Framing Britney Spears spoilers follow.
How do you do the story of Britney Spears justice in just 72 minutes? That's the challenge Samantha Stark faced while directing Framing Britney Spears, the latest instalment of The New York Times Presents series.
At first, the documentary started out as an indictment of the media and how it was weaponised against young, successful women like Britney. But as time went on, Stark realised that the conservatorship (the legal device by which Britney's father retains control of her financial affairs) could be used as a powerful way to frame this conversation and move things forward.
Speaking to Sky News, Stark recalled that, "These court documents dropped where Britney indicated that she didn't want her father in charge of her money anymore. And that was a huge thing."
This conservatorship was first put in place in 2008 following Britney's highly publicised breakdown. The procedure granted her father, Jamie Spears, the legal right to control her finances and also her as a person. 13 years on, the legendary pop icon and mother of two is still bound by this decision. According to a New York Times report from 2016, Britney's conservatorship covers everything from buying a cup of coffee to testifying in court.
While some court records have been made public, there are many more which remain sealed. Private hearings have raised further questions about both the legality and morality of this conservatorship, namely, why is it even in place still for someone who is clearly capable enough to tour the world and work in the spotlight?
These concerns are what fuels the fan-led #FreeBritney campaign, which is now being treated far more seriously in the wake of Stark's documentary. While it's heartening to see the impact that Framing Britney Spears has had on both Britney's story and also the misogyny of the media at large, it's impossible to cover everything in just 72 minutes.
And that's why we're here! So get in the zone and join us as we explore everything the documentary left out along with what's next for the #FreeBritney movement.
What Framing Britney Spears leaves out
Concerns about Britney and her welfare under Jamie's conservatorship came into sharp focus when Spears semi-retired from performing publicly in early 2019. But looking back, the #FreeBritney movement actually started at least a full decade earlier.
While it's hard to pinpoint the campaign's exact origins, FreeBritney.net started questioning the conservatorship all the way back in 2009 — and continues to do so today. The site's following statement sums up the movement as a whole with a great deal of accurately:
"During the twelve years of Spears' conservatorship she has repeatedly toured the world, released multiple albums and worked on a variety of television shows. Her conservators decide whether or not she works, as she cannot enter into contracts for herself because she is legally not her own person. Britney Spears needs permission from her conservators to leave her house or spend any of her own money."
But even before that, Britney's most public defender was mercilessly mocked and transformed into a degrading meme. Yes, we are of course talking about Chris Crocker, who first became famous in 2007 after his "Leave Britney Alone" video went viral. The documentary strangely overlooks Crocker's involvement in the discourse, and it's unclear whether that's because his inclusion seemed too obvious, or because of his subsequent sex work.
Either way, Chris has since spoken out online, rightly pointing out that a lot of the hate directed his way was born of homophobic and transphobic prejudice:
Me saying Leave Britney Alone was never the issue, though. pic.twitter.com/pMWWx8M4he
— Chris Crocker (@ChrisCrocker) February 9, 2021
A few details surrounding the conservatorship itself are also absent in Stark's documentary, presumably because of time constraints and/or access issues.
In September 2020, Us Weekly reported that Britney requested the court make her case open to the public, contrary to her father's wishes. The filing explained that: "Britney herself is vehemently opposed to this effort by her father to keep her legal struggle hidden away in the closet as a family secret."
But why would he want to keep it all a secret? Jamie reportedly refers to the #FreeBritney movement as a "joke", perhaps in a bid to downplay its objectives and the potential influence it could have on the media. That could also be why he refused to take part in Stark's documentary, along with other members of the family.
Just one month earlier, in August 2020, Britney's sister Jamie Lynn also got involved in the legality of the conservatorship. At the request of their father and co-conservator Andrew Wallet, Jamie Lynn was named trustee of Britney's estate. Basically, this means that if Britney dies, Jamie will inherit her sister's estate, instead of Britney's two sons, Sean Preston Federline and Jayden James Federline.
In January 2021, Entertainment Tonight obtained court documents where Britney's attorney, Samuel Ingham, wrote that "it would be highly detrimental to Britney's interest" to give her father more power in the conservatorship.
"It is difficult to imagine a better recipe for conflict between the co-conservators and confusion with both Britney and third parties," Ingham added.
Framing Britney Spears could have contextualised all of this even better by delving further into Jamie's story. Yes, we hear that he's had problems with alcohol, not to mention a few failed business opportunities, but the documentary doesn't mention his divorce from Lynn Spears back in the heyday of Britney's success. And sure, we briefly hear that Kevin Federline, Britney's ex-husband and father of her children, issued a restraining order against Jamie in 2019, but the reasons behind this remain unclear.
And when Britney cancelled her second Las Vegas residency, effectively retiring from the spotlight, was it really because of Jamie's colon surgery? That was the story at the time, but Britney's father was then seen out and about at a wedding just a couple of months later (which was around the time that Britney was staying in a wellness facility).
Key to this entire discussion is the money that Britney earns, and while the documentary does mention that she's forced to pay the legal fees and paychecks of her conservators, what remains unsaid is where the rest of her money ends up. How can Britney's net worth stand at just $59 million when her lifetime earnings well exceed $670 million?
It's also odd to note that a few key players in the conservatorship were omitted from the documentary, including Lou Taylor. According to 'Through the Storm', a book written by Britney's mother, Lou and her entertainment group played a key role in the conservatorship's formation, only to then resign last year when the #FreeBritney movement began to intensify and gain more traction in the media.
