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Reframing Britney Spears: Will 2021 see her achieve her freedom?

By February 14, 2021No Comments

The internet is always alive with the #FreeBritney campaign, but no more so than this past week when Framing Britney Spears, a new New York Times documentary, aired. Megan Cassidy examines the renewed spotlight the doc cast on Ms Britney Jean…


What’s most powerful about the Framing Britney Spears documentary is that there are no ‘startling revelations’ or exposés. In fact, at best, we’ve been passively observing this story for years. At worst, we’ve contributed to the jokes, bought the magazines, and shared the ‘If Britney can get through 2007…’ memes.

The recent New York Times documentary is simply a retelling, a presentation of the facts that forces us to reframe the story and more importantly, our reaction to it.

For those who need a quick catch up: Framing Britney Spears spotlights the #FreeBritney movement and examines the 13 year conservatorship that grants Britney’s father, Jamie Spears, with whom she has a strained relationship, total control of her estate (and until 2019, her personal affairs).

We see a woman clearly traumatised by her own fame, as the film traces her journey from polite, Southern-sweet child star, through to her very public breakdown in 2007 and the subsequent conservatorship that has been in place, as Harper’s Bazaar points out, for ‘almost half’ of her decades-long career.

That’s the thing – the purpose of a conservatorship is to protect those considered mentally and/or physically unfit to manage their own affairs. But since her ‘comeback’ in 2008, just one year after hospitalisation and rehab, Britney has maintained a gruelling work schedule including multiple album releases, world tours, and two Las Vegas residencies. Not to mention lingerie and perfume lines which encourage fans to ‘choose your own destiny’.

In 2018, Britney’s court appointed co-conservator, Andrew Wallet, requested (and was granted) an eye-watering raise, citing a ‘lucrative’ few years for Britney’s estate. Wallet subsequently resigned when Britney’s 2019 highly-bankable Las Vegas residency was cancelled.

Britney’s conservatorship is a profitable business.

The cruel irony is that once a conservatorship is put in place, the burden of proof is on the conservatee (in this case, Britney) to prove it’s no longer necessary. Despite numerous pleas from Britney to have her father removed as conservator, the court hasn’t budged – and that’s where the #FreeBritney movement comes in. The movement, unsurprisingly labelled a ‘social media hoax’ by Jamie Spears, calls for the terms of the conservatorship to be revisited – with Britney herself seeming to subtly acknowledge and endorse the movement through statements and her own social accounts.

So here we are. Britney Spears is no longer legally her own person. But how did we get here?

Framing Britney Spears blows the lid not just on the conservatorship, but on the dysfunctional culture that brought us to this point. A culture that not only normalised the cruel and misogynistic treatment of a woman in crisis, but idealised it. A culture that made mental health the punch line and a manic episode the money shot.

A recent YouTube documentary, The Real Story of Paris Hilton, sparked similar reflection on the insidious paparazzi culture of the noughties. The documentary unveils traumatic experiences in Paris’ past that shed new light on some of the behaviours she has been ridiculed for. It was shocking. Most of the comments on social media were some version of ‘I never knew…’

But what’s most disquieting about Framing Britney Spears is the uncanny familiarity of it all. The photos of a woman in pain that we know so well. The jokes, the viral YouTube videos, the late night talk show segments.

We were there. We watched it happen real time. We knew.

But who’s to blame? Jamie Spears? Justin Timberlake? The media? Framing leaves it wide open, but it doesn’t let us – the audience – off the hook. Back in 2007, when a public breakdown culminated with Britney shaving her head and being hospitalised, there was a lot of heat on the paparazzi and the culture they represented. A bracing moment in Framing shows paparazzo Daniel Ramos explain that his dream was to become a photographer, not a paparazzo. But if one photo of Britney was going to command a seven-figure sum that would change his family’s life, he had to try and get the shot.

