The new documentary Framing Britney Spears is the latest in the media’s apology tour for the decades of the '90s and early 2000s.
Joining the ranks of Monica Lewinsky, Jessica Simpson, Lorena Bobbitt et al, the New York Times doco takes a stomach-churning look at the way Britney’s sexuality, relationships and mental health have been covered, while at the same time trying to make sense of just what exactly is happening to Britney under the conservatorship that currently keeps her a virtual prisoner.
Two major American pop culture events happened this weekend: the first was the release of the anticipated documentary about Britney Spears and the other was the Super Bowl. Possessing zero interest in American football, I paid attention to the latter only to watch the halftime show performed by The Weeknd, which, on viewing, in comparison to previous years seemed to serve as an analogy for the different expectations of male and female performers.
While in past years female halftime acts have executed daring, high octane performances (think the nail-biting acrobatics of P!nk and Lady Gaga and the superhuman cardio of Beyonce, Shakira, Jennifer Lopez and Katy Perry, among many more), rather than defying gravity or causing a crack in the space-time continuum with dance moves, Abel Tesfaye mostly just wandered around with his dick/microphone in his hand.
His performance was… fine, but it didn’t contain any amount of the ingredients that previous powerhouse female performers have been required to bring to the primetime spot. These divas have had to be note perfect while shaking their asses, diving from the rafters, completing multiple costume changes, and all the while remaining both sexy AND beautiful because if they don’t look pretty then what is even the point of them.
Can you believe that Britney has only performed once at the Super Bowl Halftime Show, in a duet with Aerosmith, of all the desiccated white men?! This injustice does not make it into Framing Britney Spears, though there are enough other offences committed against her for the viewer to spend 75 minutes softly whispering to themselves “I’m sorry”.
While Britney was relegated to the role of ‘special guest’ only once, her deadbeat ex Justin Timberlake has been a headliner of the halftime show an astonishing three times, most famously in 2004 when he performed with Janet Jackson. If you’re keeping score at home, one of the winners of that infamous 2004 performance was YouTube, the creation of which was inspired by the ‘incident’ when one of its co-founders was frustrated in the days after when he couldn’t easily find a video of it and decided that something had to be done to create better opportunities for men to look at boobs whenever they wanted.
Another winner was Justin Timberlake who, despite being the one to rip the clothes from Ms Jackson’s body, was rewarded with the solo spot in the halftime show 14 years later.
Deservedly, Justin does not come out of Framing Britney Spears well at all.
And Janet Jackson, what of her? As the owner of the boobs, she was solely blamed for the incident, forced to apologise, her next album tanked and her career never recovered, mostly because of a sex pest white dude (although she is still ICONIC and always will be). Just another day in the early noughties then.
But back to Britney. Through her, I can track important events and revelations: from studying women’s studies at university in the late ‘90s which helped me to understand that the over-sexualisation of Britney as a teen was the fault of the capitalist system which treats women’s bodies as commodities, through to living in London in 2007 when I would ‘hilariously’ scream “IT’S BRITNEY, BITCH!” into my flat’s intercom when I had forgotten my keys after a night out. (While we are on the subject of apologies, I really want to apologise to my flatmates for the very many times I did that.)
Framing Britney Spears similarly tracks the popstar from her start as an incredibly sweet, polite and driven girl who is in control of her career to the lost and not-okay young mother whose mental breakdown was eaten up by all of us who stood around magazine stands feigning concern with giant spoons concealed behind our backs.
This current vogue in reckoning for the maligned women of the ‘90s and 2000s has given us some great media through which to process our past sins.
The podcast You’re Wrong About recently gained a raft of new followers for its series on Princess Diana, which tied in nicely with the latest season of The Crown, but I also highly recommend their dissection of Jessica Simpson’s autobiography. If you don’t come out baying for the blood of John Mayer and Nick Lachey then may I suggest you are a bot?
Likewise the second season of Slate’s podcast Slow Burn presented an ugly view of how even so-called feminists piled on to paint the 22-year-old Lewinsky as a slutty idiot who was wielding as much power as the 49-year-old leader of the free world with whom she was having a relationship.
