Framing Britney Spears is the sixth episode of the New York Times Presents docu-series. The documentary television film explores the American pop icon Britney Spears’ meteoric rise, fall, and her conservatorship. It’s the sixth edition of the New York Times Presents docu-series, delving into the popular singer’s controversial life.
Framing Britney Spears was released on February 5, 2021, on FX and Hulu. The documentary comes at a time when there are much spark and outrage about Britney Spears’ questionable conservatorship held by her father, James Spears. It explores Britney’s meteoric rise to fame and success, her vicious media treatment, her conservatorship, and the #FreeBritney movement. The documentary shows confessionals from Britney’s former assistant, her lawyers, record marketing director, stylist, fans, and others. The documentary is also spliced together with archival footage of infamous interviews of her breakdowns, documentary, and press conferences. Her familiars and lawyers reassess her rise to prominence, downfall, and the legal battle with her father over her conservatorship.
The documentary starts by putting into context, the iconic status of Britney as a mega pop star. It shows how the pop star icon started from humble beginnings to where she is today. Britney Spears is among the world’s richest and most successful pop stars. She had a net worth of around $59 million. However, she started as just a child from a small town, steadily climbing the ladder to success. From starring in Mickey Mouse Club to becoming a teen idol, she always strove for control. The documentary shows how in the beginning years of her career, she was this feminist champion for teenage girls. Her former assistant talks about how Britney was this independent girl but one who was never egotistic about her success.
Framing Britney Spears — A Revealing Journey of Rising to Stardom and Eventual Downfall
The point that the documentary tries to make is that Britney was never arrogant or rude to people. This is in stark contrast to her image that was manufactured by the media and the tabloids during the 2000s. The documentary delves into how vicious and unempathetic the paparazzi was to Britney during her lows and highs. Several archival footages of her interviews show just how much Britney was antagonized by the media and society alike. Even before her downfall, at a young age, she was being treated like an adult woman, blatantly sexualized by all. Footage of conferences shows reporters asking her questions about her virginity. In archival footage of her 1999 interview with Ivo Niehe, she is asked about her breasts. In a 2003 Dianne Sawyer interview, Britney is accused of “upsetting a lot of mothers in this country.”
The documentary also shows how her breakdowns became a punchline essentially in American TV. From late-night hosts like Letterman and Leno to game shows like Family Feud – nobody shied away from punching down. Interviews also reveal the incredible misogyny that Britney, and by extension, women have had to face in the industry and media. The disgusting nature of it all only increases when you consider the age at which she has to endure it all. Being treated like a sex object crept on by swarms of paparazzi and antagonized for relationships marked her career. It presents a harrowing and cruel treatment women receive at the behest of tabloids, media, and men in power.
The Media and the Insensitive Treatment
The documentary takes a look at Britney’s career and her downfall from a post-metoo perspective. The discussion around her life and controversies has mostly been tabloid-ish. This documentary strives to change that and presents a much more empathetic look at Britney’s mental, financial, and physical caging. The episode also sheds light on mental health – a topic that has seen a recent rise in public discussions. The tabloids and the general public consensus treated her mental health issues demeaningly all the time. Family Feud made her “sanity” a category among all the things she had lost in the past year. Her infamous outburst against the paparazzi and shaving of her head was treated as her “being a diva.” Now that the discourse on mental health has evolved, it is horrifying to look back at what she went through.
It is telling of how the climate in Hollywood and the music industry has been so sexist towards women. And sexism had become a part of Britney’s life right from the onset. Britney was just a kid when the world began commodifying her body. At one point, we hear that US Weekly used to allot a $7-8 million annual budget for celebrity photos. During her breakdown, and before that, a large part of that expenditure was for Britney’s candid grabs. But before she started getting suffocated by the paparazzi, the downright vile and disgusting questions regarding her sexuality were constantly thrown at her without an ounce of social or moral introspection. The 1999 interview with Ivo Niehe kicks off with the interviewer asking her about her breasts. And the kind of suddenness he asks the question with indicates a total lack of conduct and respect.
The Gross and Harrowing Interviews
The interviewer, without any thought, spent, and most definitely no homework is done priorly, asks Britney about her breasts and implants. In yet another insufferably frustrating interview, the interviewer asks her if she’s a virgin or not. The press conferences are blotted with similar creepy and perverted questions. It shows a harrowing picture of the kind of condition the women celebrities have had to suffer through. The media interviews are shown in the documentary showcase the gradual downfall of Britney’s mental health. In almost all interviews that surrounded a controversy related to her, she eventually breaks down into tears. What’s even more infuriating is how the questions posed at her were always those that established her as the antagonist.
From her relationships where she was at fault for any falling out to her parent skills, she was always the antagonist. The interviews and the media found her to be an easy target. And the ease with which she could be vilified at that time was manufactured by the media itself. We hear at the start of the documentary, those close to Britney claim she was always the one in control of herself. That initial control and freedom are what propelled her image as this free and feminist icon. But as the documentary progresses and we watch the interviews and the ensnaring paparazzi, we see her wings of freedom getting clipped gradually.
The Problematic Treatment and the Backlash
Another prevalent aspect of the documentary and Britney’s story is the men in her life. From her boyfriends like Justin Timberlake to her conservator guardian father Jamie Spears. Jamie never appears in the story until he does when he acquires her conservatorship. His suspicious and questionable conservatorship is the main issue in the documentary. But I think we should pay heed to other men in her life as well. Timberlake would be a start. In a 2002 radio interview, the interviewer is pressing Timberlake to answer if he’s slept with Spears or not. And the interviewer is taking great pleasure in knowing about someone’s sexual life. Timberlake is playfully reluctant and then admits boastfully that yeah, he’s taken her virginity. All the men guffaw after that admission. Such was the tone-deaf and insensitive discourse during that time.
After the documentary’s release, this radio interview, including other ones as well, drew major backlash. There’s a more sensitive and empathetic discourse around mental health and privacy. And a major backlash against Timberlake has been festering for a while now, even before the documentary came out. His absence and lack of support or accountability during Janet Jackson’s wardrobe fiasco drew major criticism on social media. That, plus the revelations out of the documentary, only fanned the outrage. I think this outrage is not only justified but long overdue. For so long, women celebrities have had to face the brunt of controversies and criticism, while men get a pass.
Framing Britney Spears is a Reveals the Inexcusable Treatment towards Women Celebrities
Janet had to face ridiculous nation-wide backlash over a wardrobe accident that wasn’t even her fault. All the while, Timberlake swiftly escaped the backlash, and his career continued to flourish. Similar to Britney’s case, Timberlake made fun and derogatory remarks about “sleeping with her”. He was nowhere to be found to lend his voice for her support during the worst part of her life. Justin recently made an apology Instagram post where he apologized to both Britney and Janet. However, one may wonder what this apology does at all. Or what any of the apologies recently mean at all. With passionate fans running the Free Britney movement, celebrities apologizing, and general awareness about her situation increasing, it makes you wonder if we’ve woken up to her plight and the plight of women celebrities in general, a little too late.
You can currently watch the documentary on Discovery+.