Does Framing Britney Spears restore her agency or undermine it?

Britney Spears, photographed by friend and assistant Felicia Culotta (Photo: FX)

Britney Spears, photographed by friend and assistant Felicia Culotta (Photo: FX)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

The latest installment of The New York Times Presents, a series of stand-alone documentaries produced by the Times staff, centers on Britney Spears, whose pop stardom has at times almost been eclipsed by personal drama and familial strife. Framing Britney Spears revisits the Oops… I Did It Again and Circus artist’s rise to fame, from charming on The Mickey Mouse Club to holding her own in the boys’ club that was early 2000s pop music. In those days, “Girls didn’t sell,” as one talking head observes. But Spears achieved a level of commercial success that’s still rarely seen—she became the Princess Of Pop, selling out tours and garnering legions of fans, all while maintaining a carefully cultivated image.

When the public breakups and breakdowns began, that image crumbled and the same tabloid photographers and reporters who once strove to capture Spears at her best were now even more driven to document her at her lowest. Framing Britney Spears explores that shift as well, in addition to the conservatorship that Spears has lived under for 14 years and the #FreeBritney movement born on social media. The documentary, directed by Samantha Stark, is full of familiar headlines—including nods to Spears’ relationship with and breakup from Justin Timberlake—and casual yet dismaying admissions that the singer’s privacy would never be respected while her personal struggles remained good for tabloid business.

Framing Britney Spears acknowledges intrusive paparazzi and directors of photographers at magazines. But as A.V. Club staffers and Britney fans Danette Chavez and Shannon Miller watched the documentary, they couldn’t help but wonder whether this investigative work was following suit. So they hashed out their feelings about the documentary and the questions it raises in this latest Crosstalk.

Shannon Miller: Danette, when we last connected over a different pop culture paragon, you were kind enough to kick things off with a well-received “whistle note.” Considering that we’re getting ourselves into some serious Britney Spears chat today, do you mind if I start with a spirited, hopefully as iconic, “HnnnYeaAah?”

Danette Chavez: I think we’d all be delighted to hear a “HnnnYeaAah.” In fact, “Gimme More.”

SM: It’s pretty wild to think about the Princess Of Pop and her overwhelming imprint on pop culture over the past two decades—longer than that, if you were a Mickey Mouse Club fan. Her earlier work doubles as one of the defining soundtracks of the millennium. Even if you aren’t the most devoted Britney fan, it would be very difficult to not react in some fashion to a “…Baby, One More Time” or “Oops!… I Did It Again” reference. They’re just moments that are part of this universally shared pop culture lexicon now. Do you have a quintessential Britney track that never fails to satisfy?

DC: I wish I could at least strive for a deep cut here, but if I’m going with my gut, it’s “Oops!… I Did It Again.” As someone who was the target demographic for both Titanic and Spears’ sophomore album (also called Oops!… I Did It Again) upon their respective releases in 1997 and 2000, there was just no escaping that song or that video homage or that dance. Which isn’t to say that I haven’t dug into Spears’ catalog: “Piece Of Me” and “Work, Bitch” are always in rotation, and on speakers, no less (no earbuds necessary when working from home). And I got a kick out of RuPaul’s Drag Race’s recent nod to the pop princess in a lip sync to “If U Seek Amy” (a song title that took me far too long to grasp). But “Oops!… I Did It Again” is downright transportive for me, taking me back to the days of frosted tips, metallic eye makeup, and Spears’ pop dominance.

What’s your Britney go-to? Please don’t let me be the last to know. (Yes, I plan to keep doing this.) And did you cue up Spears tracks to prepare for or accompany your watch of the “Framing Britney Spears” installment of The New York Times Presents?

SM: My go-to track is easily “Inside Out,” a sultry gift off of her 2011 album, Femme Fatale. I remember allowing the song to loop for a while after first listening to it and thinking, “Oh, yeah, she’s absolutely back.” How do you not feel unflinchingly sexy when it pops up on your YouTube autoplay? It’s a given!