To get to the root of the problem, Framing acknowledges the celebrity ecosystem in its entirety – a system that’s driven by  supply and demand. The paps play their part, as does the magazine editor who assigns astronomical value to the photo, as does the consumer who buys the magazine and validates the price. If we acknowledge the ecosystem we are forced to acknowledge our own part.

We watched Justin Timberlake repeatedly shame Britney, and instead of ‘cancelling’ him, we bought his single. No one jumped to Britney’s defence when Diane Sawyer made her cry on television with a cruel line of questioning, telling her a parent wanted to ‘shoot her’ because of the way she dressed. The idea that Britney was somehow a ‘fair target’ coloured every uncomfortable interview and tempered our reaction to the cruelty. But at the heart of it was a lonely young woman without even the peer support that celebrities on social media, including Britney, enjoy today.

In the documentary, both Britney’s former assistant and a former backing dancer spew the official party line that I vividly remember being rolled out constantly in the noughties.

‘Britney was in control’.
‘Britney knows what she wants’.
‘Britney is not a puppet’.

This was always the script, an idea perpetuated by songs with lyrics like ‘I don’t need permission, make my own decisions.’

But another Britney documentary called Stages – a 2002 ‘behind the scenes’ look at her Dream within a Dream tour – gives a rare insight to her day-to-day life at the height of her fame.

In one scene, a 20-year-old Britney eats lunch alone in her hotel room. Her crew have all gone out shopping, but Britney has a show that night and a strict routine, so she stays back – just Britney and the ever-present camera crew.

She sits in front of an elaborate spread, sadly nibbling a bread roll. The silence of the moment is jarring. When the waiter asks her to sign the receipt, she momentarily breaks from her melancholy to smile and chat with him, unfailingly polite and grateful and nice, before deflating like a balloon and returning to her lonely lunch. Another scene shows her bursting into heavy tears when she receives a gift from her mother, whom she hasn’t seen in months. The kind of crying that only happens when you’ve been holding it in, waiting to be alone so that you can sob.

Britney has been sad for a really long time. Britney wasn’t in control. Britney did know what she wanted, and she asked for it again and again. To be left alone. In Framing, paparazzo Ramos is confronted with the fact that Britney clearly asked him and the others to leave her alone, repeatedly. You can actually see his bewilderment, his reconciling of the fact that he did hear it, but he didn’t listen. He can’t explain it. We heard it too, but did it really resonate?

Framing Britney Spears  brings into stark relief the seismic culture shift that’s happened in the last 20 years, and for those of us old enough to remember the release of Baby One More Time, it’s a shock to the system.

But it’s also oddly clarifying. For me, it helped me see the woods from the trees, the incremental changes we’ve made over the last 20 years that have culminated in a complete overthrow of a cultural mindset.

All those awkward moments in the staff kitchen when we didn’t laugh at the sexist joke. That time we overcame our weird embarrassment to ask a friend if they are really okay. All of these small shifts have collectively resulted in this moment when we can clearly see progress.

It’s uncomfortable but looking back unflinchingly is the only path to growth.

Social media has largely decimated paparazzi culture. Britney now has the vocal support of her celebrity peers that was so glaringly absent a decade ago. She cancelled her 2019 Las Vegas residency, reportedly refusing to work until her father is removed as her conservator. Britney has alluded to the fact that at 38 years old, she’s still learning to be ‘normal’, still learning to separate the person from the product.

On Friday, Justin Timberlake apologised. Justin Timberlake is not good at apologies. Last year, after he was photographed holding hands with a co-star, a public apology to his wife Jessica Biel included a promo of his new movie.

When the world cancelled Janet Jackson after Justin ripped open her costume revealing her bare breast mid-performance, he stayed quiet, offering milky-watery condolences to the woman whose career was finished while he moved on unscathed.

His recent apology is different. He apologises to both women and indicates he wants to continue the conversation, that the apology is not an ending, but the beginning of a journey for him. He has a lot to learn.

‘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 is right. 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.’

It’s progress.


Image from @britneyspears on Instagram