Review: “Framing Britney Spears” (The New York Times Presents, Season 1, Episode 6)
Directed by Samantha Stark. US, 2021, 74 minutes.
Available on Hulu.
The most recent installment of the New York Times docuseries connects two broad factors in the life and work of Britney Spears: the invasive media scrutiny that contributed to the end of her early career in 2008, and the legal conservatorship that she and her estate have been under in the years since. The film posits that one led to the other, or rather, that Spears’ current legal status stems from the same cultural misogyny and lack of respect she endured as a young woman—presenting vintage talk show clips and newsreel clips alongside talking-heads interviews with Times media journalists, Spears’ assistants, fans, and even conservatorship lawyers to make the case. But while “Framing Britney Spears” reveals many ways the media failed Spears early in her career, it doesn’t get deep enough to recognize that it’s not resolving but rather continuing those same patterns.
Although it zips through two decades of Spears’ life without granting much space for nuance or reflection, the segment depicting her relationship to the press as a young star is effectively horrifying. It’s a clip show of cringey public violations: During a talent show, a young Spears is asked whether she has a boyfriend; during a later interview amidst her relationship with Justin Timberlake, she’s asked whether she’s a virgin. “Framing Britney Spears” presents the public obsession with Spears’ body and sexuality as grotesque and omnipresent, swiftly implicating Timberlake, Diane Sawyer, Jay Leno, Perez Hilton, and an entire ecosystem of news media for encouraging a feeding frenzy around the intimate details of her life. In this context the events of 2007 and 2008, including Spears shaving her head and lashing out at paparazzi, are presented as the logical reaction of someone forced to grin and bear it while being provoked and degraded for years on end. So to paraphrase Chris Crocker—the film argues we should have left Britney alone.
But as “Framing Britney Spears” moves into analyzing the star’s conservatorship, it fouls up its own internal logic about media scrutiny. Members of the online #FreeBritney movement are given center stage to speculate on Spears’ mental health, her relationship to her father Jamie, and her feelings about the conservatorship. “Growing up I struggled with anxiety and depression, and she made it okay to feel those things,” says one woman at a rally—one among many that frame their interest in Spears’ legal struggles through their own relationship to her persona, and their gratitude for her career (next up, Babs Gray and Tess Barker, co-hosts of a podcast devoted to analyzing Spears’ Instagram account, explain the various captions and photos that made them suspicious of the star’s health and whereabouts, at one point mentioning that it’s unlike her to use an emoticon instead of an emoji).
The film presents the #FreeBritney crowd’s speculation into Spears’ life as fundamentally good, or at least not harmful in the way that paparazzi shots and prying interviews are harmful—drawing no connection between the invasive media of Spears’ youth and the all-encompassing fandom that followed it. The only time the film questions the #FreeBritney faction comes when a reporter asks activist Leanne Simmons, “What if you’re wrong?”, and she responds, “If Britney comes out and tells us we’re wrong, leave her alone, we will do just that.” Simmons later says she feels vindicated by a statement made by Spears’ lawyer saying the star is grateful to have “her fans informed support,” an intentionally vague message that Simmons takes to mean their research has revealed the truth.
That’s not to say the #FreeBritney activists are necessarily wrong, Spears has said that she’d like her father removed as conservator. But the film still frames these self-proclaimed activists as kind-hearted fans righteously facing down shady business vultures on Spears’ behalf, and fails to analyze how the celebrity culture presented earlier leads to the kind of parasocial relationships that make strangers think they know Britney Spears and what she wants. Like most other installments of New York Times Presents, the scope of “Framing Britney Spears” is deliberately limited—but the work’s lack of internally consistent values can’t be explained away by its skimpy runtime.
“In the beginning, you could tell she enjoyed it,” says Daniel Ramos, the paparazzo who captured the infamous shot of Spears attacking his car with an umbrella, describing the early years of the pop star’s fame. “It’s like she needed us, and we needed her. We both needed each other.” That imagined reciprocity, echoed by many #FreeBritney members, speaks to Britney Spears’ cultural impact and continued hold over the American imagination—but it leaves no room for her autonomy, her privacy, or her actual feelings, which are unknowable in the context of this documentary. [★★★]
Cassidy Olsen is a film critic, culture journalist and screenwriter based in Dublin, Ireland.