We don’t know what we don’t know.
That’s what a lawyer who met with Britney Spears prior to one of her conservatorship hearings notes in the new documentary Framing Britney Spears. There are so many unanswered questions about the pop star’s wellbeing these days, with the control she’s been under for over a decade under new scrutiny from fans — i.e., the #FreeBritney movement, a mostly but not entirely internet-based phenomenon complete with podcasts, seemingly out-there theories of secret coded messages from the star, and more.
Is it possible her private medical records and other information would support the fact that the current conservatorship, controlled by her father Jamie Spears, is still necessary, despite what some fans believe? Sure. But this new production lends credence to the growing concerns that something more sinister is going on.
Framing Britney Spears, part of The NY Times Presents series and streaming on FX on Hulu Friday, isn’t breaking much new reporting ground, but it’s a fascinating time capsule, covering her meteoric rise from small-town Louisiana kid to pop superstar teen to a tabloid target throughout her 20s. There’s a fun nostalgic rush to looking back at the bubbly young woman responsible for so much pop culture ephemera: the Catholic schoolgirl outfit! The red leather bodysuit! The snake!! They’re all touchstones for anyone who was young circa 2000, but the low rise jeans and good vibes can’t last forever.
The most interesting part of the documentary, directed by Samantha Stark, involves watching media footage from the early aughts, when Spears was both one of the most famous individuals in the world and also…a woman in her early 20s. It’s not a new revelation, but in 2021 it’s so bizarre and cringeworthy to watch what was commonplace then: late night jokes about her virginity status; reporters asking her if she had a sex life; regular shaming for expressing any burgeoning sexuality at all. Watching a montage of it, you can see how the obsessive attention surrounding her is spiraling out of control, so one can only imagine how jarring it must have been in the center of it all. By the time you’re viewing Matt Lauer (!) quiz a crying Britney (!!) about whether she’s a bad mom (!!!) for Dateline in 2006, it’s all one can do not to turn away in horror: We were okay with this?!
The answer, for too much of the culture at least, was absolutely. Framing Britney Spears does a good job of showing how much money there was to be made at the time from tabloid pictures and the whole pre-social media cottage industry that ran the misogynistic celebrity industrial complex. At one point, filmmakers interview a paparazzi guy (who was part of the infamous umbrella shot) where he guiltily notes Spears never asked him to stop taking her picture. Sir, she’s on camera asking you to stop, repeatedly! The whole montage has a horror movie feel to it, where impending doom is obvious to everyone but you’re powerless to step in.
The whole montage has a horror movie feel to it, where impending doom is obvious to everyone but you’re powerless to step in.
Perhaps that’s why, then, some fans feel so compelled to help now, when there are better options available than sitting down with Lauer to tell your side of the story. Britney couldn’t effectively push back against degrading stereotypes 15 years ago, but the power of social media is now allowing others to do it for her. Which could be a great thing; the woman is certainly due for a more forgiving reconsideration. But an uncomfortable question hangs over the back half of the documentary: What if the fans, some of whom camp outside courtrooms and spend their days seeing secret messages in her social media posts, are wrong? What if she isn’t trying to speak to them, and she doesn’t want them to speak for her? Isn’t that invasiveness into her life potentially disturbing too?
Framing Britney Spears doesn’t dive deep into this aspect of the still-unfolding story, and of course without Britney herself weighing in there’s no way to know for sure. The documentary rolls out some big guns to help fill in a few gaps in lieu of the singer’s voice, most notably longtime ex-assistant/chaperone/friend Felicia Culotta, who certainly makes a compelling argument that Britney’s father is only interested in his cash cow. Disturbing also are the lawyers who discuss how impossible it can be to come out from under a conservatorship once it’s set up.
Fans are then left with a chilling cliffhanger of sorts, pondering dark questions about the weird dichotomy of her life today that’s explicitly pointed out in the doc: We’re to believe she’s woman who is reportedly not mentally well enough to have any control over her finances or day-to-day decisions, but sound enough to perform for crowds of thousands and rake in millions. It sure doesn’t seem correct.
Spears doesn’t owe her fans any explanation, but more than anything, this documentary made me long for the day when we hopefully do finally get this complex story in her own words. For now, the mystery still remains.
Framing Britney Spears is streaming on FX on Hulu Friday.
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