It’s amazing how nearly two decades, a searing documentary, and some robust public shaming can really put some things into perspective.
It’s been a week since the premiere of the Framing Britney Spears, the latest installment of The New York Times Presents docuseries for FX. Since it aired, the public has shown immense support for Spears and understandable ire for some of the key players in her visible downfall, including Jamie Spears, members of the media, and ex-boyfriend Justin Timberlake, who participated in the misogyny that essentially vilified Spears for years (including the revenge fantasy video for his 2002 hit “Cry Me A River”). The clanking of the pitchforks must have reached an unavoidable decibel, because Timberlake has finally taken a moment to apologize not only to Spears, but also to Janet Jackson, whose career never fully recovered after her ill-fated Super Bowl performance with Timberlake back in 2004.
“I’ve seen the messages, tags, comments, and concerns and I want to respond,” Timberlake begins in a two-part Instagram post that was released on Friday. “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 other an benefitted from a system that condones misogyny and racism.” He then went on to apologize directly to the women in question: “I specifically want to apologize to Britney Spears and Janet Jackson both individually, because I care for and respect these women and I know I failed.”
Timberlake continued his statement by criticizing how the entertainment industry “sets men, especially white men, up for success.” He also acknowledged his “privileged position,” which has allowed him to prosper while Spears battled the restrictions of her conservatorship and Jackson withstood unjust criticism for her famous “wardrobe malfunction”—a term that rose in our pop culture lexicon after Timberlake erroneously tore away a section of her top on public television—by herself. “I didn’t’ recognize it for all that it was while it was happening in my own life,” he explained, “I do not want to ever benefit from others being pulled down again.”
The apology is objectively well-written and addresses (to an extent) what Timberlake’s critics have been saying for years. But that’s the thing: His many critics have been addressing this very subject for years. Back in 2016, writer Matt Stopera detailed for Buzzfeed the ways Timberlake specifically used the anti-Britney narrative in order to elevate his public image long after their split. When Timberlake nabbed his own Super Bowl Halftime set two years later, Twitter took the opportunity to declare the day (and every Super Bowl Day since) #JanetJacksonAppreciationDay, where fans expressed their love for the icon and pointed out that Jackson, despite apologizing, hasn’t been invited back to the event since. So if there’s some skepticism regarding the sincerity of Timberlake’s apology, it’s not because it’s not a good apology: It’s because it’s an apology he’s had ample time to release and it arrives not only years late, but conveniently after the public stopped talking about his middling film and started talking about the doc that made him look shitty.
In any case, we love a good redemption arc, which Timberlake could earn in the coming months or years. But he has to actually earn it.