As the world digs deep into the systemic misogyny that failed Britney Spears, people can’t help but side-eye the many men in her life who also played a part in her tumultuous personal and professional life. Justin Timberlake is one of those figures; the ill-fated relationship between the pop stars played a huge part in the media’s mistreatment of Spears. Twenty years later, Timberlake is trying to right his wrongs — with an Instagram apology.
The popularity of the viral documentary Framing Britney Spears heightened the ongoing conversation about Spears’ recent struggles. A collaboration between The New York Times, FX, and Hulu, the documentary traces the history and impact of misogyny on Spears’ career. It’s since caught the world’s attention, compelling fans and celebrity peers alike to share their support of the icon online, but it’s also turned a wary eye towards Timberlake.
When the stars were coming up in the late 90s and early 2000s, their relationship often landed them in the news more than their music. Spears and Timberlake’s 2002 breakup was an especially hot news item, mostly because it was surrounded in drama that Timberlake himself played into; speculations about whether the “Lucky” singer had been unfaithful in the relationship were only heightened by the release of “Cry Me A River,” the video of which featured a Spears look alike. That song earned Timberlake his first Grammy as a solo artist.
But Spears wasn’t the only person put in a bad situation because of Timberlake; he also played a major role in rerouting Janet Jackson’s career when he ripped off part of her dress during their 2004 Super Bowl halftime performance and exposed her breast on national television. After the incident, Jackson suffered serious professional consequences. She was banned from attending the Grammys that year, but CEO and chairman Les Moonves also reportedly attempted to essentially blacklist her from the industry. As the head of CBS and its branches at the time, Moonves allegedly instructed VH1, MTV, and Viacom-owned radio stations to not play Jackson’s music, causing her album sales to suffer. Meanwhile Timberlake attended the Grammys that year— where he picked up wins for “Cry Me a River” and Justified — and went on to star in numerous films while still releasing music.
(Timberlake maintains his claim that the half-time exposure was an accident, but he didn’t seem very sorry about it at the time. “We love giving you something to talk about,” he told Access Hollywood after the show.”)
With all this evidence (and more) piling up against him, Timberlake has come out with a statement addressing his role in the downturn of these women’s careers.
“I’ve seen the messages, tags, comments, and concerns and I want to respond,” he wrote on Instagram. “I am deeply sorry for the times in my life where my actions contributed to the problem, where I spoke out of turn, or did not speak up for what was right. I understand that I fell short in these moments and in many others and benefited from a system that condones misogyny and racism.”
“The industry is flawed,” Timberlake continued. “It sets men, especially white men, up for success…as a man in a privileged position, I have to be vocal about this. Because of my ignorance, I didn’t recognise it for all that it was while it was happening in my own life but I do not want to ever benefit from others being pulled down again.”
The statement went on to very briefly address both Spears and Jackson, apologising for “failing” them in his actions. Timberlake didn’t, however, elaborate on exactly how he failed the singers, but the North remembers.
“Be more specific,” urges one comment under the post.
“Hope you’re reaching out to them personally too and not just doing this as a PR stunt,” reads another.
At the end of the day, both Jackson and Spears have reportedly made peace Timberlake for his role in their respective career troubles, but the fact that it took decades and an entire movement (#FreeBritney) to get an apology is troubling still. His years-long silence on the rampant culture of sexism, along with that of so many other men in the industry, speak to a much deeper institutional issue that didn’t stop with either one of the pop stars. It’s not just Britney, and it’s not just Janet — so many women have suffered at the hands of opportunistic men.
Siri, play JoJo’s “Too Little, Too Late.”
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