“Framing Britney Spears”: The New York Times Documentary About the Pop Icon America Couldn’t Get Enough Of

The world is watching – and so are we. This weekend, we’re sitting with the unanswered questions and the hard truths raised by the new Britney Spears documentary that you definitely need to watch.

britney spears new york times documentary
Photo: Felicia Culotta

The New York Times just dropped the sixth episode in its “The New York Times Presents” series, streaming on Hulu, which features deep dives into cultural topics that have captured America’s attention. And if you haven’t heard about “Framing Britney Spears” yet, you should probably restart your internet router because it’s been everywhere, and is making major waves.

The documentary chronicles Britney Spears’ career from her earliest performances, through her very public rises and falls in both her professional and personal life, and up to the present day where the pop icon lives as a conservatee under the rule of her father, Jaime Spears, unable to make some of the most important decisions about her life, her fortune, or her future. Here’s the trailer – scroll down for the full documentary:

The New York Times does an excellent job explaining the unique historical moment when Britney rose to prominence, and how that certainly affected the way she was both celebrated as a stand-out phenomenon, but simultaneously hypersexualized and scrutinized. After all, she broke through as boy bands were dominating the charts and the airwaves; but also as the Bill Clinton sex scandal was plastered on every newspaper headline. “It’s this really charged moment in the country where we are talking about sex in a way that we had never been talking about sex,” Wesley Morris, critic at large at The New York Times says in the documentary. “An exponent of the interest in that relationship bled over into our interest in Britney Spears in some ways.”

It seemed as though everyone in America had something to say about Britney Spears, for better or for worse. And because of the power of outlets like MTV and tabloid publications, all of whom were able to capitalize off of the Britney sensation, she was always front of mind in American households. Every relationship, every outfit, every hit, every trip to the Starbucks was under extreme scrutiny in a way that other celebrities just… sort of weren’t at that time. It was a completely unprecedented obsession with the pop star, at a time when she not only was a creative powerhouse, but more profitable than ever – both personally, and for those who were able to get a piece of her.

britney spears | documentary | pop star
Photo: The New York Times

This volatile dynamic, where exploiting Britney often had an even higher price tag attached to it than supporting her, led to a series of deeply troubling events, particularly in her private life. The documentary touches on her famous relationship with singer and actor Justin Timberlake, and discusses the way he not only controlled the narrative of their break-up, framing it as the result of a moral failing on Britney’s part (and himself, by default, as the morally superior), but also capitalized off it in the form of his “Cry Me A River” song and music video – from which he’s still earning royalties to this day.

It was just far too lucrative to commodify Britney’s image and private life, even for those who had been closest to her. And frankly, America seemed to eat it all up, eager to consume the downfall of its once brightest, most promising star without giving much of a thought to the misogyny, the exploitation, the complete lack of support weaponized against a young woman from whom the entire world had long demanded everything. And certainly without a thought to how any of this had been affecting her mental health in the process.

“Nobody was talking about mental health when Britney Spears was going through all of that stuff in public. The conversation was about what was wrong with her,” Wesley Morris says. “There was too much money to be made off her suffering.”

After years of being hounded by the paparazzi, who could make over a million dollars off a single picture of the star as tabloid culture reached the height of its power, Britney decided to take her image back by shaving her head in 2007. “She’s saying, essentially, with no hair, ‘I quit. Whatever you guys are looking for, in terms of me coming back and being that person again – that person is gone, and you have destroyed her’,” says Wesley Morris. “The idea that people could look at that and only see a crazy person, well… That just tells me what a vulturous society she was working with to begin with.”

“Shaved her head, attacked the paparazzi, more custody drama… Thank you, Britney Spears! Being bad is good for my business!” laughed celebrity blogger Perez Hilton. And as callous and vulgar as it sounds now, over 15 years later, he isn’t wrong. The market for documentation of every single inch that Britney Spears sunk lower into ruin was absolutely booming – and even the plentiful supply could never quite meet the ravenous demand.

