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Review: Framing Britney Spears

A must watch documentary on the queen of pop herself

Gripping and emotional, The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears documents Britney Spears’ rise to fame and her eventual breakdown at the hands of personal pressure and the invasive media. It explores her gradual loss of control, revisiting a much-loved star from many of our childhoods, through the frame of her father, Jamie Spears’, claims to legal conservatorship. Framing Britney Spears re-contextualises a story that we all think we know, in the social media-driven, post #MeToo world of today.

Although this documentary lacks the voice of Britney Spears herself, it makes up for it through an abundance of interviews with those that were, and are still, close to Britney. This provides viewers a fresh perspective on stories that were once global media phenomena. Included in this cast of confidants and colleagues are Felicia Culotta, a family friend and former assistant, Vivian Lee Thoreen, a lawyer on Jamie Spears’ legal team, and Daniel Ramos, a paparazzo whose car was attacked by Britney in 2007. The documentary also weaves the accounts of New York Times reporters, the hosts of Britney’s Grams podcast, and several #FreeBritney activists into the story.

One of the central themes of the documentary is the treatment of Britney by the press at the height of her fame. When revisited following the #MeToo movement, a sense of invasiveness is revealed that was not in the public consciousness prior, as the attention paid to her relationships and sex life becomes astounding, particularly when one is made to consider that she was overcome by fame at such a young age. This is highlighted by a 1999 interview with TROS TV, during which the host asks a 17-year-old Britney if her breasts are real. The documentary explores how positive narratives started to disappear as she became more comfortable with her sexuality, and reinforces the prominence of the Madonna-whore dichotomy, as she fluctuated between the sweet, innocent, girl-next-door type, and a sex symbol.

But motivating this documentary is the conservatorship that Britney has been living under since she was involuntarily admitted to a psychiatric ward in 2008. A conservatorship is granted over adults who are viewed as unfit to care for themselves or their estate, and allows a conservator, her father in this case, to make and oversee decisions regarding the subject’s person, health, and finances. With the help of social media, especially Instagram, personal accounts of Britney’s friends, and #FreeBritney advocates, a story of legal and familial conflict is gently unravelled. Insistence that Britney is mentally sound, as well as an analysis of the massive profits she made in the 13 years of her conservatorship, reveal the exploitative and unjust restrictions that she is living under.

The documentary perfectly exemplifies the paradox of the media. The very thing that initially contributed to her 2007 breakdown and the decline of her mental health has, somewhat ironically, since become one of the main advocates for her freedom. Social media has become one of the main organising grounds for #FreeBritney activism, with the movement itself starting from the theories of a fan podcast, and with some believing that Britney herself communicates to her supporters through cryptic Instagram posts and captions.

Released in the weeks before Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s Oprah interview about the toxic (pun intended) nature of modern media, this documentary could not have come at a better time. The experiences of both Britney and Meghan attest to the discriminatory nature of Western media, who subject women, and people of colour to disproportionate amounts of scrutiny and criticism. Framing Britney Spears encourages us to ponder the cruelty of celebrity culture, whilst simultaneously considering the influence of social media, which is largely controlled by the celebrity, as a positive tool for achieving a balanced relationship between celebrities and consumers.  

Whether you’re looking to revisit the starstruck teenage you mouthing “Toxic”, or seeking a thought-provoking documentary on celebrity culture, sexism in media, and mental health, Framing Britney Spears is a must watch.