Hollywood stardom is typically thought of as a life of glamour. A facade of flashing lights, expensive living and fame. However, when you look beneath the surface, Hollywood hides a grim culture that exploits its talent who are too young and vulnerable to speak for themselves. This is best exemplified in the harrowing life Britney Spears has endured for decades under the unjust conservatorship of her father and torment from the media.
In an effort to tell her story and fight for her freedom, The New York Times released the documentary “Framing Britney Spears” as an installment in their series “The New York Times Presents.” Though Spears herself doesn’t actively appear in the documentary, she speaks through archived footage filmed throughout her career. The documentary unflinchingly chronicles Spears’ story from her early life to her current fight for freedom.
Most notably, “Framing Britney Spears” bravely explores the toxicity and rampant harassment paparazzi and the press aimed at Spears. The documentary shows how negatively Britney Spears was framed by tabloid media.
Rising to fame early in life, Britney Spears made her appearance on “Mickey Mouse Club” at 12 years old and was viewed by the public as a wholesome, All-American girl. Amid Spears’ evolving image and entrance into womanhood, media outlets rushed to exploit the young singer’s changing appearance. Inappropriate questions in regards to her relationships and possible plastic surgery were relentlessly pointed toward the singer, despite her being a minor. This recurred unchecked for far too long, compounded by the fact that Spears was too young to know how to properly speak up for herself.
In “Framing Britney Spears” we see that by far, the worst exploitation Spears has faced is at the hands of her father and his legal conservatorship. In her most vulnerable moment, following a 51-50 psychiatric hold, Spears’ father, Jamie Spears, took advantage of his daughter and saw her weakened state as an opportunity to gain access to her finances. A former marketing director for Spears interviewed in the documentary commented on a revealing statement made by her father: “‘My daughter’s gonna be so rich she’s gonna buy me a boat,’ and that’s all I’m going to say about Jamie.”
The legal conservatorship has now grown into a “hybrid business model” that her father uses to exploit access to all of her earnings from work he selects for her. A decision meant to be a temporary precaution robbed Britney Spears of her freedom as she is legally bound to live under the watchful eyes of her father and his counsel.
Sexism and Victim Blaming
When Spears started to transition away from her clean, Disney image there was a horrendous amount of unnecessary public outcry. In a vile 2003 interview with Diane Sawyer on “Primetime,” Sawyer repeatedly makes Spears feel as if she is to blame for possibly being a bad influence on the young audiences watching her. Despite Spears repeatedly reminding her that what children watch is up to their parents, Sawyer alludes that Spears’ behavior is something she must feel ashamed for.
One of the most heartbreaking moments of the entire interview is when Diane Sawyer tells a 22-year-old Britney Spears that Kendel Ehrlich, wife of then-Maryland Gov. Robert Erlich, said she wanted to “shoot” the young singer as she felt she was no longer a good role model. You can visibly see Spears is shaken by such a drastic statement but she regains her composure. She bravely looks Sawyer in the eyes and says, “It’s not my job to babysit her kids” — a painfully true statement that should have been listened to. This gut-wrenching moment shows how Spears was unfairly targeted and judged for doing the one thing we all do: grow up.
“Framing Britney Spears” poignantly displays how prominent and normalized double standards are in the media. When addressing the relationship between Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, there is a disturbing contrast in how they were both portrayed and talked to. While Timberlake was celebrated for being in a relationship with the pop star, Spears was criticized and shamed for “betraying” the wholesome image that was placed on her.
Furthermore, Timberlake faced no repercussions for both vilifying her as “a cheater” or the tasteless comments he made about her in public. In the same 2003 “Primetime” interview, Diane Sawyer excuses Timberlake’s demeaning behavior as just him “making a sport out of public retaliation.” Throughout all of the media coverage of their relationship it is painfully clear that despite all of the nasty rumors and distress Spears endured during the era, the media decided she was to blame.
Downplaying of Mental Health
Amid the stress and fear Spears was facing, it is no surprise that her mental health plummeted so severely. Everywhere she turned there was a camera in her face ready to capture her in her weakest moments for the sake of profit. As the documentary follows her life in chronological order, her decline is painfully obvious. Moreover, the reason for her decline grows abundantly clear — she had no escape. Regardless of how she behaved, her character was constantly in question. No matter how she responded, the number of cameras following her never ceased as reporters relentlessly chased and awaited the next breakdown.
More broadly, the harassment of Spears was a catalyst for paparazzi and tabloid culture that felt entitled to the personal lives of celebrities. As sales on magazines with Spears’ troubles on the front cover skyrocketed, so did public interest in stories covering celebrity downfall. This becomes extremely noticeable when you look at both the case of Spears and other women at the time — particularly, how fellow young star Lindsay Lohan was treated. There are a lot of similarities in both women’s coming of age and how the hallmarks of such a transitional time period were used against them. Their stories are disturbingly similar and display a pattern of tabloid reporters neglecting the mental health of the celebrities they cover.
The common thread running through all of the issues addressed in the documentary is the question of complicity. Who let Britney Spears be exploited, harassed and defamed for years? Truthfully, there is no cut-and-dry answer. Complicity is a heavy burden on the shoulders of the media who relentlessly harassed her, the management teams and attorneys who exploited her for profit, the people closest to her that were supposed to protect her, and the general public that didn’t question the frenzy surrounding her. “Framing Britney Spears” is a sobering examination of celebrity and tabloid culture.
Britney Spears and her career signified a change in pop culture. Despite initially being labeled “a bad influence,” Spears has gone on to be an inspiration for so many pop icons we know today. Spears and her openness to express all aspects of her vulnerability is a testament to why her music and story have stood the test of time. “Framing Britney Spears” and the minds behind it have addressed something many media outlets are reluctant to approach: systemic misogyny deeply ingrained in media and celebrity culture.