Mara Wilson can relate to Britney Spears‘s plight.
The 33-year-old actress who started working at age 5, starring in movies including Matilda and Mrs. Doubtfire, writes in a New York Times opinion piece that growing up in Hollywood, she learned at a young age that she had no control over the narrative painted about her, and was sexualized by both the media and the public — like the pop star.
“Hollywood has resolved to tackle harassment in the industry, but I was never sexually harassed on a film set,” Wilson wrote. “My sexual harassment always came at the hands of the media and the public.”
Wilson recalled being burned by the press at age 13 in 2000 when she was dubbed a “spoiled brat” in a Canadian newspaper profile (titled: “Mara at midlife”) with the writer claiming she was “complaining to her staff” at a press event. She quickly learned about “the narrative” put onto stars by the media and public and how it was always about how “anyone who grew up in the public eye will meet some tragic end.”
In the same belittling profile, Wilson was asked what she thought of Spears — then a superstar in the “Oops!… I Did It Again” era — and “apparently, I replied that I ‘hated’ her. I didn’t actually hate Britney Spears. But I would never have admitted to liking her. There was a strong streak of ‘not like the other girls’ in me at the time, which feels shameful now… Some of it was pure jealousy, that she was beautiful and cool in a way I’d never be. I think mostly, I had already absorbed the version of the narrative surrounding her as ‘bad girl’ for posing in a bra top for Rolling Stone.“
Wilson said while “many teenage actresses and singers” like Spears embraced “sexuality as a rite of passage, appearing on the covers of lad mags or in provocative music videos,” she decided, “That was never going to be me.” That’s because, “I had already been sexualized anyway, and I hated it.”
While Wilson “mostly acted in family movies” and “never appeared in anything more revealing than a knee-length sundress,” an intentional decision by her parents, “It didn’t work. People had been asking me, ‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ in interviews since I was 6. Reporters asked me who I thought the sexiest actor was and about Hugh Grant’s arrest for soliciting a prostitute. It was cute when 10-year-olds sent me letters saying they were in love with me. It was not when 50-year-old men did. Before I even turned 12, there were images of me on foot fetish websites and photoshopped into child pornography. Every time, I felt ashamed.”
Wilson said the way people talked about Spears “was terrifying to me then, and it still is now. Her story is a striking example of a phenomenon I’ve witnessed for years: Our culture builds these girls up just to destroy them. Fortunately people are becoming aware of what we did to Ms. Spears,” brought to the forefront amid the release of the documentary Framing Britney Spears, “and starting to apologize to her. But we’re still living with the scars.”
Wilson wrote that part of the narrative for female stars has always been that whatever bad things happen to them — addictions, overdoses and so on — are things “famous kids deserve.” That “they asked for this by becoming famous and entitled, so it’s fine to attack them.” When in reality, it “often has far less to do with the child than with the people around them.”
Reflecting on Spear’s breakdown, which saw the singer be involuntarily hospitalized twice in January 2008 after losing custody and visitation rights of her toddler sons, Wilson said the “saddest” part “is that it never needed to happen. When she split with her husband, shaved her head and furiously attacked a paparazzi car with an umbrella, the narrative was forced upon her, but the reality was she was a new mother dealing with major life changes. People need space, time and care to deal with those things. She had none of that.”
Willson said that “many moments of Ms. Spears’s life were familiar to me. We both had dolls made of us, had close friends and boyfriends sharing our secrets and had grown men commenting on our bodies. But my life was easier not only because I was never tabloid-level famous, but because unlike Ms. Spears, I always had my family’s support. I knew that I had money put away for me, and it was mine. If I needed to escape the public eye, I vanished — safe at home or school.” (She wrote more about her upbringing: attending public schools, being a Girl Scout and sharing a bedroom with her little sister.)
Wilson ended her essay by saying she’s learned to take control of her own story — and her narrative is no longer “a story someone else is writing anymore. I can write it myself.”
Spears hasn’t spoken out about the documentary, which premiered Feb. 5 and also delves into the conservatorship she’s been under since her breakdown. The film has led to a re-examination of celebrity and how, especially the female stars, have faced relentless scrutiny and shaming. Spears’s ex-Justin Timberlake recently apologized to Spears for playing into the negative narrative about the pop star.
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