Britney's first manager, Larry Rudolph, is also conspicuously absent for most of Framing Britney Spears, aside from his name being listed at the end as someone who chose not to participate. After Britney fired him in 2004, Larry re-entered her life when Jamie Spears removed Sam Lutfi from the picture. Little is known about the extent of Larry's involvement in the conservatorship, but his absence is keenly felt in the doc by longtime Britney fans who remain suspicious of his intentions.
Something the documentary does do well is question why Britney should be in a conservatorship in the first place. However, we would be remiss if we didn't mention that Jamie Spears first filed a petition to start all this by claiming that Britney was suffering from dementia.
Judging her wellbeing just from the footage we see in Framing Britney Spears, that claim seems highly suspect, not to mention all the millions who saw Britney perform successfully on tour. But even if that is true, it's unfortunate that the documentary doesn't explore the ramifications of this kind of diagnosis further.
There's a lot of talk around conservatorships being reserved usually for elderly people, but there needs to be an important distinction made between old age and disability. Legal advocates are called upon, but the opinions of disabled-rights experts aren't considered in the discussion.
Whether Britney is actually suffering from dementia or another similar condition isn't for the filmmakers to say, but more could have been made of the ways that conservatorships are used to manipulate and control people at a wider level.
What happened after Framing Britney Spears aired?
Framing Britney Spears ends on a particularly painful note, where it's revealed that the filmmakers weren't even sure if their requests to interview Britney ever reached the star.
"Since she entered into this conservatorship in 2008, it's been really hard to interview her," Stark told Sky News. "What we've heard is that journalists who interview her do so under watch from her team and it's very regulated... [With] Britney, there's this cone of silence around her."
However, just four days after the special aired, Britney spoke out on social media, and although she doesn't directly acknowledge the documentary, it seems that there's something there if you read between the lines.
On Twitter and Instagram, Britney shared a minute-long clip of herself performing 'Toxic' in 2017 with the following caption: "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 !!!!"
She continued, "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 📷✨ !!!!"
That last sentence seems particularly relevant to everything that's going on right now. And if Page Six is to be believed, then it turns out that Britney has indeed watched the documentary herself. According to a source of theirs:
"Britney finally feels like there is light at the end of a very long, dark tunnel. There are parts of the film that were too hard and emotional for her to watch — the scenes that describe the most difficult times of her life, the relentless media circus and the harsh focus on her as a young mother. But, she feels, for the first time in many years, that people are on her side and things will get better for her."
Not all of the news from this apparent source is reassuring though. The article goes on to discuss Britney's father, saying, “He is drunk with power over Britney’s life. She wants to work, she wants to make music and perform, but he is too controlling."
"Jamie won’t let her have any freedom or responsibility over her own life," it continues. "This summer, her father grounded her for three weeks because she dared to meet a friend for a socially-distanced walk on the beach and a heart-to-heart conversation. She’s 39 years old! He doesn’t want her to see her friends, he doesn’t want her to meet other people in the entertainment business, he tells her that everyone has bad intentions for her — when it plainly isn’t true."
One hopeful tidbit from this article claims that Britney is actually working on a documentary of her own, and with the help of a "top female filmmaker", she'll get to finally tell her own story on her own terms. What remains unclear though is how the conservatorship would impact all this, if true.
In more concrete news, Britney's boyfriend of the past four years, Sam Asghari, released a statement to People on February 8, three days after the doc premiered:
"I have always wanted nothing but the best for my better half, and will continue to support her following her dreams and creating the future she wants and deserves. I am thankful for all of the love and support she is receiving from her fans all over the world, and I am looking forward to a normal, amazing future together."
While that's a bit vague, Sam followed this the next day with a more heated message on his Instagram story where he calls Jamie Spears "a total dick" who is "trying to control our relationship."
Britney Spears' boyfriend Sam Asghari calls Jamie Spears a dick. 🙃 pic.twitter.com/6nKlEbqo4g
— BreatheHeavy (@breatheheavycom) February 9, 2021
With all of this newfound attention, the #FreeBritney movement has accelerated dramatically, drawing in public support from a number of celebrities, including Miley Cyrus, Kacey Musgraves, and Sarah Jessica Parker.
And among all this discourse, Framing Britney Spears has also managed to achieve what Stark originally set out do, which is to encouraging us to all look back at how the media has historically abused women and the role misogynistic men played within that.
Since the documentary aired, there's been a particularly strong (and deserved) backlash against journalist Diane Sawyer and Britney's ex, Justin Timberlake, both of whom behaved repulsively towards Spears in footage the special includes. (Now would be a good time to mention that fans also continue to be outraged by Justin for the way he treated Janet Jackson following that horrific Super Bowl incident).
Can’t stop thinking about how Justin Timberlake got to skate by without injuring his reputation while Janet Jackson and Britney Spears got publicly destroyed after professional (Janet) and romantic (Britney) entanglements with him.
— Emma Gray (@emmaladyrose) February 7, 2021
This kind of public reckoning is important if change is to be made within society at large, but what does the future hold for Britney herself? The next court hearing will take place on Thursday 11 February, and it's recently been confirmed that Britney's mother has been approved to attend. Sounds promising, right?
During the documentary, a lawyer called Vivian Thoreen said that she's never seen a conservatee successfully end their own conservatorship. But thanks to Framing Britney Spears and the #FreeBritney movement, it looks like things may hopefully change, and not just for Britney, but for the wider conservatorship system as a whole, which clearly needs to be revised if a pop legend like Spears can be controlled so easily.
The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears is available to watch on FX on Hulu in the US. No UK air date has been confirmed just yet.
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