Breaking Down the Visual Narrative of Britney Spears’s 2007 Breakdown
Britney Spears gazes the same gaze out from the cover of US Weekly Fig. 1, Daily News Fig. 2, and People Magazine Fig. 3. With the crown of her head clean shaven and the rest of her dark brown hair falling down her back, Britney is pictured with a seemingly emotionless expression. Her eyes stare straight at the camera, the paparazzi, and the spectator. Her gaze is arresting in its pointedness and ambiguity. Yet, these covers are anything but ambiguous. US Weekly writes “HELP ME” across the cover, Daily News places Britney on the edge of a breakdown, and People Magazine reiterates the Daily News. The New York Post Fig. 4 cover features a different photo of Britney from the same series: scalp exposed, ring of dark hair, but this time Britney looks into the (presumed) mirror with a smile as she holds a shaver to her temple. The New York Post attributes this to “madness” and calls Britney a “buzz kill.”
The visual phenomenon of Britney’s 2007 head-shaving incident traveled in the form of those two images. This paper seeks to understand what is accomplished, and by whom, in the imagined space of these Britney photographs, as well as to ask how, and upon whom, the photographs act in the world space outside of the photograph. Using Ariella Azoulay, Zeynep Gursel, and Malek Alloula’s theories on photography, I posit Britney’s breakdown’s visual narrative and iconography as a space in which actors involved in the media’s production, presentation, distribution, and consumption are transformed. In moving from an application of Azoulay’s proposed contract of citizenry, Gursel’s understanding of the creation of news-images, and Alloula’s locating of the photographic act in a larger moment of social relations, this paper returns to Azoulay’s imagined photographic space. Beginning with Azoulay’s analysis of the space over the image itself, expanding into Gursel’s analysis of the reproduced image’s web of circulation, and emerging on the surface of lived reality through Alloula’s theory, I argue that ‘Britney’ as a photographic site becomes a space mitigated by the photograph in its abstract and its material being. As this paper asserts, the layered networks of actors responsible for the making of Britney’s iconic visual narrative are transformed and thus dictate the space of citizenry Azoulay first claims.
Ariella Azoulay’s The Civil Contract of Photography defines the actors inherently present in photographic events: the photographer, the camera, the photographed subject, and the spectator. Azoulay posits this photographic event as a moment for the equal and mutual induction of these various actors into the civil contract of photography. While Azoulay emphasizes photography as a mechanism for rehabilitating the citizenship of otherwise dispossessed photographed subjects, an application of this civil contract to the paparazzi photographs of Britney Spears’s 2007 meltdown complicates Azoulay’s theory.
In the case of these paparazzi photos, the question as to who owns the photograph is negotiable. In a legal and practical sense, the owners of such photographs are explicit: the paparazzo takes the picture and resells it directly or through a chain that allows such publications to reproduce and appropriate ownership of the photograph. Azoulay’s civil contract denies us this simple definition of image ownership when she asserts that “…the photograph exceeds any presumption of ownership or monopoly…” (12). According to Azoulay, then, Britney’s claim to ownership in these cover photos joins the claim made by the paparazzo stalking the photo, the camera capturing the image, and the spectator who consumes it. Azoulay, however, centers her analysis on the photography of ‘injured persons’ as a distinct class of people whose impaired citizenship can be restored through the photographic act, through that induction into a space of shared citizenship.
Azoulay builds her argument on the addresser as an injured person and on a moment of that acknowledgement: “I can read the consent of those who are photographed. They are ready to take the first step of making a civil address: the presentation of a grievance” (143). Azoulay’s suggestion of agency complicates an application of her theory unto the tabloid coverage of Britney’s breakdown: Is Britney an injured person? She is clearly suggested to be in the tabloids’ narratives of emotional strife and collapse. Is Britney making a claim as an injured person? She did not seek the paparazzi who captured her head-shaving, but she knew of their presence, of their insistence to photographically capture and narrate. Considering the uncertainty of Britney’s agency, could these photographs be articulated as claims that Britney made? Or had she no access to such a claim? To read Britney as an injured person making a claim on the spectator caves when the elements (the consensual presentation of a grievance) are interrogated, but not when the focus is brought to the impact of the Britney photographs on the spectator.
Azoulay may not stand in parallel to a reading of Britney’s visual media narrative, however Azoulay’s theory and the appearance of applicability indicate a usage of Azoulay yet: in revealing the myth of citizenship manufactured by the paparazzi, Britney’s image, and the tabloid itself. This constructed myth allows inconsistencies (like the question of Britney as ‘injured person’) to become irrelevant to the influence of an illusion of actors constructing an illusion of an Azoulayan space of citizenry. Britney is implicated in this myth of citizenship in her appearance to the spectators as mediated by these tabloid images.