Watch the full documentary below.
For those of you in the States who don’t have Hulu or FX, here’s a YouTube upload of the full documentary.
If you’re outside of the States but have a VPN, set it to the USA before clicking the link – then you should be fine:

In early January 2008, after months of being the punchline of every late night talk show in the country, Britney was hospitalized following a custody dispute, and placed on a mandatory hold. This moment would set in motion the series of events that bring us more or less up to the present day. “Around this time, Jaime, Britney’s father, files for temporary conservatorship over Britney,” Liz Day, senior editor at The New York Times, says.

“Conservatorships are unique legal arrangements, usually deigned for elderly people who are unable to take care of themselves or their money. The court gives someone else special powers to make decisions for them,” Liz Day explains. “It’s unusual because Britney’s so young and productive, but there’s speculation that she may be dealing with mental illness issues, or drug abuse issues, or otherwise would benefit from this layer of protection. And it’s sort of surprising, in that Jaime wasn’t a huge figure in her life before this.”

In fact, the documentary spends a good deal of time explaining just how little Jaime was a part of Britney’s life and career before this moment, despite the fact that he’s her father. Having established that, his arrival on the scene at this particular moment raises many eyebrows; not just for viewers in 2021, but also from friends, family members, lawyers and people who worked with Britney at that time, many of whom spoke with The New York Times about what they recalled.

Jaime’s role as a primary conservator or co-conservator has endured these past 13 years, since the original temporary conservatorship was put into place in 2008. Fans and followers from all around the world, who may have initially been relieved to see Britney getting the assistance she needed, were thrilled to see her career turn around in those first days. She was bagging lucrative deals, making new music, appearing as a guest judge on X-Factor, even securing a coveted Las Vegas residency. However, at the same time, she was legally unable to make most of the decisions about her own life or finances, per the terms of the conservatorship.

These two facts produced a type of cognitive dissonance that Britney stans couldn’t ignore – that someone can both be well enough to absolutely crush it within her industry, but somehow incapable of managing her own money at the same time. And as social media began to dominate the internet, the true scale of how little autonomy Britney has over her own life – and just how many people were profiting from the conservatorship she was forced to remain in – began to make its way into public awareness. Thus, the #FreeBritney movement was born.

britney spears | documentary | pop star
Photo: Vice

This documentary touches on so many critical, urgent conversations that we as a society need to be having: the way we police and regulate women’s bodies and self-expression; the damaging, toxic double standards that we hold girls to, but not boys; the voracious appetite for gossip, as though none of it involves actual people’s lives or has any ramifications; the stigmas and ignorance at play when we discuss (or don’t discuss) mental health… And frankly, how f*cked up it is that everyone is going to get up and dance whenever “Slave 4 U” comes on, but only a handful of us actually gave a thought to what the woman behind the song has been going through these past like, 20 years. Or how each of us might have contributed to it.

After watching the documentary earlier this week, the women of The View discussed it as one of their hot topics. And for those of us still sitting with the many revealing, unsettling questions that the documentary left us with, their insights might provide a form of catharsis – coupled with a call to action about how we as a collective can grow from this:

So what’s ahead for the pop icon that America literally couldn’t get enough of, now that this documentary has aired? Well, a lot is still unfolding but this Harper’s Bazaar article gets us pretty up-to-date. As recently as this past Thursday, February 11th, another court hearing was taking place to reassess the conservatorship. If you’d like to follow along with the case, and what’s happening on the ground with the #FreeBritney movement, @BritneysGram and @FreeBritneyLA are great places to start. Both are very knowledgable about the ongoing case, and have organized physical and virtual rallies to raise awareness about Britney’s conservatorship and the need for probate reform, like this one just uploaded today:

Hopefully, Britney will soon be able to set the terms for her own life according to what she knows is best for her. And hopefully, we’ll all be able to extract some incredibly valuable lessons – both from Britney’s story, and from the ways we’ve all been complicit – and active – in its writing.


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