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In 2007, Craig Ferguson Said “No Britney Spears Jokes” Because Empathy Was Always an Option

US singer Britney Spears arrives for the premiere of Sony Pictures' "Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood" at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, California

The New York Times’ new documentary Framing Britney Spears is the latest installation in our collective reckoning with the many ways in which as a society mistreated women in the 1990s and early to mid-aughts. Obviously, women have been mistreated basically every decade forever before and since, but there was something uniquely awful about this time period, when we turned women’s trauma and their personal and professional struggles into media punchlines to keep our newly-established 24-hour news cycle churning.

We’ve done (or at least begun) our societal mea culpa with women like Monica Lewinsky, Lorena Bobbitt, Marcia Clark, and now Britney Spears. Why were we so obsessed with turning these women into jokes?

Here’s what our Princess Weekes wrote about this phenomenon and how we saw it play out around Spears’ famous 2007 “breakdown”:

I can’t remember what I thought when Britney shaved her head, but I do remember news outlets framing it in a way that made it a joke. We weren’t being asked to sympathize with her in the mainstream media. It was this bread and circuses show meant to fuel us as this pop god was “brought down to Earth.” As an adult, I realize that the shame was the point. The dehumanization was the point, because rather than deal with the fact that Britney could be dealing with mental illness and personal trauma, why not make fun of her?

In the wake of the documentary, a clip from the Late Late Show has resurfaced in which Craig Ferguson says he’s not going to make any Britney Spears jokes during the show. This was pretty much immediately after Britney had her infamous head-shaving incident and everyone was making jokes about it. It was pure entertainment fodder—which Ferguson (rightly) found really gross.

Ferguson starts off by comparing the way media—and specifically “news”—outlets had been covering Spears to the experience of watching people get hurt on America’s Funniest Home Videos. It’s easy to laugh because these things are presented to viewers as being objectively funny, but if you take a step back and think about what you’re watching, it’s just somebody experiencing pain, who no one is helping.

With these celebrity stories, though, “we’re the ones holding the camera. And people are falling apart. People are dying,” Ferguson says to a laughing audience because his voice still has the cadence and timbre of jokes. “That Anna Nicole Smith woman, she died!

Smith is one woman from the 90s for whom we have not yet done our collective repentance (although the podcast You’re Wrong About has a truly excellent episode about her life, death, and the gross media frenzy around both). She died at the age of 39 just one week before Spears shaved her head and the media was obsessed with presenting these women as human car crashes.

This is probably why some people in the audience thought that mentioning Smith’s death was some sort of set-up to a punchline. Ferguson has to tell his still-laughing audience, “It’s not a joke.”

“She’s [Smith’s] got a six-month-old kid, what the hell is that? I’m starting to feel uncomfortable making fun of these people. For me, comedy should have a certain amount of joy in it. It should be about us attacking the powerful people, attacking the politicians, and the Trumps, and the blowhards—going after them,” he said. Incredible that Trump ended up being all three of those things more than a decade later. Truly the height of comedy.

“We shouldn’t be attacking the vulnerable people,” Ferguson continued. “And this is just a mea culpa, this is just for me, I think my aim’s been off a bit recently. I want to change it a bit so tonight, no Britney Spears jokes.”

In the full monologue from that night, Ferguson speaks about his own history with addiction. He makes it clear that he doesn’t know if Spears has similar issues, “but she clearly needs help.”

It’s not like Ferguson’s monologue from that night had been lost to time after it aired. He did interviews about it afterward. He spoke to the LA Times about it just last year. But there is no power like a seemingly spontaneous collective reckoning, like the kind brought about by a powerful piece of viral media.

(It is, of course, entirely, bitterly ironic that the news media was largely responsible for the way we treated Spears, and that a major media outlet is now driving the public’s attention back to reframing our societal misdeeds.)

The Twitter account @BritneyHiatus posted that clip of Ferguson last summer and it racked up 1.6k likes and fewer than 500 retweets. The same account posted the same clip yesterday, just a few days after the documentary began streaming. As of now, it has more than 100K likes and close to 20,000 retweets. It only took 13 years but Spears is finally getting our empathy on the scale she always deserved.

(image: VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images)

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Vivian Kane (she/her) has a lot of opinions about a lot of things. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri with her husband Brock Wilbur and too many cats.