The tabloids instantly brand Britney, and her actions, as the desperate measures of an injured and broken person: “HELP ME,” “loneliness, self-hatred, & drug use,” “edge of a breakdown,” and “self-destructive” color the “shocking” images of Britney’s breakdown Fig. 1, 2, 5. While the tabloids articulate pain in Britney’s image, they evade the burden of designating an injuring actor. They frame her as dispossessed but invoke no one to bear that responsibility and thus reveal the ‘myth’ of a complete set of citizenship-restoring actors. The tabloids further inculcate Britney’s ‘injured person’ status in the spectators as they situate the photograph as a claim that Britney is making, a cry for help virtuously delivered to the concerned public. “HELP ME” is the most direct of the requests, but the tabloids effectively suggest her need as they paint a picture in which her parents “desperately pray” and her “family is fearing for the star and her children.” Fig. 1, 3. According to Azoulay, this is the ‘convention of the photography’: the integration of subtitles, text, and other forms of elaboration reveals the image’s inability to stand alone (150). It reveals the uncertainty of the “truth” attributed to the image. It also, however, reveals the intention for “truth” articulated in terms of such image. Yet, the network of actors that intend for such “truth” is potentially greater than that which Azoulay posits.
Zeynep Gursel, author of Image Brokers, challenges Azoulay’s script for reading photographs. Gursel argues that the actors involved in the construction of such images are not limited to photographer, spectator, camera, and subject. She calls attention to news images (and more specifically, their circulation) to reveal a fifth actor: the image broker. These “typically invisible” actors drive the distinction between news images and general photographs as they dictate the circulation that makes such images into news (Gursel 14). Thus, Gursel adds an analytical dimension beyond the content of the image by introducing “…the context in which any particular photograph is produced and the route it travels to become news” as a basis of understanding how the photograph is transformed for and by its network of actors (7). By posing a movement-based method, Gursel implies the need to find a stability in terms of what is being circulated. In the context of Britney’s breakdown news, the ability to locate a stable image allows for the Britney images to be interpreted within Gursel’s framework.
The presence of a stable visual ‘iconography’ of Britney’s 2007 breakdown engages with the question of whether Britney can be considered news, whether she appears as news, whether she is made news, and what it means for her to be news. By locating a stable image moving through the print tabloids, a path of circulation—of conservation of content across varied publications—reveals itself. Either one of two photographs of Britney’s head-shaving incident is featured consistently on the covers of US Weekly, the Daily News, the New York Post, and People Magazine Fig. 1, 2, 3, 4. While the image of Britney mid-shaving is prioritized on the covers of all but People’s cover, People shows an image of Britney pre-haircut, ‘normal’ and with no physical evidence of her impending breakdown Fig. 3. In the cover’s top-left corner, bound in a circle, is a smaller reprint of the signature image of Britney mid-shave engaged in eye contact. The circle mimics a badge functioning to identify the story, to brand the story as news. The circulation of two stable images and their associative capabilities reveal the image brokers inherent to them, shaping the release and movement of same-images and thus making Britney’s paparazzi photos into ‘news’ iconography through their circulation.
Gursel centers this news-making process on the network of actors allowing for the image’s creation, circulation, and consumption. It is important, then, to see how this visual network within print tabloids is transformed along the digital boundary into digital news on TV news and Internet sites like TMZ. A screengrab from a Fox News television broadcast carries the visual marker of one of the iconized Britney images: that of her smiling into the mirror as she holds the razor to her scalp Fig. 6. The image’s entrance into this digital sphere already expands the news-network into the TV media, however Fox further embeds Britney as a news image by locating their news in relation to e-tabloid TMZ.com. The text accompanying Britney’s photographic appearance on Fox first labels the content “TMZ HEADLINES” before elaborating below “BRITNEY SHAVED HER HEAD TO HIDE DRUGS.”
The reference to TMZ continues to code Britney’s imaged breakdown in Gursel’s terms of news-making. An investigation into TMZ’s self-articulation on their “About Us” page isolates TMZ’s insistence in defining celebrity media as news. In three short paragraphs, TMZ outlines their origins, 2005 launch, and summarizes:
TMZ altered the entertainment news landscape by changing the way the public gets its news. Frequently reference by various media, TMZ is one of the most-cited entertainment news sources, utilized by national networks and local newsgathering organizations across the country. [emphasis added] (“About Us”)
TMZ, an online tabloid, operates under the coded term “entertainment news.” TMZ puts in substantial framing work to orient itself as a ‘news’ organization and pre-emptively legitimize itself by grounding its success within a narrative of circulation. The text directly implicates “national networks and local newsgathering organizations” in that authenticating process and thus embodies Gursel’s framework of ‘newsmaking.’ This news-made-in-circulation process is mimicked by the movement of Britney’s image. The image becomes the news itself in its consistent reprint and legitimizes itself by traversing electronic and print boundaries to be present in entertainment-centric news media—like TMZ and the exampled print tabloids—and in general media sources like Fox News TV.
