By the time I finished watching Framing Britney Spears, I felt like I’d been told off.
The medium is the message, so they say, and the message this documentary neatly sends, via archive footage of Britney being hounded by paparazzi, objectified in interviews, and put to work regardless of her mental state, is that our own voracious consumption of her life and misfortunes is partly to blame for what has happened to her. I feel ashamed of myself, and so, probably, should you.
While celebrity profile documentaries aren’t generally known for their rigour or impartiality, Framing Britney Spears has the cachet of being a New York Times production, a fact that signals the seriousness of Britney’s predicament right from the opening credits. Centred on the controversy surrounding the singer’s ongoing conservatorship – one of the most restrictive arrangements a person can be subject to under US law – in plotting the chronology of Britney’s rise to stratospheric fame and, later, the events that led to her father taking control of her professional, financial and personal life, director Samantha Stark also lays bare the media’s troubling relationship with Britney, and by extension, our own.
Knowing how things unravel for Britney in the mid ‘00s makes the early footage of her painful to watch. We’ve grown so familiar with the tabloid narrative of a doe-eyed small-town girl who couldn’t handle fame and went down in flames. But the documentary makes it clear from the start that we might never have known Britney at all, and I can’t have been the only one struck by how centred and mature she was in those early interviews, or by how much control she had when it came to her music, tours and performances.
When I’d heard about the #FreeBritney movement a few months back, the fans’ insistence that Britney was leaving them coded SOS messages on Instagram through her outfits and emojis obfuscated the true darkness of the star’s situation, and instead made it easy to dismiss the campaigners as some well-meaning people who spent far too much time on Reddit. It was startling to have my preconceptions so swiftly and completely debunked.
In the end, no one comes off well here, least of all the men in Britney’s life. But while Justin Timberlake’s fuckboy douchery is exposed (don’t even talk to me about that ‘apology’) and the paparazzo who triggered the infamous umbrella moment is trapped in his lie, it’s Britney’s father who gets the documentary’s real villain edit. For Jamie Spears, it’s heavily implied, has masterminded Britney’s now 12-year conservatorship for his own financial gain.
While it might seem reassuring that the wealth and professional decisions of someone with apparent mental health difficulties are under the direction of a parent, it transpires that Jamie had not been a prominent or particularly loving figure in Britney’s life for several years prior to her 2007 breakdown, and that their relationship has always been, in Jamie’s own words, “strained”.
Under the rules of the conservatorship, Britney needs permission to spend her own money or even leave her house – and yet, during its tenure, she has been committed to the release of four albums, multiple tours, a Vegas residency and a judging position on the US X Factor. There’s an unsettling disconnect between what Britney is deemed capable of in her private life and what she is expected to execute in her lucrative professional life. Of course, we don’t know if Britney wants to perform or not, but what we do know from filed court documents is that Britney wants her father out of her personal and professional affairs.
As singular as Britney’s current predicament may seem, though, she’s hardly the first pop princess to be locked in an ivory tower by someone who claims to care for her the most.
In her autobiography, Mariah Carey claims that her first husband, Sony label boss Tommy Mottola, kept her career in a strangle-hold, and was so controlling she couldn’t see friends or even choose her own clothes. Meanwhile, the recent death of superproducer Phil Spector brought up old allegations made by his ex-wife Ronnie that, during their marriage, he held her captive in their mansion for seven years, and kept an empty coffin in their basement as a warning to her never to try and leave him.
While these examples are extreme, they illustrate a storied history of female artists, from Tina Turner to Kesha to Beyoncé, who have had their talent and finances exploited by the powerful men in their lives. And while we can register our disgust at these grasping Svengali figures and tut at an intrusive media (Diane Sawyer, you’re on my list), we don’t get a pass either. For while Britney’s conservatorship keeps her captive, we have been similarly guilty of holding her hostage to our outdated idea of her, and of punishing her when she inevitably fails to measure up.
Not that innocent
When Britney exploded onto the music scene in 1999 as a stadium-ready pop icon, we responded accordingly. But the problem is that artists like Britney, whose personas appear so fully formed straight out the gate, are not permitted sufficient room to grow in the public consciousness.
A few years ago, Adele was everyone’s vocal powerhouse of choice – a rare talent without airs who shrugged off the pomp of superstardom even as she beat Beyoncé to a Grammy. With her broad accent and infectious cackle, she felt like someone we’d want to go to the pub with. But the minute she dropped a few pounds and moved to the States? Why, then she was labelled a sell-out, as if her bigger body had been a promise to us that her weight loss had broken. Never mind that Adele had never traded on her size, and that she owed us neither its constancy nor an explanation for it changing – we demanded answers, an apology even.
Increasingly, it seems we feel entitled to the whole of a person when they present their talent to the world, as if public appearances justify public ownership. Britney had to walk a perilous tightrope between innocence and sex, her image carefully predicated on her age, looks and Christian values. But her USP was also her sell-by-date, and the minute she moved beyond the narrow boundaries we’d set out for her – by what? Breaking up with her boyfriend? Changing her position on a personal belief? Not wearing a bra? – we pounced.
The violence of our interest in her fuelled and excused a media intent on exposure and humiliation, and we certainly got what we paid for. Britney had breached contract, letting us all down with her failed marriage and increasingly unpolished public appearances, and perhaps that is why we so lacked any compassion when her mental health reached crisis point.
But before we confidently declare that times have changed, that we would never tear a woman down so viciously again, let’s take a look at the tabloids and tweets that have circulated just this past week.
It would be nice if I could say, a year on from Caroline Flack’s tragic death, that the online #BeKind movement her suicide sent into overdrive had taken root in celebrity journalism. But when Meghan Markle announced her second pregnancy on Valentine’s Day, it became immediately clear that we have learned nothing. The crowing cover of the Daily Star, above, made me sick, but the precedent for justifying the pain we inflict on women who dare to live beyond the parameters we lay out for them has long been set.
Now, speculation is that Framing Britney Spears will bring about a tabloid media reckoning, and I hope it does. But we’re in danger of missing the point. For as long as we show any appetite for the public destruction of women in popular culture, and as long as we diminish their experiences and testimony, we are doomed to keep repeating the narrative. We must reckon with our own culpability first.