The new Britney Spears documentary is more about us than it is about her
The FX/Hulu documentary ‘Framing Britney Spears’ inspired Justin Timberlake to apologize
You don’t have to watch “Framing Britney Spears” to be happy that it’s out there.
Since debuting on FX and Hulu earlier this month, this “New York Times Presents” documentary — about Spears, her tumultuous relationship with fame, and the controversial legal conservatorship that started the #FreeBritney movement — has sparked a reckoning that was a long time coming.
Last week, Spears’ former boyfriend Justin Timberlake posted a statement on Instagram apologizing for his boorish public treatment of Spears after their breakup. Timberlake also apologized to Janet Jackson, who bore the sexist brunt of the duo’s “wardrobe malfunction” during their 2004 Super Bowl halftime show while Timberlake got a free pass from pretty much everyone.
The many bullying, inappropriate interviews featured in the documentary have also inspired social-media and press critiques of Matt Lauer and Diane Sawyer for the way they grilled Spears about everything from her costumes to her parenting skills. The documentary also re-examines the tabloids’ horrific play-by-play coverage of Spears’ multiple meltdowns, which has inspired some thoughtful commentaries about how we talk about mental-health and disability issues.
From the way the media treats young women to what happens when one person becomes an industry unto herself, director Samantha Stark’s 74-minute film has a lot of thought-provoking things to say about the gaudy, shameless and exploitative circus that was Britney Inc. But without interviews with Spears or her family, it isn’t able to tell us much about the woman in the center ring.
The documentary opens with the scene at the Los Angeles Superior Court building, where members of the #FreeBritney movement have gathered to show their support for the pop star during the ongoing legal wrangling over the 2008 conservatorship that gave her father, Jamie Spears, almost total control of her life and financial affairs.
In the 13 years since, Spears has recorded albums, toured and launched a Las Vegas residency, all of which requires some degree of high-functioning adulthood. Spears has also expressed in court filings that she doesn’t want her father to be the executor of her conservatorship.
And yet, the 39-year-old Spears still has pretty much no power to run her own life. And like the #FreeBritney folks, “Framing Britney Spears” wants to know why. To tackle that question, the documentary goes back to the beginning.
“To understand where (Britney) is now,” senior New York Times editor Liz Day says at the beginning of the film, “you have to understand how she got here.”
If you have even a passing interest in Britney Spears, you are probably pretty familiar with her origin story. How a small-town girl from Kentwood, La. took her big voice and star ambitions to New York. How she competed on “Star Search” at the age of 10, where her throaty, mature vocals earned applause from the audience and attention from host Ed McMahon. (And how McMahon foreshadowed many icky interviews to come by asking Britney if she had a boyfriend.)
Spears went on to join the cast of “The All New Mickey Mouse Club” when she was 11, where her co-stars included Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, Keri Russell and Ryan Gosling. And in January of `1999, the former Mouseketeer’s "...Baby One More Time” album debuted at the top of the Billboard album charts.
With the help of its smash-hit title track and the accompanying naughty-schoolgirl video, "...Baby One More Time” went on to sell more than 10 million copies in one year. The album launched Spears into the stratosphere, and she wasn’t even 18 yet.
“It seems like overnight, boom! You’re just famous,” the fresh-faced Spears says in a TV interview. “It’s weird.”
And it was just going to get weirder.
As New York Times critic Wesley Morris reminds us, Spears hit the zeitgeist just as Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial was ending, and interest in Monica Lewinsky was at a fever pitch. It was open season on young women, their bodies and their sexuality, and Spears’ wholesome vixen personality became a lightning rod that attracted many competing energy forces.
Girls loved her fizzy songs and her center-of-the-universe swagger. Parents and cultural watchdogs freaked out over her scanty costumes and suggestive choreography. The record company drooled over her multiplatinum success and kept her on a nonstop touring-recording-promoting hamster wheel that had her in overdrive for many busy, high-profile years. The press couldn’t get enough of her.
All of this turned Spears into a public commodity. So many people — the fans, the music industry, the press, the paparazzi — were invested in her success, and all of them thought that at least a piece of it, and a piece of her, belonged to them.
For a while, Spears was good with that. She played a big role in her own image-making (“I’m not just some girl who’s listening to my manager,” she says in a 2000 interview) , and if people didn’t like it, that was on them.
But as Britney got older, her life got messier. In some of its strongest segments, “Framing Britney Spears” revisits the ugly things that happened when fame turned on her. And how the stalker-ish paparazzi, tabloid feeding frenzies and what may have been postpartum depression led to the assorted meltdowns (shaving her head in public, going after a photographer with an umbrella) that resulted in the involuntary hospitalizations that led to the conservatorship.
The documentary does a good job of connecting all of these dots, but there are parts of the picture that it doesn’t deal with at all. Why did the record company push the vixen angle so aggressively from the beginning? Why were Spears’ parents OK with that? Why was it ever OK for an interviewer to ask a young woman if she is still a virgin? Why did so many late-night comedy hosts find Spears’ nervous breakdowns so hilarious? And why did so many people laugh?
And why is Britney still not free?
As the title promises, “Framing Britney Spears” is about what happened around Britney. It’s a frame, not a portrait. If you know that going in and set your expectations accordingly, you can appreciate the film for the pop-culture corrective that it is and for the ripple effect it is having already.
You can also appreciate living in a world where social media has allowed more celebrities to speak for themselves. A world where mental health issues are not the source of punchlines and whisper campaigns. It’s a different, slightly better world out there now. Here’s to the day we get to welcome Britney Spears into it.
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