Monica has now thankfully wrestled back some of her autonomy to tell her own story in recent years - but this control is what is still greatly missing in Britney’s later career as she suffers under her father’s conservatorship.
The story of this conservatorship makes up most of the second half of the doco. Her father Jamie Spears is painted as an opportunist only interested in his daughter’s money who has locked her into a legal stranglehold usually reserved for the old and infirm so that he can pull the puppet strings and keep her laying the golden eggs.
According to the rules of the conservatorship, Britney is declared unfit to be legally in control of her own body and finances, however she is able to perform a highly lucrative and physically demanding residency in Las Vegas.
Isn’t this her whole career writ large, with everyone falling over themselves to make money off Britney the entity, and seeking to control and exploit her image while seeing her as nothing more than an automaton with an ATM attached?
Britney’s fervent supporters, the ones behind the #FreeBritney movement, are those who were her audience at the height of her fame, who were kids and teenagers in the late ‘90s.
At that time, this group wasn’t taken seriously. In the age of TikTok, they now are, with the ability to create and control their own narratives and content in a way that doesn’t require old media to act as a conduit. These original fans are using the weapons of the new generation in their fight to help Britney gain control of her life and money and person.
Supporters parse her Instagram account, looking for coded messages in her Live Laugh Love aesthetic with the passion of QAnon followers scrounging dingy message boards for permission to be racist dropkicks.
Britney’s Instagram is the anti-QAnon though – the tagline for the podcast Britney’s Gram is ‘the happiest place on the internet’, and it very well could be! I’ve long been a fan of Britney’s Instagram account for its sincerity as she generally shows herself being happy and silly and apparently just making the best of her very weird situation in her luxurious jail.
Maybe she is sending messages through her posts, she certainly seems to be aware that that is what fans are thinking: see this incredibly meta and clever post from the day after the documentary was released.
Britney’s content is odd, sweet, basic and incredibly endearing but what it reminds me of most is the eerie subplot at the beginning of Roald Dahl’s The Witches. In this dark tale the narrator’s grandmother tells a story of a little girl named Erica who is trapped inside a painting by a witch. Her family watch her over time, switching positions in the scene and ageing as the years go by until one day, the elderly Erica disappears from the painting, presumably having died.
Britney also seems to drift from spot to spot in her mansion, performing dance routines, sometimes painting, sharing things she thinks are funny or wise but all the while seemingly locked in time and space.
I’d much prefer a happier ending for Britney, obviously, and am hoping to one day soon see the amazing music video she creates upon being granted her freedom (Brit you can totally use this painting idea though, this one’s on me).
Of all the creeps that roam the pixels of Framing Britney Spears (we’re looking at you, Justin Timberlake, Sam Lufti, Diane Sawyer and pretty much every late night host and interviewer in the ‘90s), there are two who unabashedly still make hay from Britney’s pain.
Father Jamie Spears is obviously one, and the other is the media who hounded her at her lowest and is still trying to make money off her even now. Outlets like Rolling Stone, who famously shot the pedo-lite Lolita photos of Britney in 1999, along with an interview that makes me want to conduct a citizen’s arrest on my computer for showing it to me, are still profiting off her by promoting this doco with apparently no insight into how their behaviour added to her plight. As I watched the documentary on YouTube, pop-up ads kept suggesting to me how I might like to ingest more of Britney through her music videos.
The million think-pieces generated by the release of the doco (including this one, mea culpa!) will likely send her music up the charts again, putting more money into her estate and her dad’s pockets. The snake continues to eat its tail.
In 2021, an age that is post-#MeToo, when we are all apparently much better informed about mental health, when females are more likely to push back against creepy questions from interviewers and misogyny is called out on the regular, the reaction from the internet to Framing Britney Spears has largely fallen into two camps: ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘thank goodness we’re not like that any more’.
To those who are celebrating how woke we are now, I’d invite you to look a bit harder, maybe starting with the recent allegations within the local music industry. Rather than patting ourselves on the back, let’s instead remember we still have a long way to go.
The NYTimes Presents: Framing Britney Spears is available to watch on TV3 On Demand.
Main photo: Felicia Culotta