“Framing Britney Spears” explores issues of control

A bald Britney Spears staring blank-faced into a camera lens. Mascara smeared under her eyes, legs posed in a wide-legged stance and a dark green umbrella gripped in her tight fist like a weapon.

The photo of Britney smashing a paparazzi’s car window with an umbrella shocked and disgusted the nation, but the release of The New York Times documentary “Framing Britney Spears” tells the story of her fame in a new and sympathetic light.

If you’re like us, you know who Britney Spears is. You grew up belting her lyrics on long car rides, clumsily imitating her iconic dances in front of the TV on the living room floor and gushing over photos of her pink and glittery outfits in the cheap magazines on display at the dentist’s office and grocery stores. At some point, you tried to jam to “Toxic” or “Baby One More Time” and you got a stern glance from a parent, telling you that you could no longer listen to Britney’s music, that she was a “bad role model.” You turned the music off and moved on to obsess over another former Disney child star, forgetting about Britney entirely until she came back in 2008, better than ever after her father gained conservatorship over her person and estate.

Suddenly, she was back as America’s golden girl.

The documentary “Framing Britney Spears” examines her rise to fame, her time in the tabloids and her current legal battles over her conservatorship. We watched the narrative of Britney unravel. The all-American girl-next-door became a provocative vixen with questionable morals. This image escalated to one of a coked-up party girl, a negligent mother and an unfit lunatic too crazy to care for herself—a delusional woman in desperate need of conservatorship from her father.

The images and videos in the documentary showing people violating Britney’s personal space, privacy and sense of control tell the familiar story of the dark side of stardom. Stories of stars being harassed, villainized and driven toward dramatic breakdowns are plentiful nowadays, with stars like Demi Lovato and Lindsay Lohan commenting publicly about the pressures of fame and its negative impact on mental health. Mental health is a large part of the documentary. Britney’s postpartum depression, messy breakups and custody battle over her children are significant moments in the film prior to her mental breakdown.

According to critic Wesley Morris from the New York Times, “No one was talking about mental health (during Britney’s downfall)… There was too much money to be made off of her suffering.”

We watched in disgust as the paparazzi violated Britney’s privacy as unposed photos of her began selling for $1 million apiece. As the documentary continues and she is photographed crying, shielding her child and at her most vulnerable, we were appalled at how easily Britney’s health and mental well-being were dismissed for the profit of others.

To us, those images demonstrate how women are more appealing to the public lens as broken people, wholly and even righteously defeated by misogynistic scrutiny. Britney’s story serves as a testament to the greater societal mistreatment of women, something we both have experience with.

As regular Guilford students far from fame and fortune, we were surprised by how much we related to Britney’s experiences. As we watched the paparazzi strip Britney of her bodily autonomy and treat her as public property, we were reminded of the fear we feel when being catcalled, followed and grabbed at by strange men. As we saw the media’s fixation on finding Britney’s flaws, we related to the impossibility of perfectly adhering to societal standards of femininity and womanhood. As we watched the media take control over Britney’s narrative and turn it into a legally binding, seemingly forced conservatorship under her father, we saw a system that benefits from women’s suffering that we, and many women, are intimately familiar with.

While we related to the aspect of exploitation and the general control of Britney, before watching the documentary we did not know about the specific process of conservatorship itself. Conservatorship usually applies to cases of the elderly and those with severe physical or mental limitations who are deemed unable to take care of themselves or their finances. A guardian is appointed to manage the personal and financial affairs of the incapacitated individual.

Britney’s case is very unusual because of her clear capability. She can and has plainly stated her needs, and under her conservatorship has accomplished major career breakthroughs like playing huge stadiums, making television appearances and filming a documentary. To see a woman so knowledgeable and capable be labeled as “unfit,” and her estranged father Jamie Spears become legally allowed to take control of her person and her multi-million dollar estate, feels surreal.

We’re not the only ones who perceived this conservatorship negatively. The second half of the documentary focuses primarily on speculation of the state of her conservatorship and the rise of the #FreeBritney movement. The #FreeBritney movement emerged by analyzing Britney’s social media content and recognizing subliminal messages of fear and longing for freedom in her Instagram posts. The New York Times admits that nothing in the second half of their documentary is verified, as they reached out and did not get responses back from many people deeply involved in the legal aspects of the conservatorship or the conservatorship itself. Still, the documentary managed to convert us into #FreeBritney supporters.

While many claim that the movement is a conspiracy theory with no basis in reality, the documentary makes a very clear case that the supporters of the #FreeBritney movement are not irrational millennials with too much time on their hands, but loyal fans who want the best for Britney.

When questioned on the validity of the harmful nature of Britney’s conservatorship, a fan replied “If (we’re) wrong and one day Britney does come out and tells us that we’re wrong and to leave her alone, we will do just that.”

Despite the controversy and unconfirmed claims, fans are still finding evidence to support their cause. For example, a 2019 statement from Britney, found in legal documentation, says she “welcomes and appreciates the informed support” of her fans on the topic of her conservatorship.

We went into the documentary with an open-mind and were reminded of the toxic nature of the paparazzi in the early 2000s, the misogynistic nature of fame and the ongoing questions about the mental health and overall well-being of Britney Spears. Britney has our support, our love and our well wishes. Even if the #FreeBritney movement is founded on speculation, it highlights ongoing problems with freedom that women with mental health issues still face today.