“You can embarrass somebody to death,” “Late Late Show” host Craig Ferguson said while explaining why he was placing a personal moratorium on Britney Spears jokes. But if the media has helped to tear down Spears by reporting every ambulance ride and self-destructive trip to the hairdresser, does it also bear a responsibility to build her back up if she decides to go clean?
At the moment, that appears to be the direction Spears — and the media — want to go. She appeared Monday night on one of CBS’s top-rated comedies, “How I Met Your Mother,” in a heavily promoted guest role as a dim, easily manipulated receptionist. (According to Nielsen, the episode drew about 10.6 million viewers, up from the show’s 7.8 million average.)
Coverage was uniformly positive, with legendary scene-stealer Neil Patrick Harris begging for a scene with the guest. It is perhaps the beginning of one of the largest multi-media apologies to one person the world has ever seen.
That’s why Ferguson instituted his Britney ban at her head-shaving stage. A recovering alcoholic, he told the story of his former suicide plans and noted that Spears needed help, not spoofing sessions. “We shouldn’t be attacking the vulnerable people,” he said. “She clearly needs help.”
Some might argue that it’s difficult to see how a multimillionaire with a publicist, untold numbers of “people,” and thousands of fans is vulnerable, especially when she’s been chasing the limelight since before puberty. Perhaps she is reaping the paparazzi her sordid life has sowed. Maybe we’re receiving a live broadcast of what happens when young girls sink their own self-respect and career expectations by sexualizing too soon. Or maybe Spears is perfectly aware that she’s spun far out of control and desperately wants help, but in her insular life, lived jazz-hands style since childhood, she knew only to reach for Oprah-approved TV psychologists.
Others — and this is the current social temperature — have roundhoused on the all-custody-battles, all-the-time coverage of Spears’ downfall. Americans do enjoy their celebrity train wrecks, but after the caboose has crunched up into the engine stack with plenty of forward momentum to spare, the tipping point tips against “Weekly World News.” Once “South Park” takes your side, you have earned rare sympathies indeed. The animated series, which does not disdain to lampoon the disabled and the transgendered, recently depicted Spears as attempting suicide, after which she walks about headless until heckling reporters and ordinary citizens chillingly photograph her to death.
Well, she has to start somewhere. The episode, however, comes in the same week as news that Spears’ father is auctioning off some of his daughter’s seven cars in order to save cash for her estate. If the woman wants to own seven cars, let her own seven cars. But the tabloids roll around in it: Such stories serve as one more reminder that where Spears is concerned, the drama ye shall always have with you. Seven cars are perceived as residue of the insta-indulgence that has perhaps contributed to Spears’ troublesome substance-abuse spiral.
This is the aspect of her life that rankles some: Spears wanted to act, and she was immediately given an opportunity to act. And her acting career was always made possible by her fame as a vocal performer. Was some talented, hungry actress denied an opportunity for a major resume-booster to make way for the Britney Spears 2008 Rehabilitation Tour? If singing and dancing are her best abilities, why not quietly perform a few sets for small, supportive audiences? Or, better yet, why not rest? Just ... rest.
And perhaps that’s the one thing that Britney Spears wants but cannot buy. We’re creating our very own cautionary tale in her. Any journalist knows that if there’s no overarching narrative in a story, there’s no point in printing it. If Spears will provide a happy ending, the media will gladly comply. But in order for that to happen, she must first sober into her true self — and that needs to happen over time, in a world lit by something other than neon and flashbulbs.
And so once the media has torn Spears apart, the poor thing throws herself right back into its jaws in her search for deliverance. It’s a symptom of the endless ways it offers to restructure and reinvent. There’s an almost inexhaustible source of forgiveness in America, where Don Imus bounced back to the airwaves mere months after losing his job in the wake of a self-created racial firestorm. It would not be surprising if Michael Richards himself, having recently fled to various Cambodian temples, suddenly returned in triumph, complete with Senate campaign.
With the whole country waiting to see what Spears will do next, the most welcome surprise would be ... absolutely nothing. She may yet take a cue from her own “HIMYM” character: Mid-episode, Sarah Chalke, playing a dermatologist, ordered Spears to hang up on a yelling patient.
“Hang it up,” Chalke insisted as Spears tearfully clutched the phone, then added, “I’m sorry. I just wish the patients would be nicer to you.”
There was a pause. But then Britney Spears did, at last, slam the phone down on the noise from the other end.
Mary Beth Ellis runs BlondeChampagne.com from the Washington, D.C., area. Her first book, “Drink to the Lasses,” was published in 2006.