December 6, 2021

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Lesson of the Day: ‘Speaking of Britney … What About All Those Other Women?’

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Students in U.S. high schools can get free digital access to The New York Times until Sept. 1.

If you have not yet brought Women’s History Month into your classroom, this media literacy lesson may provide an opportunity. You can also explore our other lesson plans for Teaching and Learning About Women’s History With The New York Times.

Featured Article: “Speaking of Britney … What About All Those Other Women?” by Jessica Bennett

The New York Times documentary “Framing Britney Spears” has prompted a re-evaluation of media coverage of celebrities, especially young women, who were hounded and scrutinized in the 1990s and early 2000s amid a “market for humiliation.” A celebrity media machine that fixated on the personal struggles of famous women cast itself as necessary to protect young fans; it is now being criticized as stereotype-riddled, profitable bullying, that was carried out without care for its subjects.

In this lesson, you will learn more about the media environment from that time and explore how it connects to the current environment. Then you will choose a female figure from the past or present and investigate how she has been covered by the media in order to learn and to practice some of the media literacy strategies Ms. Bennett uses in her analysis.

Closely examine the above image, which features American newspaper and magazine clippings from the 1990s and early 2000s. What do you notice? What do you wonder? What questions do you have?

Who is being written about in these clippings? Had you already heard of these celebrities? What is the tone of the coverage? What words stick out for you? How do these clips compare with what you currently read about celebrities?

Read or listen to the article, then answer the following questions:

1. The article’s summary states that “we are living in an era of reappraisals.” In your own words, what is being reappraised and why?

2. What examples does Ms. Bennett provide for her assertion that young female celebrities were covered in an unfair way in the 1990s and early 2000s?

3. What common themes can you identify throughout the coverage of the celebrities Ms. Bennett names? How do you think these themes affected how these women were perceived by the public?

4. Who makes up the celebrity media machine that Ms. Bennett describes as generating unfair coverage of young female celebrities? What incentives existed for them to produce coverage of this kind?

5. What does Ms. Bennett say about the way Black women were treated by the celebrity media machine? How does it differ from the way white women were treated?

6. How have you seen factors like gender, race, age and sexuality shape the way people in the public eye are perceived and treated? What about the intersections of these identities? How do media and social media reinforce or frame certain perceptions?

7. Do you think that media coverage of women has improved since that earlier time? What does Ms. Bennett argue? Do you agree? Can you think of recent examples that support your conclusion?

Choose a female celebrity, athlete or other public figure who is interesting or meaningful to you for any reason — whether Billie Eilish, Beyoncé, Billie Jean King or anyone else. While Ms. Bennett’s article focuses primarily on how women were covered during a specific time period, you can choose a woman from any era.

Then, in light of what you’ve just read, analyze how that person has been portrayed in the media by choosing at least two sources. You can examine two news articles from different sources in the same time period, or you can compare how the woman you chose was covered at different points in history. Your sources might include The New York Times or other general-interest news outlets, or magazines or websites specifically devoted to covering celebrities — or both.

Read the below questions for evaluating bias in news coverage, which are adapted from Learning for Justice and Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, and the examples we provide of how Ms. Bennett uses each media literacy strategy in her piece. Then read and annotate the articles you chose with the questions in mind.

  • From whose point of view is this story reported? (For example, the piece you have just read is by Jessica Bennett, a Times editor at large covering gender and culture who came to the paper in 2017 as The Times’s first gender editor. She describes her own experiences as a young journalist, but also interviews others who wrote, or were written about, in the 1990s and early 2000s and are now trying to reckon with that coverage.)

  • What unchallenged assumptions are present? (For example, in her piece, Ms. Bennett quotes Danyel Smith to address the assumption, unchallenged in much of that era’s coverage, that it was OK to treat a celebrity’s mental health as entertainment.)

  • Are any stereotypes, particularly about aspects of identity like gender, race and age present in the piece? How do they contribute to the image presented of the piece’s subject? (Ms. Bennett provides the “damsel-in-distress” narrative as one example.)

  • Are there any instances of loaded or charged language? (For example, Ms. Bennett refers to words and phrases like “wild,” “obtrusively voluptuous” and “train wreck.”)

  • What do photographs, images or videos communicate? (Ms. Bennett examines suggestive images of Britney Spears included in a Rolling Stone story and compares magazine covers of young men with those of young women.)

  • What do you notice about the media sources you chose? Did certain sources cover a subject differently from other sources? Why do you think that is? (Ms. Bennett explores the financial incentives for the tabloid talk shows and gossip magazines in that earlier era, saying that “disaster and personal tragedy sold.”)

  • How might the era in which each piece was published affect the coverage? (Ms. Bennett quotes Susan Douglas, a professor of communication and media, who contrasts language used about stars in that era with language that we use currently, like “accountability,” “consent,” “fat-shaming” and “mental health.”)

Then, reflect: Do you think that the pieces you read fairly depicted their subject? Why or why not?

On your own, or as part of a class assignment, you might then broaden this study by doing one or more of the following:

  • Create a live or online gallery of artifacts from different eras that illustrate some of the issues you found. Viewers of this gallery might be invited to react to what they see and read by guessing the date and source of the artifact and explaining why they guessed as they did. Together, discuss the patterns or themes that emerge, and what lessons they might teach for consuming news now.

  • Or, you might create an additional collection of journalistic work you find admirable — from any time period or source — because of the way it covers the person you chose. What words, phrases, images or other editorial choices make these pieces succeed, in your view?

  • Another possibility? Take a piece you uncovered that is riddled with loaded or charged language and try to rewrite it in a way that seems evenhanded and thoughtful “through a modern lens.” How hard was it to do that? Why? What choices did you have to make?

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