If Britney is then a news image in her stability and circulation pattern, how does that change, expand, and antagonize a reading of the image and its content? Gursel explains the inner complexities of news images, “They circulate as representations of reality…They are concrete, fixed things even when digital, yet they also mediate abstract ideas about people, places, and their identities” (11). Thus, the pattern of Britney as a news image and her replication across media effectively reiterates a reality and a fixity of a moment—making such image the conservable nugget of ‘real’ around which the construction of Britney’s breakdown narrative can congregate. According to Gursel, the narrative ability of news images reclassifies them as “’formative fictions,’ constructed representations that reflect current events yet simultaneously shape ways of imagining the world and political possibilities within it” (11). Like Azoulay, Gursel is again invoking the textual elaboration of the image as evidence of image’s inability to securely stand alone as news or information. Further, by framing visual reproductions of Britney’s breakdown as “formative fictions,” an analysis of Britney-as-news remains in a dynamic action-based process of ongoing transformation and constant reconstruction.
Gursel uses the notion of formative fictions to draw attention to the stakes of a circulated, curated narrative: “visualizing world news is…about how events are made visible to the mind, how they are imagined by readers” (12). Gursel establishes a causal relationship: news images shape possibility, potential for being. These authored visual texts dictate the terms with which image-consumers can articulate specific narratives and the greater realities those images speak to. Gursel’s theory thus demands a page-turn in the analysis of Britney’s visual media. While Azoulay centralizes upon the individual photograph—which is, at every moment of attention, a site for the meeting of photographer, photographed, spectator, and camera—Gursel insists on reading the entire expansive phenomenon of the photograph. She insists on watching how the visual space accumulates actors and is therefore not simply changed by the state of being in circulation, but unceasingly changed as it is circulated. Gursel demands that the photograph be understood in its aggregate, in its networking and renetworking with itself and its accumulated spectators. The invisible work of the image brokers to author a reality through circulation limits the realities that spectators themselves articulate going forward.
The absence of Britney’s own voice in constructing her narrative is apparent in the presentation of Britney’s breakdown on the covers of these tabloids. On US Weekly’s cover her voice seems to claim, “HELP ME,” but there are no quotation marks or other conventions that would indicate that phrase to be anything but an attention-grabbing headline Fig. 1. Below, “insiders” and “ex-staffers” occupy the space of authorship as they “reveal Brit’s loneliness, self-hatred, & drug use.” Britney’s voice has no space in the narrative, while others author her narrative around her, but more pointedly, around her buzzed image. This vacancy of Britney’s voice is reflected even in the text-heavy portion of People Magazine’s article.
In Karen Schneider’s 2007 People article titled “Britney’s Road to Rehab,” salon owner Esther Tognozzi recalls Britney’s arrival at her hair salon for her now-famous shave, “…she walked in cool-as-a-cucumber, with no expression,” and observed “[Britney] really didn’t say much…The only time she showed any emotion at all was when she was done and she looked in the mirror and she got all teary-eyed and said, ‘My mom is going to freak.'” Tognozzi not only witnessed the event, but interacted with Britney on non-exploitative terms (like the paparazzi), yet describes a situation of much smaller emotional scale than that repeated by the tabloids. The tabloid covers thus speak for Britney through “insiders and ex-staffers.”
According to Gursel, however, this persistent positioning of authorship does more than construct the narrative surrounding the one event, it defines the terms in which readers and viewers can imagine and comprehend related events in the future. Gursel reveals, “The act of looking is itself a cultural construction” and tabloid-authored photographs and their attributed narratives create a mode-of-looking by and for spectators (10). People’s article features quotes from sources that narrate Britney, rather than relay what she has asserted herself. A string of speculative sentences weave Britney’s breakdown narrative: “‘She is obviously in a lot of pain and needs help immediately,” “It was like she had no idea what was going on or how to help herself,” “She looked like she was trying to hold it together, but she wasn’t doing well,” “Her face looked tired and she seemed nervous and on edge. She seemed distraught” (Schneider). The reiteration of speculation shows the tabloid’s culturally specific way of looking at Britney’s breakdown, one that carries spectators’ voices and silences Britney’s. Gursel pivots a visual reading of Britney’s breakdown media toward how the network of actors produced in the circulated image fosters uniformity in the spectator’s claim on the photograph’s subject. In creating a specific mode of looking at Britney, the spectator’s gaze turns into a mass claim that inflicts its shared constructed reality upon Britney. It demands that Britney cede to a certain mode of exposure, a mode of being-looked-at.