I actually did not listen to anything in preparation for this documentary. I hope you don’t hold it against met. (It took me entirely too long to land on that. I don’t know how you do it, Chavez.) Honestly, I’m not sure that anything could have suitably prepared me for those 75 minutes. It’s one thing to tender a vague recollection of the many, many sides of the media’s ongoing relationship with Spears. It’s an entirely different experience to string these moments together decades later in a comprehensive timeline from the halcyon days of her debut to now, when we are only just beginning to grasp the details of her conservatorship—which was originally overseen solely by her father, Jamie Spears—and the resulting #FreeBritney movement.

Admittedly, I’m not even sure where to begin when discussing this doc. It does a pretty astonishing job illustrating how Spears’ outward image transitioned from the carefully crafted, folksy girl to a woman deemed unable to take care of herself. I think the most resonant takeaway for me was just how involved she was in her brand early on. Back in the day, I don’t think there was enough media emphasis on how meticulous she was about her performances, her contracts, and the gigs that she approved. And based on the account from Adam Streisand, a lawyer who she sought to assist with the case against her father, she tried to maintain some level of autonomy even during the conservatorship process.

DC: This is the kind of thing that can be difficult to review, partially because so much of this information, including Spears’ marriage to Kevin Federline and the much-documented breakdown in a hair salon, has been readily available for years. You have to wonder, aside from a deep dive into the fan-led #FreeBritney movement, what else director/producer Samantha Stark could uncover. But seeing it all in the aggregate—Spears’ breakup with Justin Timberlake, her abysmal treatment by the paparazzi and even her own family—is a discomfiting reminder of how this culture chews up and spits out its idols. And, not to diminish what she went through, but can you imagine how much worse it would have been for Spears had she not been a pretty, young white woman? Despite being a survivor, Megan Thee Stallion has been under just as much scrutiny as her alleged attacker Tory Lanez. She even felt she had to show evidence of her gunshot injury.

As you noted earlier, we’ve discussed the savviness of embattled pop stars in the past, and how and why some people might refuse to acknowledge their shrewdness. That seems to have always been the case with Britney Spears, whose initial image—or “framing,” as the documentary puts it—was pure Lolita. The public opinion was that Spears was just going along with things, or not even fully aware of how “hit me, baby, one more time” or “not that innocent” would be interpreted. Just look at this MadTV parody of Spears:

As portrayed by Nicole Sullivan, Spears is manipulated by her family and leered at by handlers. On its surface, the sketch is almost sympathetic of Spears’ plight—she’s just a teen, caught up in the plans and desires of others. But, much like the Lifetime film Britney Ever After, it belies just how self-aware Spears has always been. I don’t mean that she was overly calculating or anything, but Spears knew or learned how to walk the fine line between desirable and attainable, all while incorporating her own vision for her career.

SM: It’s interesting, that sketch first aired in September of 1999, not long after her debut. It’s been at least 19 years since I’ve watched this clip. And yet, I can still remember that parody word for word, as if it’s been on loop ever since. It’s a pretty potent example of how various sectors of media have regarded Spears as a character ripe for comedy since the very beginning, an instantly memeable presence before we even had the language to describe a sensation as “memeable” or “viral.” What’s more, that comedy was largely rooted in the seriously uncomfortable aspects of her life, whether we’re referring to how she was oversexualized from the moment she stepped onto the scene, her custody battle with Federline, or the breakdown of her relationship with Timberlake. I promise I do not intend to let him overshadow this discussion, but, my god, what a regrettable, opportunistic, sour footnote he’s voluntarily become in all this.

DC: Once again, I am reminded of the miscarriage of justice that led Timberlake to becoming a thing and left JC Chasez mostly out in the cold.

SM: May we never forget it.

In any case, I wish Stark had focused more on how these widely memed images have contributed to a collective failure to take her various pitfalls seriously. “If Britney can survive 2007, you can survive today” is often peddled as a fun, motivational nugget fit for T-shirts and coffee mugs—it’s truly its own Etsy subgenre at this point—but if you were present online at all during the past decade, you more than likely associate the phrase with a specific image of a bald, fiery Britney—often unfairly characterized as “feral” or, the ableist favorite, “unhinged”—defending herself against the paparazzi that followed her without her consent (a detail that videographer Daniel Ramos, who took the famous photos that night, revealed with a startling lack of empathy or self-awareness). It’s a widely embraced joke with insidious origins, and it’s probably the most popular Britney-related quip out of many. Even fans who ardently defend Spears to the public—like Chris Crocker, whose path to fame was initially paved by his recorded “Leave Britney alone” plea—are the subject of ridicule in certain pockets of the internet. Internet culture and parody have played a significant role in all of this, and I’m not sure that there was enough focus on that for a documentary that was meant to address her public framing.

