from singing in any venue serving alcohol, which forever altered her career. Still, she constantly toured until her death at 44 years old.
Amy Winehouse was incredibly talented, but the press primarily focused on her personal struggles for entertainment value. Overnight, headlines quickly turned to punchlines. Questions about her weight, drug addiction, and troubled marriage were spun into salacious gossip on a weekly basis.
The more pain she seemed to be in, the more the press lapped up her hardships. When Winehouse was clearly in a very low moment, the headlines and angles became even more heartless, rather than concerned for her well-being or compassionate.
In the documentary, Amy, it’s stated that the singer’s father, Mitch Winehouse, exploited his daughter for profit. While he was busy becoming rich off of her struggles, she died of alcohol poisoning at 27.
Courtney Love was undoubtedly a messy rockstar, but so were many men in the same line of work. The difference, of course, is that a messy woman’s headline is all-too-often “train wreck” and not “tortured artist.”
Her late husband, Kurt Cobain, was a brilliant musician and the entire world mourned his death. The press, however, pointed fingers at Love, even blatantly blaming her for his suicide on occasion. Through his music and interviews, it was no mystery that Cobain was dealing with inner demons and struggling with substance abuse. So why was Love to blame?
The press’s choice to imply Courtney Love was responsible for Kurt Cobain’s well-being, therefore, his death benefited no one but the press. Their demonizing of Love forever damaged her career and completely undermined Cobain’s serious mental health problems by calling what happened her fault.
At the 2004 Super Bowl, Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson were performing when a wardrobe malfunction changed the media’s focus for the worst. During their duet, he ripped off part of her bra, accidentally exposing her breast to 143.6 million viewers.
The brief incident was painted into a huge scandal. In turn, Jackson, not Timberlake, was made to apologize for what happened. Timberlake’s career continued to soar. Jackson was banned from the Grammys while Justin took home countless awards.
Adding insult to injury, MTV decided it was best to blacklist her music videos, after worshipping her for decades. Many called the mortifying incident a “publicity stunt” on Jackson’s part.
While it takes more than one highly publicized attack to take down Janet Jackson, the press chose to turn what she called an unfortunate accident into a majorly damaging incident.
Lindsay Lohan rarely gets enough credit where credit is due. Since The Parent Trap, it was instantly clear to everyone she was an incredible actress brimming with potential. As the world watched her grow up, so did the media.
Painted as a party girl, her private life became the tabloid’s primary focus and her career was soon in the shadow of her public persona and personal battles. On top of that, many publications were fixated with what the teen’s eighteenth birthday seemingly signified.
Interview after interview, the focus was not on the actress’s career, but on her virginity, rumored sex life, and whether or not her breasts were real. Similar to Britney, many grown men were already asking her these questions while she was still a teen.
As she drastically dropped weight, her frail frame became even more fodder for snarky entertainment, rather than a cause for concern. Her career has never recovered from the insensitive backlash.
Tragically, Caroline Flack is a recent example of how the press relentlessly hounds and harasses female celebrities they once praised. The Love Island UK host was arrested after she allegedly assaulted her boyfriend. The all-too-eager tabloids wasted no tip tarnishing her reputation at every turn, turning her low point into cold hard cash.
While under endless media scrutiny, Flack was unable to leave her home without cameras and pointed fingers in her face. She even went on Instagram to discuss the toll the increasingly negative attention was taking on her state of mind and sense of self.
Following her suicide in 2020, the tone of the tabloids who’d callously ripped her apart changed. Suddenly, those who couldn’t get enough of her turmoil were saddened and sympathetic, but only after they shamelessly pushed her to the full breaking point and there was no story left to spin.
After what happened to Princess Diana, the British press changed their approach to the royal family. Until, of course, Meghan Markle arrived on the scene. Much like Diana, her relationship with the press started out as positive and adoring, but happy headlines don’t sell quite as well.
The media bullying and constant harassment grew so intense, the Duchess of Sussex and Prince Harry felt they had no choice but to remove themselves from royal life and duties, leaving the UK and relocating to the United States.
Following her first pregnancy, tensions ran high when the couple decided it was in their best interest not to show baby Archie off in pictures. The backlash from that decision has been never-ending and her parenting choices are cruelly attacked for both sport and resentment for what the press seems to feel they’re owed.
Markle has also been subjected to ongoing racism and unfairly criticized for who she is and where she comes from. Markle says the endlessly negative media coverage has been the source of debilitating stress. While talking to Oprah, Harry discussed their decision to move and said “My biggest concern was history repeating itself,” referring to the tragic death of his mother.
In an essay by Monica Lewinsky, she opens by saying “it may surprise you to learn I’m actually a person.”
When Lewinsky was 22, she had an affair with the President, and the press had a never-ending field day. There was perhaps no woman more hated or mistreated by the American tabloids at the time. She became the butt of every joke on late-night television and sadly, this one incident took over her entire life. If you ask many, this 90s scandal is all they know about her even today.
It seemed all too easy for the world to overlook the fact that she was barely into her twenties when she became involved with the most powerful person in America, who was 27 years her senior. Headline after headline, the majority of the blame and responsibility was publicly placed on the young intern.
Lewinsky says she looks back at the humiliating media circus and traumatic ordeal through a clearer lens. While she still suffers from PTSD from it, Lewinsky no longer accepts the public verdict she’s the solo villain of this highly publicized story.
For years, Whitney Houston was adored the world over. Her powerful presence and unmatched pipes made her an international sensation. But as we’ve learned, the higher the public pedestal, the greater the media backlash when the going gets tough.
Eyebrows began raising as the iconic singer appeared to be dropping weight. The media’s microscope concluded it was an eating disorder, then drug use, then her relationship problems, then all of the above. The reality was, it wasn’t anyone’s business, but even Diane Sawyer didn’t get that memo, pointing to tabloids accusations and insinuating that the 57-year-old wasn’t just thin. Whitney clapped back, “Then what am I, Diane?”
The press continued to dismantle the legend’s reputation, reducing her value to her present-day problems. Before the 2012 Grammys, Whitney Houston died in a hotel bathtub in an accidental drowning. Heart disease and cocaine were said to be contributing factors.
If you haven’t seen Framing Britney Spears yet, it is time you watch it. After a lifelong career in the spotlight and endless media scrutiny, the overprotected popstar finally snapped and was promptly blamed for it.
Dubbed the world’s pop princess, Rolling Stone called what she endured “an American tragedy.” And the negative attention in a time they should’ve left Britney alone has left a lasting mark.
Instead of giving Spears the space she vividly needed, the media moved in closer to fully capture her fall from grace. A decade later, the iconic performer remains under lock and key for “acting out” for the whole world to see.
Was Britney punished for rebelling against the narrative forced upon her? Or are we guilty of not giving an ounce of compassion during her mental breakdown, and one that the press undoubtedly contributed to?