How America Finally Figured Out How To Leave Britney Alone

Britney Spears attends 'X-Factor' auditions, June 2012.  (Chuck France/Getty Images)

Where were you when Britney Spears shaved her head?

Okay, so it wasn't exactly a world-changing event, but for many of us, it was certainly memorable. I happened to be in San Francisco's Bill Graham auditorium, interviewing bands at the Taste of Chaos festival. I remember because Britney's new 'do was all anyone—bands, fans, roadies—could talk about. Which is pretty weird for an emo-rock festival, but a solid indicator of just how obsessed everyone was with her meltdown.

Twelve years ago, there was a ferocity attached to how Britney's mental health issues were consumed by the world that is disturbing to look back on. Photos of Brit in hollow-eyed crisis—in the barber shop, with the umbrella, handcuffed to that gurney—were splashed across tabloids and newspapers for our entertainment. Footage of her leaving her home in an ambulance, escorted by a number of police vehicles, is nothing short of grotesque—a sea of photographers, busy-bodies and fans blocking the street as emergency services attempt to get her to hospital.

We laughed at him at the time (some of us still do, actually) but before his infamous "Leave Britney alone!" meltdown, superfan Chris Crocker made a lot more sense than you probably remember. "I know it's hard to see Britney Spears as a human being," he said, "but, trust me, she is. She is a person, just like you or I... What really bothers me is thinking of those people out there who don't see her as a person."

Fast forward to the present day and Britney has been in a mental health facility for most of this month, purportedly to help her cope emotionally with the ailing health of her father, who has been her conservator since 2007. Brit has been seen in public only once since, photographed leaving a Beverley Hills hotel looking more disheveled than we are accustomed to these days. While the snaps made it onto gossip websites, and TMZ claimed that a new "cocktail" of prescription drugs prompted her new fragile state, for the most part, coverage—or lack thereof—is in stark contrast to how Britney was treated the first time around.

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Arguably, the shift from then to now has a lot to do with how we consume our media. These days, we are less reliant on sensational tabloids to get our celeb info; social media enables us to feel closer to our favorite stars than ever before. Interacting with them online makes them less abstract and more human than they used to be. What's more, it's much harder to make fun of celebrity nervous breakdowns when we can see the likes of Jim Carrey and Ariana Grande on Twitter, publicly exchanging strategies to handle depression.

Compounding this shift is the knock-on effect of a spate of tragic celebrity deaths. We recently lost Alexander McQueen, Robin Williams, Chester Bennington, Anthony Bourdain, Kate Spade, Chris Cornell, Keith Flint, Margot Kidder and Mindy McCready to suicide. We also lost Prince, Heath Ledger, Whitney Houston, Tom Petty, Mac Miller, Lil Peep and Britney Murphy to self-medication. All those tragedies have left an indelible mark on the culture, and left the general public in a heightened state of sensitivity.

In addition to all that, Generation Z is the most empathetic in history thanks to growing up online, being the most diverse generation ever and facing down increasing economic, environmental and political doom. The American Psychological Association has reported that "68 percent of Gen Z adults feel very or somewhat significantly stressed about our nation’s future." Gen Z has neither the time nor the inclination to make fun of famous humans experiencing crisis, and that is helping set the tone for the culture at large.

In prior decades, Demi Lovato would have been hunted by the press and chewed up by the public after her 2018 overdose. Kanye West would be relentlessly mocked for his mental health-related hospitalization, not greeted with a #PrayForKanye hashtag. Even after a litany of terrible behavior, the public was quick to forgive Justin Bieber, understanding the pressures fame can wreak on child stars.

America has become less inclined to revel in the misery of celebrities and more inclined to offer support. In 2017, when Katy Perry publicly made multiple digs at Britney's head-shaving moment—a perfectly acceptable joke ten years prior—the public perceived Perry as an insensitive bully and quickly rushed to Brit's defense. #KatyPerryIsOverParty started trending on Twitter almost immediately.

With hindsight, it's possible that the 2007 crucifixion of Britney prompted the first steps America took away from making fun of troubled stars. In the throes of her breakdown, as other late-night hosts made jokes at her expense, Craig Ferguson used his Late Late Show monologue to share a Britney-related revelation. Initially, his studio audience didn't quite get it. "She clearly needs help," he said, eliciting laughs from the crowd. "It's not funny," he emphasized. "You can embarrass someone to death."

It's remarkable how much Ferguson got right that night. "I’m starting to feel uncomfortable making fun of these people," he said. "For me, comedy should have a certain amount of joy in it. It should be about us attacking the powerful people, the politicians, and the Trumps, and the blowhards. We shouldn’t be attacking the vulnerable people."

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Thankfully, in 2019, far fewer of us are.

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