We’re Obsessed With the Britney Spears Documentary

And we need to talk about it.

Britney Spears at the VMAs in 2016Dennis Van Tine/UPPA/Zuma

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Like everyone on the internet, we at Mother Jones have been unable to stop talking about Framing Britney Spears, the New York Times documentary released on Hulu and FX a week ago. The film seemed to provide more questions than answers: How does Britney currently feel about her conservatorship? How should the media change its coverage of pop stars going forward? And is all this renewed attention helping or hurting Britney?

In a Slack conversation yesterday, a few members of our staff tried to make sense of the documentary and how it fits into our current cultural moment. Follow along below:

Abigail Weinberg, senior fellow: What were your initial thoughts on the documentary? Did it teach you anything you didn’t already know about Britney’s life or the media coverage of her, or did it change your thoughts about her in any way?

Molly Schwartz, senior fellow: In some ways there weren’t any huge surprises in the documentary—Baby One More Time was my first CD! I lived through most of this. But seeing the whole sequence stitched together felt infuriating in a way that I didn’t understand living through it as a child and teen.

Grace Molteni, senior designer: First initial thought was: rage. Pure rage and ready to fight many people.

I think the luxury of retrospect and age was seeing how much the media warped both her experience as an artist and our experience of her. I certainly remember feeling put off by her actions and now I am like SHE WAS DOING HER BEST/LEAVE BRITNEY ALONE.

As a kid I didn’t think about the people hounding her to get those pictures, I only thought about the pictures.

MS: Exactly, Grace! Watching those clips of her media interviews made me feel pure, unadulterated RAGE.

Sam Van Pykeren, senior fellow: I really think my initial impression was just WOW.

GM: I want to fight Matt Lauer for many reasons, but this was also one of them.

MS: The Matt Lauer clip was one of the absolute worst things I’ve ever had to watch.

SVP: I don’t have a lot of conscious memory around the beginning of her career as a younger person, so it was really helpful to get the type of timeline they presented, but I also know that was one of the documentary’s huge faults.

GM: Overall this did feel like a teaser documentary. Like…we need more—both in coverage and also in-depth analysis.

AW: Totally. From her, from her family, from her boyfriend. It didn’t really teach me anything I didn’t already know.

MS: Exactly! I left with so many questions.

AW: And it didn’t really give me any answers about her conservatorship.

GM: Also, tabloids were problematic—but not just them. Where’s your self-reflection, New York Times? (Though Wesley Morris can stay.)

SVP: Yeah, I’m of two minds: It’s a great entry point for people unfamiliar or who are fans but don’t really know the details of her early pop years. It’s also completely lacking in actual depth. One of my friends (shoutout to Kyle Turner!) wrote that the NYT, in trying to frame this tabloid-esque POV, ended up recreating it. And it’s true, the whole thing felt a little tabloid-y.

MS: A lot of this was already public information. I feel like one of the biggest scoops/pieces of new information was the interview with the lawyer she tried to hire (who is related to Barbra Streisand!).

GM: He touched on a lot of things that I thought were very poignant and insightful, and I want to listen to him for 1,000 more hours.

MS: And the interview with the paparazzo who took the umbrella photo.

GM: I could smack that dude.

MS: Seeing the behind-the-scenes clips of how that photo happened was so powerful. I also would have beat up his car.

AW: When he said that Britney had never given any indication that she wanted to be left alone, and the interviewer said, “What about when she said, ‘Leave me alone?’”

MS: That was so good!

GM: One thing I found incredible about that interview with him was where he goes something like, “She liked it, she never said ‘no’ or, ‘leave me alone.’ And when she said, ‘leave me alone,’ she just meant for the day!”

I feel like every woman watching her knows the difference between enjoying something and feeling like you have to tolerate something. I felt so much rage and empathy in those moments.

GM: Also I just want to say: SHE WASN’T BALD, SHE HAD A SHAVED HEAD. And also SHE LOOKED SO FREE IN THAT MOMENT WITH THE CLIPPERS.

MS: I AGREE. First of all, she rocked the look. And secondly, that was great commentary accompanying it, that anyone who didn’t see the meaning in that act was totally missing the point.

AW: My mom shaves her head, like as a haircut, and I remember being so confused when Britney shaved her head what the big deal was.

MS: I love that, Abigail!

GM: That’s dope as hell. I love it.

AW: I do think that in Britney’s context it happened in a moment of instability, but still, who cares if a woman shaves her head? The response was so overblown and ridiculous, and came with so much malice rather than concern.

GM: I also want to see a side by side of how the media dealt with women and their “unraveling” at that time (Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Amanda Bynes) and if that was reciprocal coverage for famous men going through it.

SVP: I also think there was a complete lack of acknowledgment of how social media plays a role in this. Like, if Britney had Instagram when she and Justin Timberlake broke up, she would’ve been able to actually tell her side of the story and connect with fans in a way she controlled. What did they have in the early aught? Just the tabloids. All people’s info was coming from a misogynistic media that would not let up on her.

GM: Totally. I think they touched on social media a tiny bit at the end, but not in a reflective way.

SVP: She had no outlet other than her music (and even that’s debatable) to really tell her story.

MS: That’s a really strong point, Grace. Something that I kept coming back to watching this documentary was that I felt like something was happening in the ways that people talked about and made fun of Britney that gets at this deeper misogyny. She was so talented and vivacious and had so much personality. But interviewers were constantly putting her down—commenting on her “slutty” clothing and her breasts—in a way that made it feel like they were trying to humiliate her. It was like they were saying, “Remember who gives you your power. You didn’t earn your spotlight. It was granted to you by your fans and the male gaze, and we will always remind you of that. Everything you have earned, we can take away.”

