The New York Times documentary Framing Britney has made one thing abundantly clear: There are many people who owe Britney Spears an apology. For years now fans have thought Diane Sawyer is one of them.
Almost immediately following the release of Framing Britney on February 5, Justin Timberlake faced backlash over his treatment of Spears after their 2002 breakup. (There were reports Spears cheated; they were never confirmed.) From his “Cry Me a River” video to an interview during which he enthusiastically admitted to sleeping with Spears, the doc suggests he “weaponised” his heartbreak and helped destroy her reputation.
In a 2003 Primetime interview, Diane Sawyer asks Spears about her breakup with Timberlake—and so much more. Framing Britney includes footage from that interview, which has bubbled up fan criticism of the broadcast legend.
“You did something that caused him so much pain, so much suffering,” Sawyer says to Spears in the interview. “What did you do?” All the blame is immediately placed on Spears—which her former backup dancer and tour manager Kevin Tancharoen points out in Framing Britney.
“Her image was being painted as ‘Oh, what did you do to cause the breakup? You must have done something. Not him,’” Tancharoen says.
But honestly? The full Sawyer interview is way worse than what Framing Britney showed. At one point Sawyer reads this quote Spears gave: “But you said, ‘I’ve only slept with one person in my whole life, two years into my relationship with Justin.’ And yet he’s left the impression that you weren’t faithful, that you betrayed the relationship.” Spears’s answer to this question doesn’t matter—why this question was asked in the first place is what matters. Sawyer asked a 21-year-old to justify the intimate details of her sex life on national TV. And no one blinked an eye.
Sawyer doesn’t just grill Spears about Timberlake in this interview. She covers several topics with the pop icon. After this, Sawyer asks about a past interview in which a teenaged Spears said she planned to wait for marriage to have sex. (This sound bite followed Spears for years; her virginity was very much part of our public discourse.)
“If you were talking to your little sister [Jamie Lynn Spears] now, and the girl who said she was gonna stay a virgin until she got married,” Sawyer says. “Do you still think there’s something to be said for that?” For context, Jamie Lynn was 12 when this interview aired.
The inquisitions don’t stop there. “What happened to your clothes?” Sawyer asks Spears at one point, holding up photos of Spears’s nearly naked magazine covers. “What is it about?”
But Spears is unapologetic. “What is it about? It’s about doing a beautiful picture. I feel comfortable in my skin,” she says. “I think it’s an okay thing to express yourself.”
Still, Sawyer presses on. “Have you ever gone further than you wish you had?” she asks, to which Spears says, “Gone further? No.” It’s only when Sawyer pointedly pesters Spears with a specific image that Spears changes her answer.
In what now feels like a “gotcha!” moment, Sawyer pulls out images from a particular seminude photo shoot in which Spears is wearing nothing but pearls. “Okay, those are a little much,” Spears relents, saying she felt “weird” about the shots. “Wish you hadn’t done it?” Sawyer asks. “A little bit,” Spears replies.
Later in the interview, as Framing Britney Spears shows, Sawyer tells Spears about something Kendall Ehrlich, the wife of Maryland’s former governor (Robert Ehrlich), said: “Really, if I had an opportunity to shoot Britney Spears, I think I would.”
“Oh, that’s horrible,” Spears says. Sawyer muses in response, “Because of the example for kids and how hard it is to be a parent and keep all of this away from your kids.”
“Well, that’s really sad that she said that,” Spears says, doubling down. Yes, it is. (Thankfully, Spears doesn’t give in, shooting back, “I’m not here to babysit her kids.”)
The Diane Sawyer–Britney Spears interview really is a microcosm for the way the media treated young women in the early aughts, Spears in particular. At the beginning of the chat, Sawyer calls Spears’s midriff the “most valuable square inch of real estate in the entertainment universe,” further objectifying the pop star.
When ABC plays a clip of Fred Durst from Limp Bizkit talking about his alleged hookup with Spears, there’s no mention of how the clip in itself is invasive. Instead Sawyer kicks off the discussion with this Spears quote: “I’m not doing so good with relationships.” Again, where was the accountability for Durst? Or any of these men who thought talking about Spears’s sex life was okay?
Almost 18 years later, our culture is different. Thanks to Framing Britney Spears, people outside the singer’s most die-hard fans are seeing how rough she had it—even before the conservatorship drama. Stars like Sarah Jessica Parker and Bette Midler have voiced their support for the #FreeBritney movement. It’s worth noting, however, that Midler was a Spears critic in the Sawyer interview, saying Spears’s infamous Madonna kiss was “irresponsible.” Sawyer seemingly agrees, telling Spears, “It’s one thing not to want to be the role model anymore; it’s another thing not to know that a lot of young girls are looking at this…a lot of them.”
But has Diane Sawyer changed her tune too? Is she now a #FreeBritneysupporter? She hasn’t commented yet on the criticism her interview with Britney Spears is garnering. We’ll update this post if she does—and until then, you can watch the full sit-down here.