What Goes Around Comes Around
Why I Am Letting Go of Justin Timberlake
The past week has been a particularly difficult one for children of the 90’s. We were forced to come to terms with the part we each played in the downfall of Britney Spears - all the moments we laughed at her pain, bought magazines mocking her parenting, and the evenings we scrolled through her Instagram, searching for clues. The New York Times’ documentary shed a harsh light on truths that we had all been aware of, whether as fans, friends, family, or former lovers of the pop star. The reckoning of celebrity culture and abuse is coming quick, and rightfully so. Those of us who cannot imagine a childhood without Britney Spears eagerly awaited the moment where the Justin and Britney relationship was addressed. We all know and love the banger that is Cry Me a River, we lamented the couple’s short-lived love, and we believed that Britney really did break Justin’s heart (or at least I did).
Like many women who watched the documentary, it was hard not to roll my eyes and mutter no shit when neither Justin, not Jamie, or even the media was presented as the true villain of the story. The real culprit? The patriarchy. No matter how many times we are placed in situations where men walk away from their crimes unscathed, no matter how many interviews we see where a strong, beautiful woman is asked about nothing besides her boobs and her sex life, and no matter how many iconic women’s careers are cut short because of a less talented man’s behavior, nothing seems to change.
I, like most girls my age, adored NSYNC. While I originally had a particular soft spot for Lance (still do), my childlike fascination turned to full blown teen lust when Justin Timberlake launched his solo career. Aesthetically speaking he’s not really my type. I’ve always been more into dark-haired, moody, drummer boys, but Justin had that something. He was charismatic, he could dance, he was fun, his music videos were enchanting. I never once really thought about the fact that Justin Timberlake would not have had the career he did without throwing Britney under the bus. I think we can all agree that of the NSYNC members, JC Chasez actually had the best voice and looked the most appealing in a turtleneck.
But my JT fandom continue to grow over the years - I loved him on Saturday Night Live, I owned one of his concerts on DVD, I was heartbroken when he married Jessica Biel (because I kind of thought I had a shot?), and I supported his acting career. I didn’t take anytime to consider how he had gotten to where was, especially in juxtaposition to Britney, I just consumed him.
In 2004, I was 14 years old, and don’t even think I watched the Super Bowl halftime performance. I of course remember the buzz around the “wardrobe malfunction” and I remember Janet Jackson’s apologies, but I was unaffected by the ordeal. I did what the media wanted me to do: I forgot about Janet, I continued to consume Justin, and I moved on. I am able to recognize now the systemic bigotry, unfairness, and relentless mistreatment of Janet Jackson following that performance. A woman whose talents far surpass those of a former boyband member had her career destroyed in an instant, while Justin's star continued to rise.
I will note that my awakening to who Justin is did not happen overnight. In fact, the notes app apology (which I will get to later), was just the final nail in the coffin of my disdain for the performer, a mistrust and disgust that had been building within me for years. For starters, Justin never made any albums as good as Justified, and I will die on that hill. Every musical endeavor that came about after his first solo project was a slow decline into the type of music only kids and dads sort of enjoy. I started to see that the hype Justin received from his SNL skits was getting to his head. He was over-performing, everything was an opportunity for some goofy skit. He couldn’t be stopped. He’s like the guy who always has to bring out the acoustic guitar at the party. No one asked for it, and it was getting old fast.
Google “Justin Timberlake interrupting women” to quickly find yourself swimming in cringe-worthy clips of the performer cutting off women mid sentence, not allowing them to answer a their own interview questions, and just all around doing everything in his power to steal the spotlight from whatever woman is in closest proximity to him. It is actually painful to watch.
Thus, I performed somewhat of a ghosting act on Justin Timberlake. I stopped following him on all social platforms, “Dick in a Box” lost its luster, and I prayed to a higher power that he’d stop making songs for those Trollz movies. I kind of assumed JT would slip into obscurity, because men like Justin Timberlake don’t really belong in 2021. He wasn’t relevant, and everything about him was aging poorly.
In what I can only label as an act performed to save some face, Justin issued a very tired notes app apology on Friday, February 12th, apologizing to both Britney and Janet “individually”, though there was only one apology, and it was attributed to both of them in the same post and note. He claimed to be “deeply sorry” for the times in his life where his “actions contributed to the problem”, where he “spoke out of turn” or “did not speak up for what was right”. I think I can safely say that I, and a vast majority of the internet were all unimpressed by this act.
The apology came too little too late, to be sure, but as any woman, BIPOC, or member of a marginalized community who have witnessed or been involved in similar situations will tell you: this white man will be fine. His career will be fine, his marriage will be fine, and he likely will not change in any measurable way or do anything that supports women, particularly Britney or Janet.
Something that I have to remind myself of often is that celebrities are not just like us. They accumulate a major percentage of the world’s wealth, they are never told no, they live in gilded castles that have nothing to do with the lives we regular people lead, and they almost never face repercussions for their actions. It makes so much sense to look to figures like Justin and Britney to make sense of our own lives, for insights on how to navigate breakups, parenthood, aging, etc., but it’s not realistic, it isn’t smart. Even knowing all of this, the tugging pain I felt in my heart when I really saw that Justin did nothing for these women he hurt, to watch him benefit from their pain...I couldn't help but I feel like I really did understand. I was angry for Janet, I was boiling over for Britney.
I recall not too long ago when the threat of an abortion ban was rearing its ugly head, and I saw all of my female friends, parents, coworkers, leaders coming together to advocate for women’s bodies, for their lives, for their rights. They shared their stories and donated money and stood on the frontlines for one another. All the while I watched the two men that have directly benefited from my abortions, from my pain, stay silent. I saw not one man I know share or like a post about the injustices of the abortion ban. I did not hear one man I in my life speak up. There were no male allies to be found. Those men, whether they handed us a wad of cash, or sat with us in the clinic waiting room, or were kept in the dark about the realities of terminated pregnancies, were quiet. And their lives went on, and they did not have to think twice about the pain and the fear and the rights that could be stripped away from the women they knew.
If any of those men felt like issuing me and the women of the world an apology on a notes app in seven years, I certainly would not accept it.
People who know me, who know that I spent almost half my life fawning over Justin Timberlake, have asked me if this is hard for me. Is it hard to walk away from one of my longest crushes? Not really, not at all. What is hard for me is the knowledge that men like Justin Timberlake exist in close proximity to me, to my friends, to women I care about. I am deeply and agonizingly aware that there are men in our lives, who aren’t sparkly, famous celebrities, who won’t stick up for us, who will benefit off of our pain, and who will more likely than not be just fine, even when their names are tarnished for a day or two.
So while this has been a few years in the making, I am saying today that I am done with Justin Timberlake, I have no interest in his apologies, his career, or his future. As a fan and as a woman I take responsibility for the moments where I may not have been deliberately mean, but I was ignorant. I did not pay attention to the women who needed support, who needed to be advocated for, and I am ashamed that I did exactly what society wanted me to do: turn the other cheek and uplift a man instead.
As we look towards a brighter future, a future where Britney really is free, I hope we continue to hold the lackluster men of the media and in our lives accountable. To not shrug off their interruptions, to not allow them to be silent. As fans, as friends, as parents, as consumers, we have a greater power than we believe, and we can change the direction of misogyny and patriarchal bullshit. We can stop shaming women at every turn, and we can demand better. At least something better than a notes app apology.