“Framing Britney Spears,” The New York Times’ newest installment of its “New York Times Presents” series, explores Spears’ rise to fame, the way the media treated her downfall as a sport and the ensuing court-mandated conservatorship overseen by her father, Jamie Spears. The Samantha Stark directed documentary offers a thought-provoking and harrowing look into the media’s malicious and misogynistic treatment of Britney Spears — also calling into focus the torment the media inflicted on countless other celebrity women in an attempt to create scandal and drama.
The FX and Hulu documentary lays bare how the misogyny and torment from the tabloid media led Spears, a 39-year-old woman with agency, to wind up constrained to a legal conservatorship that has stripped away her freedom. It opens with an introduction to the #FreeBritney movement, a cry from her fans to release Spears from the conservatorship that she has legally been under since 2008. She was placed under the conservatorship after her alleged “breakdown” the previous year, where she divorced her then husband Kevin Federline, who won custody of her two sons, then infamously shaved her head and smashed the window of a paparazzo’s car. After she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, Spears’ father, and attorney Andrew Wallet were granted a conservatorship of her approximately $60 million fortune.
After offering a brief introduction to the #FreeBritney movement, the documentary goes back and chronologically details how Spears has gotten to this moment. It particularly and importantly details how Spears was objectified and sexualized at a young age by adults. The media and public were inappropriately obsessed with her virginity, and this intrusiveness intensified after her split from Justin Timberlake, who she dated from 1999 to 2002. Their breakup sparked an intense level of scrutiny into Spears’ life, advancing a narrative that women such as Spears were out of control. The documentary artfully theorizes that Spears’ breakdown wasn’t what the media made it out to seem. While the media painted Spears out to be hysterical, crazy and a bad mother, The New York Times skillfully chronicles how Spears was made out to be a sex symbol at a very young age, packaged into the box of a sex icon that she never asked to be in and then condemned for the very thing the public made her out to be. “I’m tired of everybody touching me,” Spears lamented after she infamously shaved her head. The documentary clues viewers in on what has tormented Spears throughout her career — hounded mercilessly by the tabloids who never once reflected on their own role in Spears’ downward spiral.
“Framing Britney Spears” is meticulous in how it illustrates what may have led to Spears’ alleged fall from grace. It weaves in interviews Spears was subjected to, in which the media sexualized and tormented her for years. At just 10 years old she was asked by host Ed McMahon on “Star Search” if she has a boyfriend. In one interview, the interviewer tells a 17-year-old Spears that everyone is talking about her breasts. In another interview, Diane Sawyer asks Spears, “What happened to your clothes?” By exposing how the media catapulted misogyny and sexism directed at Spears, the New York Times shrewdly provides a heartbreaking look into the way Spears was treated by the media. Stark intelligently illustrates the culture of toxic misogyny that pervaded the early 2000’s and pushed Spears to her breaking point. The documentary allows viewers to understand Spears’ behavior in a different lens. With the knowledge we have now and with the diminished tabloid culture, we can recognize the possible emotional distress the star was under. “Framing Britney Spears” conveys how society has progressed when it comes to de-stigmatizing mental illness, but it also starkly highlights just how cruel the treatment Spears received at the hands of the media was.
The New York Times documentary also details the conservatorship Spears is under straightforwardly for viewers. By interviewing attorneys and journalists, The New York Times succeeds in highlighting not only what a conservatorship is but allows viewers to critique why she is in a conservatorship in the first place. Stark thoughtfully outlines not only the flaws in the conservator system, but how her father’s control over her finances, estate, medical decisions and career has further taken away Spears’ agency. While the conservatorship has been argued by her father to keep Spears’ best interest at heart, the documentary argues the opposite. It allows the audience to scrutinize the conservatorship in a different light and discern that it has left her vulnerable to exploitation and manipulation. Despite being deemed unfit to manage her own estate, Spears made a career comeback with her 2008 album, “Circus,” and went on to release more albums, tour and star in a year-long Las Vegas residency. While conservatorships are put in place for people who are unable to make their own decisions or are mentally incapacitated, Spears is shown working consistently throughout her conservatorship. Spears has publicly moved for her father to be removed from his conservator role, and The New York Times skillfully offers a thought-provoking look into how necessary her conservatorship is and whether her father being in charge of her career, finances and mental decisions is a form of exploitation and manipulation.
Verdict: “Framing Britney Spears” compellingly sheds light on how the misogyny, sexualization and harassment she faced at the hands of the media and public led her to lose complete control of her life.