The New York Times documentary on Britney Spears isn’t about her music. It’s not even entirely about Britney Spears. “Framing Britney Spears” is largely about the media, and the people who consume it. I watched to see if the Times could thread that needle, honestly critiquing media exploitation without being exploitative itself. I’m not sure if they pulled it off.
The Times chose to tell her story now because she is in the midst of a long legal battle with her father over her conservatorship, by which Jamie Spears together with an attorney with the Dickensian name of “Wallet” has controlled almost every aspect of his daughter’s life since 2008. Such legal arrangements are usually made for elderly or infirm people who can’t be trusted to care for themselves or their money. Spears is 39.
It is beyond dispute that her legal situation is odd. Her father, who was largely absent through her young adulthood, petitioned for legal control of her affairs after her series of public breakdowns; but the conservatorship continues even after Spears’ celebrated comeback and lucrative residency in Las Vegas. The lawyer Wallet petitioned the court to increase his share of her earnings, arguing that the conservatorship should be considered “more of a hybrid business model.”
In other words, she is well enough to perform and make money hand over fist, but not well enough to decide what to do with that money. (Six days after the documentary first aired, Spears won a small concession concerning investment powers; but the bulk of financial control remains in her father’s hands. Another hearing is scheduled for next month, and Spears is expected to continue petitioning the court to remove her father as conservator.)
Most Americans are familiar with Britney Spears’s story: A small-town girl with a big voice is hurtled into fame, and she soon emerges from the safe and shiny world of “The Mickey Mouse Club”and uses every means but skywriting to announce that she is now a sexy and powerful woman in control of her own destiny. The world eagerly responds by alternately slut-shaming her and demanding more details about her breasts, her virginity, her sexual conquests.
Lit by a constant strobe of camera flashes, she has an excruciatingly public romance and rift with Justin Timberlake, marries dancer Kevin Federline, has a baby and then another baby, checks in and out of rehab, divorces, shaves her head, attacks a paparazzo with an umbrella and is involuntarily committed to psychiatric care. It is a Russian novel of a life, lurid, pathetic, savage and ridiculous, and as it plays out it is played for laughs, with the whole world apparently in on the joke of this lunatic star who can’t seem to get it together just because everyone is watching her fail.
I remembered all the details of her coming apart, but I gasped when I saw the clip of the game show “Family Feud” in the documentary. Contestants are asked to list things that Spears had lost that year, and the crowd laughs and cheers when they offer answers like “her hair,” “her dignity,” “her marriage,” “her mind.” It is breathtakingly cruel. And I remember how those who defended her were mocked, as well.
There is no doubt that the media—invasive and predatory tabloids, as well as allegedly respectable journalists—did their best to destroy Britney Spears for ratings. It does not appear that she ever had anyone willing and truly able to defend her, or even to be fair to her. This documentary strives mightily to do both.
Image: Screenshot from “Framing Britney Spears” on Hulu