Malek Alloula, author of The Colonial Harem, steps in to indicate how Britney’s photograph is not merely a means of propagating the mode-of-looking that Gursel outlines, but Britney’s visual narrative is also a product of the photographer’s need to assert his expected mode-of-looking in the way he creates a photographic moment. Alloula thus extends the photograph’s power as a mechanism for imposing the photographer’s mode-of-looking unto the material reality of his subject in the moment of photographing.
Alloula focuses his attention, therefore, on the negotiations of visual access within and outside of the captured images. In both circulated images of Britney, she is exposed. Nothing physically obscures her face, nor does the photographer’s position impair the view of Britney’s expression. The primarily-circulated image in which she makes eye contact clarifies her acknowledgement of that state of exposure. Yet, People tells a different story of how Britney establishes visual access to herself, and how the paparazzi insist on violation those terms to ‘get the picture’. As salon owner Tognozzi disclosed in the article, Britney entered the salon, not only “cool as a cucumber,” but “with a hood over her face.” People continues, “At 8:30 p.m., with a sweatshirt covering her newly shorn head and a crowd of about 150 people—both paparazzi and locals trying to see the action—closing in on her, Spears ducked into Body & Soul Tattoo Shop.” Britney’s repeated use of a hood to assert conditional visual access mimics the effects of veiling that Alloula examines in his analysis of postcards of Algerian women.
Britney’s rejection of the public’s full visual access to her recreates the same “initial experience of disappointment and rejection” for the paparazzi seeking her image that Alloula attributes to the colonialist photographer’s experience seeing veiled Algerian women (524). Accomplishing a similar end as the veil, Britney’s concealment rejects the paparazzo’s essential existence as ‘seeker and collector of Britney-as-picture’ and “prevents him from accomplishing himself as gazing gaze” (Alloula 524). What Alloula asserts the photographer does next is replicated in the paparazzi’s pursuit of photographs of Britney: “he will unveil the veiled and give figural representation to the forbidden” (524). As Alloula makes clear, the “crowd of about 150 people—both paparazzi and locals trying to see the action—closing in on [Britney]” reveals the voyeurism that drives the paparazzi. Yet, this incident is not unique in itself, nor does it solely reveal the voyeurism of the paparazzi, but the voyeurism aroused in the “locals” too. People tells of another incident: “Spears and her pals were trying to get into the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel—only to be overtaken at the door by ‘a swarm of about 15 paparazzi who were screaming and really aggressive… Some actually jumped off the second story, where they’d been hiding.” The predatory rhetoric associated with not just the paparazzi, but the general public as well, is in one sense a direct response of Britney’s elusive appearances which behaviorally code themselves like Algerian veils. In a larger sense, however, it is a response to the scopic instinct that Gursel reveals as a cultural construction of ‘seeing’ that propels the consumer’s demand of a mode-of-looking at Britney.
For Alloula, the theater in which the actors present in and around photographs and their pathways as news-images traverses the visual boundary. The network of actors engage with one another beyond the limits of the photograph and its circulation, entering the lived material realities by way of ritual photographers’ (paparazzi), ritual consumers’ (viewers/readers), and ritual subject’s (Britney) behavior and world-making. In this process, however, the photographic space reveals itself as a space of violence, rather than rehabilitation. In an early application of Azoulay’s theory, the question of Britney as an injured person and the absence of any indication as to an injuring actor rendered Azoulay’s theory unstable and present only in the form of a myth, an illusion. Yet, Gursel’s exposition of image brokers, the “typically invisible” actors who allow Britney’s image to become a news-image, convert the photographic space into one of violence and injuring.
Gursel and Alloula simultaneously affirm Britney as injured and incriminate the absent injuring actor. Britney emerges as injured in her reenacted dispossession of voice and agency over her visual narrative. The paparazzi, tabloids, and the spectators themselves are each incriminated as accomplices in that injuring act. The image brokers and the tabloids central to the circulation and movement of the Britney images distribute the burden of injuring actor among the paparazzi who seek to recreate the culture of seeing dictated by the tabloids and the spectators who invoke the limited reality provided by the tabloids. The photographic space therefore becomes a space of mass mobilization for the paparazzi, image brokers, and spectators to strip Britney as the photographed subject of her ability to self-author and thus render her ability to make claims redundant. This is due to the simple fact that the spectator has become at once the actor who received the injured person’s presented grievance and denies that grievance in their reproduction of a mode-of-looking to which Britney can make no claim.
- Alloula, Malek. The Colonial Harem. Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2008.
- Azoulay, Ariella. The Civil Contract of Photography. Zone Books, 2014.
- Gursel, Zeynep. Image Brokers: Visualizing World News in the Age of Digital Circulation. University of California Press, 2016.
- Schneider, Karen. “Britney's Road to Rehab.” People Magazine, 5 Mar. 2007, people.com/archive/cover-story-britneys-road-to-rehab-vol-67-no-9/.