GM: Exactly, Molly. They weren’t doing a journalism, they were doing a misogyny, a shaming.

SVP: I mean, Britney has always been “America’s Sweetheart” right? Quotation marks for a reason. We love to own women.

AW: And it speaks to the double standard women are held to. There’s this pressure to be sexy because sex sells, but also this standard of wholesomeness that a pop star is supposed to be held to. It almost reminds me of Miley Cyrus. She spent so long cultivating this “good girl” persona and there was such outrage when she finally said, “Fuck it.”

MS: Totally! It’s such an ugly bind. Everyone knows they are doing a performance that involves charisma and sexuality, and then they get mad at them for it.

AW: What did you think of the caption on her Instagram post this week? She wrote: “Can’t believe this performance of Toxic is from 3 years ago !!! I’ll always love being on stage …. but I am taking the time to learn and be a normal person ….. I love simply enjoying the basics of every day life !!!! Each person has their story and their take on other people’s stories !!!! We all have so many different bright beautiful lives !!! Remember, no matter what we think we know about a person’s life it is nothing compared to the actual person living behind the lens !!!!”

SVP: I’m not here for the over-analysis of her gram. I get it. I don’t want to totally disregard it, but also, haven’t we over analyzed the woman enough? Leave her be, she just wants to post kinetic sand videos lol

MS: There are a lot of questions about her gram and whether she even controls it. IDK. I just hope there’s not something scary going on behind the scenes.

AW: I was looking at her gram last night and thought it was wacky how all the commenters thought she was being recorded through a two-way mirror.

SVP: All this we’re talking about, it seems like the doc couldn’t be bothered to interrogate more in-depth.

MS: In so many ways this doc felt like a conversation starter for a conversation I’m glad we’re finally having.

SVP: Yeah, just a way to recycle a conversation that’s been long overdue.

MS: True. And look more critically at the 90s, which really wasn’t a great time for women.

GM: Very not great.

SVP: I have very brief memories of people around me always talking shit about her—all from a very misogynistic, or internalized, spot. So, to see some of those same people now be like…oh shit. From a media literacy point, I think it did wonders. We can and should still hold people responsible, but let this be a lesson in making your own opinions.

MS: Same! I have so many memories of people constantly trying to discredit her. Some of which, of course, comes with the territory of being a celebrity. I remember people saying she couldn’t actually sing and that she lip synced during her performances.

GM: Yes, I remember that too.

MS: She was always being compared unfavorably to Christina Aguilera in terms of musical talent.

GM: Or, degrading the style and the breathiness of it, as if there can only be one kind of pop.

MS: YES. She became a joke early on.

AW: I liked that the doc made it very clear at the beginning that she was preternaturally talented.

MS: Same. And that was clear because no matter how much people loved to hate, she was the kind of person everyone was drawn to watch. Her songs were bangers. Her music videos were iconic.

GM: I think in general we are not a culture that is particularly good at retrospect and unpacking our past behaviors. So, if nothing else, I feel like this doc was using something very timely to do a snappy but shallow dig into the background on all of these.

AW: It seems like even the #FreeBritney people are falling into the same trap of not leaving Britney alone.

GM: It was fascinating to me that even the people who want to help her still benefit from her existence/situation (the Britney’s Gram podcast folks).

SVP: Let’s talk labor in the doc, the point they made about business and conservatorship.

Laura Thompson, senior fellow: I wish it had been more heavy-handed on the labor thing and less focused on the big-picture flaws of conservatorship. Yes, conservatorship deserves critical analysis, but Britney isn’t the best example. She’s not even a common example.

SVP: Her story really is about labor, what we as a society think we’re owed from individuals, and how gender is a defining factor in that.

GM: I think that was the part that was most illuminating: how much she is still working and still making money, how she literally pays for her conservatorship, her lawyers, AND the conservatorship’s lawyers.

AW: Right, like, does her dad determine how much money she gets? Is she getting like an allowance?

MS: I wish they had thrown some reportorial weight behind those questions. It’s really so sad. I just imagine her like this cash cow surrounded by all these people ruining her life just to get a drop of the “easy money.”

GM: Either she’s not well enough to perform and work and do what she loves on a stage, or she is well enough to both earn her money and make creative and financial decisions, and to find someone she trusts to manage it.

MS: Exactly Grace! You can’t have it both ways.

GM: It’s interesting to see it posed as: Britney wants full control of her money and she can’t be trusted with it? When it reality it just seems like she wants Jamie Spears, her Mom, out of the picture?

AW: All right, we’ve exhausted all the questions I had written down and touched on the ones that I didn’t directly ask. Any closing thoughts? Hopes for Britney in the future?

LT: Normalize mental breakdowns.

SVP: I just hope she sees this as more of a reckoning, and harnesses this for her happiness—whether that’s releasing more music or disappearing and never owing anything to anyone ever again.

MS: I hope that it makes us re-think the treatment of celebrities in the media. I think sometimes we equate fame and money with power, when Britney is a really interesting example of how that’s not always the case. Just because someone is famous or rich doesn’t mean they’re just a vessel for selling magazines.

GM: Some hopes, realistic or not:

  • A shift in media coverage on mental health, for celebs and otherwise
  • Some formal apologies, from publications or comedians or celebs for how they treated her
  • A TED Talk someday where she can tell her story
  • Some fucking peace (from both her haters and her fans)
  • Better custody agreements with her kids
  • Release from her conservatorship, or just appointing someone she feels comfortable with and trusts

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FACT:

Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2021 demands.

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