Speaking of missing context, Danette, how did you feel about the absence of the Spearses in Framing Britney Spears? It stirred some memories of HBO’s Leaving Neverland in how it left out some perspective, I think. The only difference was, while Leaving Neverland had an abundance of personal accounts and not enough medical context, Framing Britney Spears seemed to accrue a generous stockpile of expert insight and lacked the really intimate points from the key players (though the episode did note that an attempt to invite Britney and the family was made).

DC: I’m not surprised that Spears’ family members declined to participate and, judging from the footage of old interviews with Bryan Spears, Britney’s brother, I think it’s safe to say they wouldn’t have brought much to the documentary. Her family members are just as beholden to their own self-made narratives: Her father will always see himself as a protector and not an opportunist. Her mother, Lynn, is revealed in the final moments of the documentary to have finally spoken up on Britney’s behalf in the conservatorship proceedings, which is probably more beneficial to her image than being scrutinized by a journalist. (Still, it would have been kind of cathartic to watch them squirm on camera, no?)

But in terms of the documentary’s other shortcomings, I wish Stark had pushed back on Ramos’ claims that Spears never truly wanted to be left alone by the paparazzi. That exchange is especially damning when juxtaposed with Spears’ tense Today interview with Matt Lauer, where she grimace-winces when contemplating what it would be like to have her privacy respected. Now, flashing cameras have long been an occupational hazard for any kind of public figure, let alone a platinum-selling pop artist. And, as Ramos notes, there is a kind of symbiotic relationship there—coverage bolsters reputation, which in turn demands more coverage. It’s a business. For people like Brittain Stone—the photography director at Us Weekly when “candid” shots, as he puts it in the documentary, became the order of the day—it was big business. As the tabloid press grew here in the U.S., million-dollar price tags were placed on photo spreads, whether the images were being shopped around by photographers or the rights were being auctioned off by public figures. Perhaps even more disheartening is the reality that Spears’ conservatorship—we learn her estate is worth $60 million, and those funds are used to pay for lawyers on both sides of the argument—is being treated like a business by the people who are supposed to be looking out for her.

Which brings me back to the point you made earlier, Shannon, about your ambivalence in approaching the documentary. Outside of putting the dangers of conservatorship in the spotlight, is this project helping or hindering Spears? Is the Framing Britney Spears team, themselves journalists, just continuing the tradition of benefitting off her personal tragedies?

SM: That’s the big question: Who does this help? To its credit, it’s a convenient primer for those like me who felt a little lost with the #FreeBritney campaign or, like you touched on, the potential slippery slope of this kind of restrictive guardianship. But more than anything, I think it emphasized this pervasive lack of accountability when it comes to how everyone contributed to this extremely difficult moment in the icon’s life, which isn’t particularly enlightening or useful unless it manages to somehow shift the legal parameters working against her.

DC: Framing Britney Spears concludes with the news that, while her father is no longer the sole conservator of her estate (he’s temporarily stepped down as her conservator of person), Spears remains a conservatee. I’d never hold a lack of closure or tidy ending against a documentary, because they’re often filmed and produced in the midst of ongoing events. But I don’t think Framing Britney Spears ever really accomplishes what it sets out to do. The double entendre of the title speaks to multiple intentions: Is the Times’ documentary suggesting Spears was “framed” in the sense that she was set up by loved ones or a dehumanizing legal system to lose her rights? Or is the intent to frame the singer in a new context, one that restores the agency that has been lost in all the breathless and unseemly reportage? That’s never fully established by the end of the 75-minute runtime. Instead, Framing Britney Spears is caught in the same liminal state—“not that innocent,” “not a girl, not yet a woman”—that its world-famous subject has had to contend with for much of her life.

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