Framing Britney Spears unravels a heartbreaking pop mystery
Of the many myths that exist about Britney Spears, the most insidious is that she has no agency or artistry of her own; she's a beautiful pop-star puppet, the most visible cog of an elaborate machine. Throughout her career she's been haunted by that lie, born out of misogyny and buoyed by the willful misinterpretation of her work, wherein she has always knowingly danced the line between subject and object, simultaneously in complete control and totally vulnerable to outside influence. That tension is part of what makes her such a compelling artist — and a uniquely perfect target.
Framing Britney Spears, the latest installment in FX's New York Times- and Left/Right-produced documentary series The New York Times Presents, examines these issues in a new light, culminating in the recent fan-driven #FreeBritney movement protesting the 39-year-old's ongoing conservatorship, a legal guardianship under which her father, Jamie Spears, retains control over her person and estate. To see how Spears got here, director Samantha Stark puts the history of the singer's career — rise, fall, conservatorship, comeback, withdrawal, and everything in between — into greater context, with an eye for the contemporary attitudes and celebrity culture that shaped not only the public perception of Spears, but the story of her life.
A humble girl from Kentwood, La., with a striking voice and charisma to spare, Spears began her career when she was cast at 11 years old in Disney's Mickey Mouse Club, appearing alongside Christina Aguilera, Ryan Gosling, and other eventual stars. Six years later, her debut album with Jive Records, Baby One More Time (and its unstoppable title track), positioned her at the forefront of the TRL-facilitated '90s teen-pop explosion and rapidly launched her to superstardom. She released her first three albums in three consecutive years, with her fourth, 2003's In the Zone, scoring Spears' first (and thus far only) Grammy for its addicting single "Toxic." But as her album sales skyrocketed and cultural presence grew, she became known as much for her provocative image as her irresistible music, with critics disparaging her unwholesome evolution and journalists cornering her with sexist interview questions. The media's outlook on its onetime princess only soured further as she blew through two short-lived marriages (the second of which produced two children) and began to resist the teasing good-girl persona on which she'd made her name.
The documentary is titled Framing Britney Spears, and, indeed, framed she always has been: as a star, as a slut, as a psychopath, through lenses adoring or derisive or hateful. But apart from her music, she's never claimed the narrative in a substantial way herself; there was no platform that enabled her to. One quietly devastating moment in the film comes after her failed romance with Justin Timberlake, who then effortlessly tapped into Americans' latent sexism to swiftly cast her as the villain, himself the victim of their breakup (most famously in the "Cry Me a River" video, featuring an unmistakable Spears lookalike as a traitorous ex-girlfriend). "When it's time for people to come for a woman," says Wesley Morris, one of the NYT critics providing analysis in the doc, "there's a whole apparatus ready to do it."
To help push back against old narratives, Stark interviews former members of Spears' inner circle — including Felicia Culotta, the star's onetime chaperone and longtime assistant, who has known Spears since she was a little girl and agreed to appear in the film "to remind people why they fell in love with [Spears] in the first place." And so we are reminded — by the affectionate Culotta as well as some of Spears' early collaborators — of the thrilling talent and sunny sweetness that characterized her meteoric rise, while dispelling the persistent misconception of Britney as the mindless face of a pop engine as opposed to the creative force behind her own operation.
But plaudits like these weren't enough to keep Spears from spiraling in the mid-aughts, as the public — influenced by an inherently misogynistic system — began to turn on Spears; she was soon hounded and harassed to her breaking point. For anyone alive and culturally aware in 2007, it's impossible to forget the photos of Spears shaving her head or hitting a paparazzo's car with an umbrella. These moments, from the ruthless mockery of contemporary commentators to the actual footage of Spears being swarmed by paparazzi unafraid to violate her space as if she were just an object, are disturbing to revisit now. Like so many pieces of Spears' story, the height of the frenzy was timed, almost eerily, for maximum impact — right as she began to resent her teen-pop persona and test her limits, isolated from her friends and struggling with unknown mental health issues. (This period in Spears' life was also indelibly chronicled in Vanessa Grigoriadis' 2008 Rolling Stone cover story, a shocking document of a troubled existence.)
The crucial perspective that Stark's film provides is looking not only at Spears acting out, but also at those with their cameras hungrily trained on her as she does it, as well as the culture at large for receiving those photographs with glee. The extra layer of removal reframes the situation not with ridicule, but empathy; when Spears shaves her head, it reads not as a "crazy" outburst so much as a desperate reclamation of her person in an environment that constantly denied her ownership of herself. To invoke another pop-star Sagittarius (a sun sign which, as Spears notes in an Instagram video, values freedom): Look what they made her do.
Spears' 2007 breakdown would eventually lead to her father, who previously had little involvement in her career, being granted sole conservator of her person and co-conservator of her estate alongside attorney Andrew Wallet. Under the conservatorship (initially granted as a temporary measure, then extended), Jamie Spears oversees and holds final approval on his daughter's career, finances, and personal affairs. At the time it began, Spears' family was evidently concerned she might be susceptible to being exploited (in particular, it seems, by her infamous then-manager Sam Lutfi). The singer, unhappily resigned to the existence of the arrangement, had just one request: that her father not be her conservator. Thirteen years later, he still is (though after Jamie suffered health issues in 2019, Spears' care manager Jodi Montgomery was named temporary conservator of her person; Spears' request that Montgomery take over the role permanently was not granted).
A conservatorship is unusual for someone as young as Spears, and as active (up until the abrupt cancellation of her "Domination" residency in 2019, she worked consistently). The singular nature of her arrangement has led to some strange developments, like Wallet's request for a raise due to the "business-hybrid" nature of the conservatorship, soon after which he stepped down from the role to be supplanted by bank Bessemer Trust. However, most of the details of the guardianship are shrouded in mystery, leading Spears' devoted fan base to launch #FreeBritney, a social media movement with the goal of liberating the "Overprotected" singer. Jamie Spears has dismissed the idea that he's holding his daughter captive as a conspiracy theory. But at the heart of the #FreeBritney cause is the belief that the pop icon — and her fortune — should belong to herself. In recent months, for the first time, Spears has publicly acknowledged the support she's received from her fans, which has encouraged her supporters even further.
Too much information has been obscured by the parties involved for the documentary to come to a concrete conclusion about the truth of Spears' current mental, legal, or financial circumstances. However, after seeing the facts play out with the benefit of hindsight and context, it's hard to step away from Framing Britney Spears believing she hasn't been repeatedly wronged. Her suffering of over a decade ago can't be undone, so her mysterious current situation is what demands attention. The tragedy or legend of Britney Spears has been told repeatedly, and too often cruelly framed by others. And though her current situation isn't promising for her fans' (including Culotta's) dream that the pop princess will someday be able to tell her own story, I must confess — I still believe.
The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears airs Friday, Feb. 5, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX and FX on Hulu.