In 2008, the L.A. Superior Court granted Britney Spears’ father, Jamie Spears, financial conservatorship over Britney, allowing him to control her finances. Thirteen years later, Jamie remains Britney’s conservator. Framing Britney Spears is a New York Times documentary following Spears’ tumultuous life and her fight to end her father’s conservatorship. Despite being the focal point of the film, Spears herself is not part of it.
As mainstream media slowly but surely begins to embrace feminist values, with it comes increasing sympathy for Spears. Although many viewers are treating this film as her redemption, it should not be. It is her story, but it’s not told in her own words. Spears responded to the film on Instagram.
“No matter what we think we know about a person’s life it is nothing compared to the actual person living behind the lens,” Spears wrote.
It is unclear whether Spears is referring to the lens belonging to the paparazzi, or the New York Times. Perhaps it’s both, because the irony is this: At the end of the day, the public is still talking about Spears and is endlessly fascinated with her personal life, and yet, she still has no voice on the trauma she has faced throughout her career.
Spears has expressed gratitude for the #FreeBritney movement, but it is difficult to see how this documentary helps Spears in her fight against her father’s conservatorship. More sympathy from the public might mean more sympathy from a judge, but #FreeBritney activists were already applying pressure on the L.A. Superior court to relinquish Jamie Spears’s conservatorship before the Times aired the film.
However, there are a number of reasons why this documentary does not belong on the let’s-speculate-about-Britney-Spears’-personal-life shelf.
For one, Framing Britney Spears is building some much-needed sympathy for Spears. Fans are currently demanding celebrities who mistreated Britney to apologize.
Further, it lays bare how toxic paparazzi culture was, and still is. In one clip, paparazzi are seen packed into a gas station waiting for Spears to exit the bathroom. In another, she is seen crying in a restaurant as onlookers press on. An interviewer asks Daniel Ramos, an active member of the paparazzi, if their work affected Spears at all.
“Working on her for so many years, she never gave a clue or information that [said] ‘I don’t appreciate you guys,’ or ‘leave me alone,’” Ramos says.
Additionally, the film serves as a reminder that Spears faced harassment from not only the paparazzi, but also from the general public. Within the last decade, the public refused to view a woman in control of her sexuality as none other than a threat to their children. In a clip of Diane Sawyer interviewing Spears, Sawyer justifies a mother’s claim that she would shoot Britney if given the chance because of how hard it is to be a parent. From all angles, Spears was a target for criticism and hatred.
Although the film has the power to sway public opinion in favour of Spears, it still inadvertently forces Spears—a woman who has suffered incessant public scrutiny—back into the limelight. One thing is for sure: Any piece of media with Britney Spears in the title will always do well because it satiates the public’s obsession with her private life. It’s clear that the filmmakers respect Britney—they are careful not to speculate about her life too much—but if their goal, truly, was to humanize Spears, they should have waited until she is ready and able to tell her own story.
Britney’s friend, chaperone, and former assistant Felicia Culotta alludes to the fact that this film is not Britney’s redemption. Culotta guides the filmmakers around her Mississippi home, the walls plastered with framed records and photos of her and Britney.
“One reason I agreed to do this interview is so we can remind people of why we fell in love with her in the first place,” Culotta says. “I’m excited for the time she’ll get to share her story [….] Everything will fall into place.”