The support of fans and the restraint of paparazzi show how attitudes to celebrity distress have changed
When Britney Spears shaved her head and took an umbrella to a paparazzos car in 2007, the events of a night turned into a circus-like spectacle gobbled up by a bloodthirsty audience. When, a few months later, she was taken into psychiatric care, photographers jostled and pushed around the ambulance, trying to snatch an image of the singer, in obvious distress, adding the flashes of their cameras to the flashing lights of the emergency vehicle. An episode of South Park that was broadcast in 2008, Britneys New Look, offered a surprisingly furious satirical riposte: famous young women become sacrifices for a baying crowd, who nitpick at every flaw, literally hounding their target to death.
What a difference a decade can make. Last week, Spears posted a quote on her Instagram page Fall in love with taking care of yourself, mind, body, spirit along with a caption that read: We all need to take time for a little me time, followed by a smiley face. It was timed to coincide with reports that she had checked herself into a mental health facility for 30 days. This news has been unaccompanied by frenzy or hysteria. Instead, though widely reported and unpicked, it has been treated with something approaching respect and certainly a wider understanding of the situation. The messages of love and support posted by fans seem supportive and empathetic; the tabloid reports relatively muted and factual.
In the Asif Kapadia documentary about Amy Winehouse, one of the moments that remained with me was how much the singers struggles had become a punchline, an excuse for a gag, even a fancy dress costume. To watch people wisecracking about her troubles, through the awful lens of hindsight, is terrible and tragic. Perhaps its too generous, but I find it hard to imagine that same sort of blase mockery happening now.
This is an age in which openness about mental health is much discussed and debated. As with anything, much of it depends on situation and circumstance. The rapper Big Sean recently spoke about his experience of anxiety and depression and how it led him to find a good therapist; it was reported with care and he was widely admired for his openness.
The difference between how Spears has been discussed this past week, compared to the gruesome running commentary of 2008, is striking. Suffering is less a spectacle, more something to be understood. It is a tentative sign that the conversation is, at last, maturing.
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