Media’s the real womanizer: ‘Framing Britney Spears’ opens deeper conversations

Image of Spears performing
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In light of the documentary “Framing Britney Spears” released Feb. 5, there has been increasing conversation surrounding the ways in which female celebrities exist in the public eye by hand of toxic, sexist media. The documentary tells the story of the conservatorship Spears has been under since 2008, following what the media has referred to as a series of meltdowns. Her father is the conservator, meaning he has legal control over nearly all her personal and professional affairs. 

Spears may be a multiplatinum pop star, but her story is by no means unique or irrelevant from society on a more everyday level — specifically as it pertains to misogyny. As such, there is much reason to interrogate the forces at play in order for pop culture to productively move forward.

It’s essential for both producers and consumers of media to be cognizant of the narratives so deeply ingrained in our culture that sexualize and problematize women. It’s not that one side is right over the other, but that it should be called out when the default is to disregard one side entirely.

Her career is a prime example of a cultural obsession with the innocence and promiscuity of women – not to mention women who are outrageously talented and beautiful. And beyond this, the press has been critical of Spears across a variety of contexts – in relationships and motherhood, to name two. 

For example, Spears’ breakup with Justin Timberlake in 2002 was largely portrayed as her fault, the question circulating “What did she do wrong?” In fact, Timberlake recently made a public apology where he explained that he could have handled the fallout in a more honest way. 

The larger discussion surrounding Spears’ descent from public favor cannot go without consideration of the cultural moment in which she existed. Had the events of her life occurred a decade later than they did, perhaps the media would be met with different language – better able to identify and consider the relevance of mental health, for example. It would have likely been more apparent that the invasive media and her lack of privacy were highly related to her behavior, which was so often taken without context. 

Not only does this media scrutiny affect Spears’ image, but also has serious consequences for her personal life. The framing of Spears is all but inextricably linked to the decisions and outcomes of high-stakes legal situations – such as the custody battle she’s fought over her sons and her current wishes to remove her father from his position as conservator. 

Pragmatically speaking, a conservatorship protects an individual in that it enables decisions to be made for them by the party deemed most appropriate. While the transfer of responsibilities to a conservator can be a logical avenue, the circumstances of this specific arrangement have raised questions as to whose interests are truly being served. 

As cited in the documentary, to this day, it has not been disclosed what exactly in her medical record has been used to place Spears in a conservatorship. Also questionable is the fact that it is uncommon for someone as “young and productive” as Spears to be in this position. 

At the very least, there is hope that stories will continue to surface and serve justice to the sexist accounts that went one-sided for too long. The media is able to create an image for a person that takes on a life of its own: There’s Britney Spears and there’s “Britney Spears.” And this documentary has made it frighteningly clear that once Spears had come upon fame, it was only a matter of time until the underlying wheels of toxic, sexist expectations kicked up into full gear – taking the form of accusatory, demeaning press across tabloids, news channels and the like.

“Framing Britney” is more than a form of education or entertainment. The interviewees are taking an intentional risk to help lift the corporate veil off the goings-on of Spears’ conservatorship and offer information for a broader purpose. (And this discussion here just barely scratches the surface of the ways in which race, among other identity groups, plays into unfair media representation). 

Not everyone may be a producer of media, but everyone is a consumer. What can be learned from this documentary and how can these concepts be put into practice in our daily lives? What are the sexist tropes and unfair generalizations that seep into discourse on the public figures who share their talent with us? What may it look like to #FreeBritney once and for all?

This documentary is interesting, complex, thought-provoking and, above all, an invaluable piece of truth. In order for it to fulfill its potential, however, we have to take it upon ourselves to engage with the facts and questions it puts forth. 

Contact Kathryn Kemp at [email protected]. Tweet her at @kathryynkemp.