If you, like me, are a longtime fan of Britney Spears and pop music culture in general, there’s not a lot explicitly new to learn in “Framing Britney Spears,” the latest episode from FX on Hulu’s The New York Times Presents series of short documentaries. But the information, constructed by producer/director Samantha Stark, is presented with such startling clarity, efficiency, and sparse bluntness, you’ll walk away from it with no choice other than to scream “Free Britney, and while we’re at it, Free Our Society From So Many Problems Still Relevant Today!”
Sexism is a churning, devastating force of man-made destruction, and being a pop star didn’t shield Spears from it — it amplified it. Raw footage from all manner of media in the documentary shows male forces constantly commenting on Spears’ body in relationship to a man’s enjoyment and consumption of it. Ed McMahon, speaking to a very young Spears on Star Search, asks her not about her raw talent, but if she has a boyfriend, and if she would consider being his. Later in her stardom, a male talk show host explicitly asks Spears about her breasts, and then chides her for seeming upset about it. Male paparazzi hound and literally surround her at every turn, peppering her with “death by a thousand papercuts” questions pitched with such patronizing attitude, abjectly refusing to listen to her pleas to leave her alone (Chris Crocker was always correct). The world analyzes, criticizes, and makes fun of every decision made by Spears, not bothering to understand so many of her decisions are reactions to this very celebrity apparatus of destruction. Perez Hilton proudly proclaims that when Britney Spears does bad, he does good.
Justin Timberlake, a star who rose at the same time as Spears, a star who was in a publicized relationship with her, does not receive the same treatment. Instead, he helps propagate the annihilation of Spears, painting her as a slut in his “Cry Me a River” video and joking about taking her virginity on shock jock radio appearances. He manages to escape the brunt of criticism society seems too eager to foist upon Spears. He unpinned many grenades himself, then blamed her for the explosions.
It’s, sadly, no wonder that this constant whir of sexism, attrition, and entitlement culminates so aggravatingly with as literal an ownership of Spears as one can claim under the law. During her many public mental health issues — moments like shaving her head and attacking with an umbrella that we’ve treated for so long as punchlines, moments that were plainly exacerbated by all of these horrible outside forces — Spears was placed under a conservatorship. This means that all of her assets, and much of her personal autonomy, is owned by outside forces. In this case, it’s her father, Jamie Spears. As this documentary clearly states from everyone who knew Spears at any time, Jamie Spears is an abusive, abandoning, and toxic force in his daughter’s life. For him to take control so bluntly and so lawfully blessed by so many institutions is proof positive of how insidious, how pervasive, how vulture-like of a force sexism continues to be.
And yet, “Framing Britney Spears” offers some hope — and so, too, does our current pop culture landscape. It often takes a sacrifice for progress. Today’s female pop stars, folks like Ariana Grande, Megan Thee Stallion, Taylor Swift, and Billie Eilish, are upfront about their self-ownership, their mental health struggles, their relationship with their own femininity. All of this is reflected not only in their lyrics, their videos, their live performances, but in their frank, directly communicated social media accounts. Without a Britney Spears to blaze the trail of openly expressing sexuality, mental health struggles, and fighting back against the sexist apparatuses that control so many female pop stars, our current slate of female pop stars wouldn’t have the room they do. The documentary rightfully looks upon this sacrifice as fundamentally unfair for Spears, but also fundamentally strong for any future Spears watching.
The documentary does not end with Spears’ unequivocal freedom from her conservatorship. But it ends with a legal decision that at least represents the opening of a door, the glimmering of light, the promise of regained control. We all just have to keep talking about the issues that face her, face us, until they are viewed in the rearview mirror with as much jaw-dropping “can you believe we used to act that way?” clarity as represented in this documentary.
“Framing Britney Spears” is streaming now as part of FX on Hulu’s The New York Times Presents.
The first rule of ‘WandaVision’: Keep your eyed peeled for clues.
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