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The New York Times documentary Framing Britney Spears has led audiences and legions of fans to re-examine all aspects of the pop star’s life and the explosive ups and downs of her global superstardom. One subject, in particular, that continues to be a hot-button issue is the way Spears was treated and talked about by the media.
Onetime child star Mara Wilson knows how that feels. In a Times op-ed, published Tuesday, the now-33-year-old Wilson details her rise to fame while pointing out the similarities between her story and that of Spears: two young women forced to navigate an often perilous press cycle while fending off sexual harassment and public scrutiny.
“The way people talked about Britney Spears was terrifying to me then, and it still is now,” Wilson writes. “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 and starting to apologize to her. But we’re still living with the scars.”
Wilson opens the piece — titled “The Lies Hollywood Tells About Little Girls” — by recalling how she spent her 13th birthday “locked” in a Toronto hotel room in July 2000. She was in Canada on a promo tour for the film Thomas and the Magic Railroad, a film that followed earlier work in Mrs. Doubtfire, Melrose Place, Miracle on 34th Street and the work she is perhaps best known for, as the title star of Matilda. The following day, Wilson sat down with a journalist and “told her the truth” when asked how she was feeling.
What followed was a printed article that dubbed Wilson a spoiled brat “who was now ‘at midlife'” while also describing the dark path child stars like her often went down, she writes. “It embraced what I now refer to as ‘The Narrative,’ the idea that anyone who grew up in the public eye will meet some tragic end,” Wilson continues. She writes that the reporter even asked her what she thought of Spears and she apparently said she hated her, though she admits, looking back, “I didn’t actually hate Britney Spears. But I would never have admitted to liking her.”
She said that she had already absorbed “The Narrative” swirl around Spears who, at the time, had exploded onto the scene with her debut album …Baby One More Time, which was released in 1999. Shortly thereafter, Wilson said she saw how Spears was labeled a “bad girl” and she followed the controversy over her Rolling Stone cover. Wilson resisted the path that fellow teen actors and singers went down by embracing their sexuality as a “rite of passage.”
“I had already been sexualized anyway, and I hated it,” she writes. “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.”
She said that while Hollywood has resolved to confront harassment, what she experienced was never while at work, it was all “at the hands of the media and the public,” issues that have fallen into focus yet again in the wake of Framing Britney Spears amid a wider dialogue about the treatment of women in culture at large.
“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,” Wilson continues. “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.”
Wilson closes her NY Times piece by asserting power over her story. “Sometimes people ask me, ‘How did you end up OK?’ Once, someone I’d considered a friend asked, with a big smile, ‘How does it feel to know you’ve peaked?’ I didn’t know how to answer, but now I would say that’s the wrong question. I haven’t peaked, because for me, The Narrative isn’t a story someone else is writing anymore. I can write it myself.”
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