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Opinion Today: The lesson Britney Spears and I learned

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Opinion Today: The lesson Britney Spears and I learned
An Op-Ed by Mara Wilson.
Author Headshot

By Lindsay Crouse

Senior Editor

On a long-haul flight last winter, I started watching “Mrs. Doubtfire,” the ’90s hit in which Robin Williams masquerades as a nanny to spend time with his children. I hadn’t watched it since I was a kid, roughly the same age as the youngest daughter in the film. I remember wondering at the time what it must have been like to be a movie star, just like that little girl.

We are both grown up now. Whatever happened to her?

The beauty of the internet is that it’s never very hard to find out. I went down the rabbit hole and found Mara Wilson, who was not only a star of “Mrs. Doubtfire,” but also of “Matilda” and a string of other family movies considered cultural touchstones of that era. Though Mara left acting behind, she’s now a writer whose worldview has been shaped by growing up famous.

When I saw the debate unfolding over Britney Spears and her conservatorship this month — and the public reckoning around how our culture mistreats young girls and women — I reached out to Mara. Her thoughts, reflected in her Op-Ed today, challenged me to understand what happened to Britney Spears in a new way.

Mara pulls back the curtain on what it was like to be young and famous in the early aughts — when the tabloids were ravenous and their power was unchecked. She describes how even she, a star of children’s movies, had already been sexualized by the time she turned 13.

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“Reporters asked me who I thought the sexiest actor was and about Hugh Grant’s arrest for soliciting a prostitute,” she recalls.

It’s a trap: Once these young girls were sexualized, they were punished for being sexy. For being bad.

Mara argues that the public, and the media it consumes, does this partly out of envy. We’re correcting a power imbalance between ourselves and celebrities. Fame, beauty, wealth: Celebrities have what we’re taught to crave, and we’re hitting back. That makes sense to me; like Mara, I grew up singing to Britney Spears while doing homework in my bedroom, thinking about the words in “Lucky” but never really believing her problems could possibly be the same as mine. It all felt like high school on a national stage. Whether it was Britney or Christina or Mandy, they were the popular girls.

But that’s not a hall pass to tear them down.

Because in the end, it wasn’t just about Britney Spears at all. Watching tabloids degrade famous young women in that era was instructive if you were a teenager. You knew it didn’t seem right. But then you looked around to see if anyone protested, and no one even blinked. That was when you learned: Objectifying girls like them — maybe girls like you — wasn’t outrageous at all. It was simply how it worked.

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So to me, Mara stands in for many young women when she writes in today’s essay about the similarities between Britney and her. She takes the story of Britney Spears and zeros in on what it’s really about — all of us.

Here’s what we’re focusing on today:

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