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The New York Times Presents
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When Paris Hilton’s personal documentary This Is Paris dropped on YouTube last year, it felt like something brand new. Hilton opened up about growing up in the spotlight, the abuses she had suffered, and the way the media’s treatment of her affected her, and we got a truly intimate peek behind the curtain. In Framing Britney Spears, now available on FX on Hulu, we don’t hear from the pop queen herself, but we do examine the way the media’s treatment of Spears likely led to the conservatorship she is still struggling to break free of today.
FRAMING BRITNEY SPEARS: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: There is so much to say about Britney Spears.
With the help of fans, friends, journalists, and more, we get a real understanding of how Britney became the star we know today. She was exploited and sexualized and objectified, never quite able to please everyone. Eventually, she got fed up. Who wouldn’t?
In its relatively short runtime, Framing Britney Spears shows us her breakthrough, her breakdowns, her conservatorship, her comeback, and eventually, the odd signs that led to the birth of the #FreeBritney movement. The film is careful to make clear that Britney was not always some cog in the machine; she was an independent force, a woman who knew what kind of shows she wanted to put on and made things happen for herself. But how long can someone be painted as a villain, harassed, harangued, and stalked, before they reach their breaking point? The exposing of the society that allowed things to progress to a point where Britney’s father Jamie was appointed conservator of her person and her estate is what makes Framing Britney Spears so different from the rest of the attempts we’ve seen to sum up the pop star’s life story.
Photo: YouTube/FX Networks
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Framing Britney Spears feels a little like the aforementioned This Is Paris in that it critiques the mainstream media’s treatment of women, and it’s also in line with the previous installments of The New York Times Presents.
In a sea of journalists and lawyers and paparazzi, she was a refreshingly normal presence, sharing sweet anecdotes and her own personal take on what’s happening to Britney right now. She agreed to be in the film to “remind people why they fell in love with Britney in the first place”. And the fact that her walls of her home are adorned with Britney memorabilia? The heart almost aches for her, but she seems so hopeful and convinced that Britney will tell her story someday that it’s hard not to believe the same.
Memorable Dialogue: There are so many profound observations I jotted down over the course of Framing Britney Spears, but I was a little gutted by one in particular. The reason we never discussed her mental health or gave her some space to process it all is painfully obvious: “there was too much money to be made off her suffering”. Rather than do anything to help, we collectively delighted in her downfall. That’s some ugly stuff.
Our Take: We’ve heard Britney Spears’ story told so many times, in so many ways; she’s been made out to be some puppet of the pop industry, she’s been memed to death, hashtagged to oblivion, and most recently, protested for.
Director Samantha Stark affectionately paints the picture of Britney’s childhood with the help of people who knew her back in the day; it’s a good way to remind us that this was something Britney always dreamed about, and by the time she was selling out arenas, she was still calling the shots. She wasn’t always some imprisoned puppet, someone prevented from speaking her mind or making her own decisions; Britney was a powerhouse – until she wasn’t. And she lost that power because of the way we all painted her.
Very few people come out of Framing Britney Spears looking great; whether it’s Diane Sawyer prodding Britney about her role in her breakup with Justin Timberlake, TV show hosts making jokes at Britney’s expense, or paparazzi justifying why they tailed her every move, no one’s actions feel justified. Some of the film’s more heartbreaking moments come when we see Britney break down mid-interview when discussing her personal life, or how much she wishes the paparazzi would leave her alone. We watched her deteriorate in real time, and no one – perhaps intentionally – did anything about it. Her downward spiral sold too many magazines. She’s been framed as just about everything under the sun, all for the benefit of others; this is a woman who has rarely been able to reap the rewards of her own success.
In addition to the intelligent way it helps illustrate the culture of toxic misogyny that pushed Britney to her breaking point, Framing Britney Spears also dissects the present situation with her father, Jamie Spears.
Just like Seduced began to shed a light on the need for laws regarding coercive control, Framing Britney Spears highlights the flaws in the conservator system. At one point, a lawyer still on Jamie Spears’ team admits she’s never seen a conservatee successfully petition to be released from their conservatorship. This does not bode well for Britney, who we know is still under the control of her father Jamie. The film is hesitant to believe all the theories about hidden messages on Britney’s Instagram page, but it doesn’t dismiss the fans who do believe them either.
Framing Britney Spears hits hard because it not only shows us what was done to Britney over the course of several years, but the impact she’s had on the lives of millions of fans. Hearing from the fans and podcasters whose lives have been changed by Britney only help to make clear just how important this documentary is. The fans just want to do for her what she’s done for them: set her free. We may get limited time with the group of individuals protesting outside the courthouse during one of her conservatorship hearings, but it’s enough to understand just how significant of a mark she has made.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Framing Britney Spears bravely sheds light on the way Britney Spears has been treated for years and the rampant misogyny and toxic culture that allowed her to lose control of her life in the first place.
Jade Budowski is a freelance writer with a knack for ruining punchlines and harboring dad-aged celebrity crushes.