‘Framing Britney Spears’ is crash course on pop star’s exploitation, media toxicity

Photo of 'Framing Britney Spears'
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Grade: 4.0/5.0

Even for proud Britney Spears fans, the assemblage of sign-wielding #FreeBritney activists depicted in the opening scenes of The New York Times documentary “Framing Britney Spears” might bring up sincere questions about why we’re launching human rights campaigns for celebrities. However, the documentary’s analysis of the 12-year conservatorship held over Spears by her father manages to dig past any skepticism of the internet-based movement by illustrating clearly the timeline of her vilification in the media and its consequences on her livelihood, raising larger questions about the role of the media itself on her legal entrapment.

To provide the viewers with background on the concept of legal conservatorship, the documentary provides insight from a series of legal experts who raise eyebrows at the nature of Spears’ current predicament. According to the documentary’s interviewees, Spears’ father Jamie has maintained personal and financial control over Spears for several years, which he claimed was necessary to protect her as a person and as a business after her public mental health crisis in 2007 called her competency into question. However, the conservatorship has come under criticism in recent years: Legal experts assert that her father’s control over her is against her wishes and that she demonstrates a level of decision-making capacity far greater than what courts typically deem worthy of a conservatorship.

While the documentary mostly hinges its discussion of Spears on the third-hand recollections of such legal experts, it also scores interviews from first-hand influences in Spears’ life, adding unsettling context to the deterioration of Spears’ mental health that led to the establishment of a conservatorship. Paparazzo Daniel Ramos delivers a retrospective statement to the camera on his experience badgering Spears at one of her lowest moments in 2007. “It was a good night for us ‘cause it was a money shot,’ ” says Ramos, highlighting the inverse relationship between Spears’ mental health and the media’s financial gains.

The documentary’s biggest shock factor comes not just from its compilation of cruel tabloids, but the videos of everyday Americans chipping in to demean Spears for her every decision. Clips of a condescending interview between Spears and Diane Sawyer fit nicely into the documentary’s dialogue about America’s misogynistic view of Spears; at one point, Diane even defends the words of a woman who expressed the desire to shoot Spears, preaching in Spears’ face the importance of setting an “example for the kids.”

The inclusion of past interview clips serves to educate the viewer on Spears’ vulnerability to the media, engendering empathy for both her and her fandom. Further shots of #FreeBritney protests — demonstrations organized by Spears’ fans to call attention to her conservatorship — demonstrate that while #FreeBritney supporters primarily aim to end Spears’ conservatorship abuse, they also seek freedom and dignity in their own lives and feel inspired by Spears’ battle with the media to do so. One fan declares into their megaphone that they cut their hair off in the style of Spears’ 2007 shaved head because they “didn’t want anyone touching [them] either.”

The input of the fandom becomes even more valuable to the documentary near its end when attention shifts to an analysis of Spears’ social media presence by two superfan podcasters. While their analyses of minor details on her Instagram captions don’t seem to add much to the documentary’s substance, later discussions of court documents that confirm Spears’ support for the fan-led movement lend more credibility to their argument that Spears’ conservatorship is a violation of her rights.

Ending in an optimistic tone, the interviewees assure that “one day she’ll be able to tell her story,” providing a barely convincing ending for the viewer, who is likely to continue researching Spears’ story as it unfolds today. While “Framing Britney Spears” might not be concrete enough to be used in court against Spears’ conservatorship, it could easily catalyze a reckoning of the abuse she faced at the hands of the media, inspiring other victims of exploitation to seek their own freedom as a result.

Contact Nurcan Sumbul at [email protected].