Few people’s reputations precede them as much as Britney Spears' does. You’ll get a different version of the famous pop star’s life depending on who you ask. Mention her name to some in the LGBTQ+ community, and she’s a symbol of liberation. For '90s kids, Spears is a source of comforting nostalgia and karaoke bangers; to others, she is a victim of the media circus and a caged bird who needs to be freed.
The FX-Hulu documentary Framing Britney Spears, the sixth investigative piece in the ongoing New York Times Presents series, aims to explore all of these facets of the prismatic woman so many people think they know, but don’t really.
Directed by The New York Times’ Samantha Stark, the film uses archival footage and a slew of talking heads (journalists, lawyers, former colleagues) to chart Spears’ rise to superstardom and then attempt to untangle the events that led to her father Jamie Spears’ eventual 12-year conservatorship over her.
Framing Britney Spears starts from Britney’s humble beginnings as a child growing up in Kentwood, LA, landing her first big break on Disney’s Mickey Mouse Club at age 11 in 1993, followed by her explosion on the pop scene with the release of her single "...Baby One More Time" in 1998. Then, however, comes the part in her career that's difficult to watch again: The harassment and vitriol she experienced from the public and the media. As a famous woman in the all-too-public eye, Britney is slut-shamed, asked about intimate details of her sex life, objectified, and vilified. Even though sexism and misogyny is in no way “solved” today, in a post-#MeToo, -Trump, and -TimesUp world, seeing what Britney had to deal with can be difficult to watch — especially for those who, as consumers, were indirect participants.
Everyone wanted a piece of Britney — the media, the paparazzi, and the people around her. The endless scrutiny took such a toll on her mental health that she had no choice but to give up the keys to her life to someone else.
Talking about Britney today usually involves a lot of speculation. Not only will she not go on the record, but neither will those around her — for legal reasons or otherwise. Stark, however, was adamant that despite those restrictions, her debut film would do as little guessing as possible. “That’s why we wanted to make it about the people around her, the media coverage, and the conservatorship system,” Stark tells Refinery29 over the phone. “There's a lot of value in looking at the way that we imagine Britney, like the photo where she's swinging that umbrella. Something I really wanted to know, is what was happening outside the frame when those images were happening? I think it gives you an entirely new perspective on the image that you saw, and how different something can be in real life versus in one still frame.”
Refinery29: What drew you to Framing Britney Spears?
Samantha Stark: “I'm around the same age as Britney. I remember having these negative feelings toward her, because it felt like she put pressure on me as a teenager to look like her and be like her. I was like, ‘Oh, she's too straight for me. She's too boring for me.’ But, where did I get that idea? People would shame her for wearing sexy clothes, and she would say, ‘too bad, I'm going to do it anyway,’ which is super feminist. And so one reason I wanted to do the piece is because I wanted to understand where I got those ideas from. Because it wasn't Britney, and now, it's like my entire view of her has totally changed.”
While watching, something that really stuck out was the thread between Britney's rise and the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
“Monica Lewinsky was talked about like she had no agency in her sexuality. Isn't this horrible that this thing happened to her, was one narrative of her. And I think that there was a similar narrative about Britney, that she had no agency in her sexuality. Things like, whoever was in charge of her was making her sexualised without her permission.
“Something I also found really profound about that parallel is that millions of people in her fan base — the same fan base that made her go platinum many times — were teenagers, around 12 or 13. Those people are not the people who were covering the Monica Lewinsky scandal, or, I imagine, were very affected by it. And those are also [not] the people who were slut-shaming Britney in public. It was the grownups — the adults who were the ones doing those things. It's like Monica Lewinsky affected the coverage of Britney, but not how successful Britney was, because the consumers of Britney were the ones who respected her control over her body and her space.”
Do you think that Britney Spears would be treated differently if she were rising to fame today?
“I think it would be different. A big part of that is because of social media, as celebrities can use Instagram and the other platforms to show you what they want you to see and to respond to things. Before, all the gatekeepers to what everyone knew about Britney were the people who ran tabloids, or paparazzi, or late-night show hosts, or record executives who were almost all men, and people who didn't actually know her. I also think that the generation now who would’ve been her fans are now the same people who want to make mental health something that you talk about, and not want to tear each other down as much. Maybe I'm being naive about that, but it feels different.”
What do you hope people take away from their experience watching this documentary?
“I hope that people come away with questions about the conservatorship system. I think it's valuable to question it the conservatorship system, and try to, as a public, identify if there are areas where there are conflicts of interest. And I also hope that people come away with a different perspective of Britney Spears. I hope people think about the coverage, and think about how they participated in it — either by consuming it or believing it. The reason that she was on TV so much and in the magazines is because we consumed it. We should think about how easy it is to make money off of women's bodies without their consent. And I hope that we reassess how we treat people in the future. The mean-spiritedness was so extreme. Is that who we want to be as a society?”
How did you choose which people around her to interview?
“Something that I really didn't want to do was include people making assumptions about her. A lot of people want to tell you what they think is going on in Britney's head. It was hard at first to find people who were not doing that, who actually could tell you something from their firsthand experience, or give you straight facts. Some people identified themselves right away by asking for money to be interviewed. That signals to me that maybe they weren't doing it for the reason we wanted, which was to combat misinformation that's been out there about Britney for years.”
We should think about how easy it is to make money off of women's bodies without their consent.
You could tell that [Britney’s longtime friend] Felicia Culotta thought it was really important to have her perspective in there.
“She hasn't talked in so many years, and she has an NDA. So many people who have worked with Britney have NDAs, meaning it would bankrupt them if charges were brought against them for violating it. It’s therefore really hard on a lot of levels to get anyone to talk about anything concerning this. The court records are sealed, there's HIPAA violations, NDAs…”
What would you have asked her father, Jamie Spears, who is currently in charge of her conservatorship?
“I would ask him about what is making him appear to be gearing up to fight this — to fight her request for him to step down.
“They always say that she went from owing a lot of people money to having this fortune when she was under conservatorship, and that indicates that she's doing better. So my question is, just because someone makes a lot of money, does that mean it is in their best interest? Did it make her happier to do that? Should that be evidence that a conservatorship is working? It's really unclear because her case is so unique.”
If you were able to talk to Britney, what would you want to ask her?
“I would have asked her what she wants all of us to know.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.