Britney Spears became a world renowned pop icon not only for her iconic tracks, but also for exploring sensuality in her dance style and music on an unprecedented level. In fact, she fully embraced this strategy at a very young age in order to make it into the industry, starting in the late ‘90s. The newly released documentary Framing Britney Spears, produced by the New York Times, shows how the misogynistic culture of American media created Spears’s career, but also trapped her in its inescapable jaws through a restrictive conservatorship.
The film explains that a conservatorship — a legal arrangement in which one’s right to make financial and daily decisions is given to a guardian called a conservator — is typically created for the elderly or people who are mentally unstable. In Spears’s case, after being photographed unsafely driving with her children and vandalizing a paparazzi vehicle, the public assumed she was insane. Though this could be possible, it is more important to examine what, according to Framing Britney, led her to act this way. The star was driven to a point of instability at the hands of judgement, slut-shaming, and harassment.
From the start, Spears was sexualized by the media. Framing Britney shows a video of her around age 12 being asked why she doesn’t want a boyfriend, and later shows the risque choreography in the music video for her song “Baby One More Time,” filmed when she was 16. When she grew to be an adult, she was publicly asked about her breasts on talk shows. The interest the media took in her sexuality grew to be so demanding that she was driven to a point of perceived insanity.
This part of Spears’ story isn’t unique. Demi Lovato, Amanda Bynes, and so many other female celebrities whose careers jumpstarted at an early age have become victims to the media’s hyperfixation on their lives and bodies. They are constantly being watched for any small mistake or incident to become this week’s new scandal. The pressure is so immense that these women sought refuge in drugs, and in Spears’ case, are silenced as soon as things start to look bad. Although addiction and mental illness among celebrities aren’t exclusively women’s issues, women are burdened by the media on a completely different level.
The mainstream media isn’t the only source of judgement that Spears has faced during her career. To many, her work is considered disempowering. The Second Wave of feminism, which lasted from the 60’s to the 80’s, popularized the radical idea that women don’t need to comply with female beauty standards. To these feminists, Spears’s work pandered to sexual fantasies perpetuated by men. This judgement in itself is misogynistic because it disregards the belief that women are free to take charge of their sexuality, in whichever way, shape, or form they like. Some argue that we are still in the Third Wave and some say we have entered the Fourth, but the film has helped us realize how the blindness of feminism during Spears’ career helped trap her in her current position.
The second half of Framing Britney focuses on the less common aspect of her story, which is the logistics, drama, and background of the conservatorship. Most importantly, it reveals how Spears’s career has been turned into a “business model” for her conservators to manage. While she continues to make more and more money, she has zero control over it. For over a decade, her father, lawyers, and other powerful men have been able to exploit her life and career and she is just the pawn.
Framing Britney is an important film because it has forced us to check ourselves as a society. Without knowing it, many of us have learned to hate Britney Spears and other female celebrities at the hands of the media. Misogynists hate a successful woman, second wave feminists think her work is counterproductive to the movement, moms have been convinced she’s a bad role model, and on and on and on. The film, along with the Free Britney movement, has forced us to reckon with the fact that amidst our judgement, she has been suffering in silence.