2007 is still somewhat of a blank spot to me. Honestly, 2005 to 2007 occupies little space within my brain – I suppose there was just little going on at the time. I remember Fergie was Glamorous. I remember reading The Deathly Hallows and my young brain frying upon the newly messianic figure of Harry Potter returning to life. And I remember Britney. This week 11 years ago, the world stood by and watched the mental health of Britney Spears completely unravel, pushed to the brink by bipolar disorder and unrelenting public obsession with her life. Even while it was still occurring, the reaction was one of ridicule with misogynistic overtones. It only fuelled the issue. It was the first public exposure to mental illness many of us had, and we could not have gotten off to a worse start.
We have to remember that the internet, while in nearly every household and workplace in the world, had still not seamlessly united with celebrity culture in the way we have long since taken for granted. Much like Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction directly facilitating the creation of Youtube, the public collapse of Spears created a new era in celebrity culture and how the internet delivered it to us all, unfiltered and without the slightest hint of empathy. This is of particular note when it comes to people my age – the slightly older group of millennials, now between 20 and 24, who had never had such a wide exposure to such a topic previously. We grew up with this moment being a point of mockery even into our teenage years, it was to inform attitudes long before we had an understanding of what we were being informed about. Even as kids, we knew it was something to laugh at. Spears’ breakdown was unprecedented in terms of cultural osmosis – this was a mental health issue that was seemingly accessible to all, but yet, it was never treated as a mental health issue. It was a dehumanising punchline for late night comics, a stigma to replicate for social acceptance. ‘Leave Britney Alone!’, cringeworthy as that may be to our ears today, is something to consider. The melodrama of said video aside, the mere idea of giving someone with a mental illness any sort of space was a joke. It did not help that the video was packaged in an easily ridiculed gay femininity, which only heightened the mockery of Spears herself. While making a public figure out of Chris Crocker, the plead for empathy was ignored.
It was symbolic of how mental illness was handled by the public in the rise of the Internet Age. It is especially symbolic as to how mental illness was digested by my age group, then regurgitated without any hint as to what actually contributed to the problem at hand. It has only been within the last three or so years that we have been able to turn the pop culture calendar back on Spears and think ‘Oh wow, we kinda fucked up, didn’t we? Shit.’ This is in no small part due to a successful rehabilitation of Spears’ image, one of a dutiful, if simple, doting parent who just wants to dance and be there for her kids. Bless her. But while there is recognition of the problem, have we (especially those my age) learned from it?
I want to say yes. Just as the internet delivered us into a new age of empathy-deficient consumption, it has also given us the opportunity to access so much more information about what we are consuming, how we are doing it, who we are interacting with. We’ve grown up and learned how to put words and definitions to what we are feeling and what we are seeing. Some of us have since experienced mental health issues since, many more of us have learned to empathise with these issues. God knows I certainly understand. The advent of social media, while decried by many a moral guardian, does have its uses. There is no exaggeration in saying that it allowed our generation to realise the grandiose ‘90s promise of an interconnected world, and that many people today would not have experienced fundamental moral growth without the people they met through it. The internet provides almost endless opportunity to learn from the mistakes of how Britney was treated, even though it is an event so thoroughly in our past that we don’t think about it like that.
But that key word is opportunity – while so many of us have succeeded, so many more have fallen to the ingrained attitudes of the past, with the unwelcome new aspect of having so much information at your fingertips that you take in none of it. A lot of it is subconscious – just because someone is exposed to healthier attitudes, it doesn’t mean that they’ll recognise it as something to embrace. Sometimes people are so hurt that they don’t know how else to be. I get that, it’s just disheartening. Mental health still faces many of the same stigmas it did over a decade ago, even amongst our own age group. The lack of understanding, empathy and even forgiveness eludes so many of us, and it is incredibly troubling. Britney may be Stronger than yesterday, but I don’t know whether we are.