FX’s The New York Times Presents is a series of standalone documentaries, the last of which takes the viewer for a ride on the insane roller coaster that is the superhuman rise and catastrophic fall of America’s once-favorite pop star, Britney Spears.
The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears appears to be a Great American Tragedy, an Icarian story of a young performer who was lauded, fetishized, villainized, and humiliated by seemingly one audience.
This author believes the calamitous story of Britney Spears says far more about ourselves and society as a whole than it does this girl-next-door turned laughing stock.
It was clear at a young age that Spears was far bigger than her hometown of Kentwood, Louisiana. After participating in talent shows, starring in the Mickey Mouse Club, and performing in national shopping mall tours, Spears had made her way to international stardom.
Spears’ down-to-earth, goofy attitude made her both appealing and approachable to the masses. She was just like us, except for the world-famous singer and dancer part. Her Louisiana accent bled through her “thank you’s” and “hello’s” to the swarming paparazzi, and all was well. We loved Britney; Britney loved us.
Britney Spears was like a best friend you secretly always idolized—until we decided she wasn’t.
If Framing Britney Spears lets us in on anything, it’s the gross sexualization Spears was subjected to from a young age. Her body—its appearance, experience, and what she chose to do with it—became a global topic of discussion. Worse still, this all began while she was still a minor.
At one point, the documentary plays footage of an interviewer telling Spears, "there’s one subject we didn’t get to talk about. Your breasts." One, she’s 18 years old. Two, that’s not even a f#@$ing question. Others opted to ask about her virginity, demanding the teenager publicly offer intimate details about herself while the country feverishly watched.
Then enter Justin Timberlake, the heartthrob of NSYNC fame and the object of Britney’s (and every girl in America’s) affections. Suddenly, the world had a new power couple to talk about. The denim-clad outfits! The date nights! Also, have they had sex yet?
The world superimposed themselves into the relationship, desperate to be part of such a beautiful, star-studded union. Their break-up was a massive turning point for Spears’ career. Spear’s purportedly cheated on America’s sweetheart, and America was pissed.
A “sweetheart” who, we’d like to add, cackled about his sex life with Spears on live radio and made an entire music video based around demonizing Spears in a cringey male revenge fantasy. Ew, JT.
At around the same time Britney Spears was rampantly sexualized by the media, the country was still reeling from the Lewinsky/Clinton scandal. Promiscuous women made fast-selling headlines; the country was at once shocked and excited by them.
This author would like to make a quick side note that in both Spears and Lewinsky’s case, they were undoubtedly the victims, yet were utterly vilified. No surprise there—this country has a long history of demonizing women in the name of Puritan values.
But Spears was soon a full-grown adult who was capable of making her own decisions, and that’s exactly what she did. She married K-Fed, had two kids, and then things go...a bit haywire.
Spears had transitioned from vivacious performer to mother of two, but she was still trapped under her own superstar shadow. America has a long history of mom-blaming, and the paparazzi made sure to capture every "incriminating" moment on film.
Throughout the entire documentary, there is clip after clip of Spears being bombarded with paparazzi. They’re blocking her path, trailing her car, and mercilessly harassing her amid a flurry of disorienting camera flashes.
It’s not hard to imagine the mental toll this would take on a person; the viewer is acutely aware of each encounter's tense anxiety from the documentary footage alone. (Not to mention she was very open about how much this disaffected her in interviews.)
Amid a highly publicized divorce and custody battle, Spears’ capability as a mother was put under the microscope. More often than not, she came up short. One fateful night in 2007, paparazzi followed Spears as she tried to see her kids at K-Fed’s home. K-Fed refused, and she, just like any other living, breathing mother on this planet would be, was upset.
As paparazzi continued to harass her, she very understandably lost it. Her attack on a photographer’s truck with an umbrella was splattered on every celebrity newspaper around, her sanity was questioned, and her father, Jamie Spears, took over.
Framing Britney Spears defines the term “conservatorship” multiple times, perhaps to better illuminate the unjust reality of the singer’s current situation. Jamie became Britney’s mouthpiece, making all decisions for her: professional, familial, medical, or otherwise. This is normally reserved for very elderly or sick individuals who can no longer take care of themselves.
In one of the worst bouts of gaslighting this author has ever had the displeasure of witnessing, Spears was written off as unhinged, and in the eyes of the law, completely incapable of governing her own person or estate. All the while, the glaring truth that she was systematically pushed into this corner of supposed insanity is conveniently ignored.
In hindsight, the trajectory of Spears' demise seems plain. Back then, it was a funny news story, a punchy headline, an actual Family Feud category (humans can really be the worst).
Spears is still under her conservatorship today. Her attempts to obtain legal counsel of her own have been denied. Attorneys have gone on record doubting Spears’ inability to govern herself and her estate; this, too, has made no difference.
And although she has enjoyed successful albums and residencies since the conservatorship went into effect, whether she’s actually happy with this arrangement is the latest Spears-themed obsession. The #FreeBritney movement has hundreds of thousands of followers, and some even attempt to decode hidden messages in her albeit strange social media content.
The documentary ends with a court ruling that they “would not dissolve the conservatorship, today,” leaving the viewer to wonder whether Spears will have another chance down the road to fight for her stolen independence.
Depending on which way you hold the light, this story can be one of a pop star who crumbled under the pressure of fame or a startling exposé on America’s vulturistic tendencies to feast on every aspect of a pop culture phenomenon—right down to the bones and gristle.
As a musician herself, this author can’t help but keep the light fixed on the vultures. Britney Spears' story is not unique—she’s not the first icon to fall from great heights, and she certainly won’t be the last. Why isn’t anyone attempting to stop these falls? Why just watch?
Spears’ story illuminates several faults in America’s social structures. First, her public breakdowns occurred long before mental health was the popular buzzword it is now. And even if we had been talking about mental health at the time, Spears was also the inevitable product of a society that sexualizes, undervalues, and exploits young women in the name of pop culture. Would we have even believed her experiences had she been given the appropriate means to speak out?
Finally, a counterintuitive result of elevating notorious individuals to superhuman levels is a consequential lack of empathy. These people are god-like manifestations of our deepest desires: to be rich, beautiful, successful, and/or talented.
When they’re placed on these pedestals, we tend to deprive them of a certain level of compassion and empathy we would extend to, say, our next-door neighbor—the actual girl-next-door. Spears wasn’t treated like a human with dreams of singing her songs to people who would enjoy them; she was a spectacle, a headline, a zoo animal.
To someone who grew up watching Spears’ rise and subsequent fall, the situation presented in Framing Britney Spears seems bleak at best. The pop star has tens of millions of Instagram followers. Yet, at the time this article was written, fewer than 150,000 people have signed a petition for courts to reevaluate a seemingly undue conservatorship.
How could someone once so loved become so ignored? Spears' story is a cautionary tale for multiple reasons. It offers us a harsh reminder of the exploitative nature of the performance industry, tabloids’ influence over the consumers, our country’s propensity for misogyny, and the often forgotten struggles of the humans behind the illusions of grandeur.
These phenomena are, of course, not reserved for the rich and famous. The way this country treats its high-profile women indicates a more substantial rot festering below, and at some point, the rot needs to be cleared out.
Whether that starts with Britney Spears regaining her much-deserved freedom or with changing the expectations we have for pop stars currently on their ascent to icon-dom, this author can’t invariably say. Holding the industry accountable for its crooked dealings is certainly a start, as is being mindful of the angles of the media you pay for and consume.
But for the sake of girls everywhere who dare to dream big, be bold, speak out, control their destinies, and hold autonomy over their bodies, we’ve got to try something.