Television

The Problem With Framing Britney Spears

The new documentary sensitively retreads much of the pop star’s history. Why didn’t it apply the same skepticism to the “Free Britney” movement?

Britney Spears smiles and tucks a strand of hair behind her ear while she stands in front of the ocean wearing a white crop top.
A young Britney Spears in Malibu, California. Ron Wolfson/WireImage/Getty Images

Britney Spears has always had a peculiar fandom. In the beginning, her audience was mostly teen girls and (gay) teen boys, many of whom first processed their sexuality through Spears’ music and public performance. The ones who stuck around tend to feel an indelible bond with her—a bond I know, because I have it. This connection is difficult to describe, but for many of us, it has only deepened during her series of public humiliations and breakdowns, experiences that led “Leave Britney Alone” to become a mantra and her recovery to become an imperative. Now, in recent years, as Spears again seems to be struggling, much of this contingent has hardened into something different altogether. They don’t want to leave her alone. They want to “free” her.

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My discomfort with this strange turn in Britney’s most devoted fans gnawed at me as a link to Framing Britney Spears sat in my email. The documentary is really an episode of The New York Times Presents on FX and Hulu, the paper’s glossy version of an evening newsmagazine, and it promised to take on the latest developments. I ignored it for two weeks. And when I finally watched this week, my reluctance proved warranted. For all the headlines it’s generated, “Framing Britney Spears” reveals nothing new about Britney Spears—instead, it props up the latest, often twisted sideshow her uncategorizable fame has inspired, the so-called Free Britney movement. The documentary takes for granted that these fans are honorable, even when they are in many ways replaying some of the same patterns of obsession and celebrity intrigue that helped fuel Spears’ darkest moments in the first place.

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The episode, from director Samantha Stark, is clear-eyed about parts of the pop singer’s history. It recalls the trajectory of Spears’ fame with quiet rage: her rise from girlhood to a young woman, from The Mickey Mouse Club to fledgling pop royalty, and the increasingly lurid obsessions she faced along the way. As a child on Star Search, she’s asked if she has a boyfriend. Her virginity is a public spectacle, and her failed relationship with Justin Timberlake becomes a long-awaited chance to weaponize her open exploration of her sexuality in her music. Soon, the coverage moved on to questioning her children and her abilities as a mother. The episode does not have to try too hard to locate its many villains, including familiar culprits like the paparazzi and newfangled ones, like Timberlake himself and Diane Sawyer (both of whom have earned online furor since it debuted). By the time it arrives at Spears’ famous breakdowns, it is downright hard to watch.

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If Framing Britney Spears provides any service, it’s simply to replay that recent history and let it speak for itself. To judge by its reception, the episode has helped many viewers locate empathy for a figure whose struggles have long been blamed on her own behavior. This reevaluation may feel a little easy, and more than a little late, but it’s certainly warranted.

However, the real center of the documentary is Spears’ court-ordered conservatorship and the Free Britney movement it eventually spawned. Enacted in 2008, after Spears’ public incidents and hospitalizations, the conservatorship granted her father, Jamie, and a lawyer temporary control over her estate and the ability to monitor her medical treatment. At the time, Spears reportedly suffered from substance abuse issues and a mental illness that remains undisclosed (and the early-aughts tabloids were unsurprisingly terrible in how they covered this). The arrangement eventually became permanent, to only limited public outcry at the time. Spears’ personal life appeared to stabilize, and her career took off again, thanks in part to her hugely lucrative residency in Las Vegas.

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The conservatorship, intact more than a decade later, is well worth scrutiny, in part because it’s so unclear why it is still necessary. The documentary spends ample time underscoring the unusualness of the arrangement. But it does not reveal any concrete evidence of abuse, nor does it provide new details about why it was invoked in the first place. As it happens, the New York Times has already offered what is still the most definitive account to date of the problems with the arrangement, in a 2016 story by Serge F. Kovaleski and Joe Coscarelli (the latter of whom appears in Framing Britney Spears). Kovaleski and Coscarelli did not speak to Spears at the time, but their reporting convincingly portrayed a group around her with considerable financial incentives to keep the conservatorship in place, including Spears’ father and even her own legal representation. It suggested she might not want to risk her access to her children by fighting too hard. Framing Britney Spears recycles much of the paper’s reporting and documents one of the only times Spears has spoken about the conservatorship, early on in 2008: “If I wasn’t under the restraints I’m under, I’d feel so liberated,” she said then.

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But Framing Britney Spears does something else it’s hard to imagine the newspaper doing in print: It gives extensive, credulous airtime to the Free Britney movement that has risen around the conservatorship fight and gained particular steam since Spears stopped performing in 2019. This loose faction of Britney fans advances the idea that the conservatorship is not only legally questionable but also a kind of hostage situation perpetrated by Jamie, who, in their telling, is essentially imprisoning Britney. Many in the movement contend that Spears is secretly communicating with them through covert signals and references on her Instagram account. The movement graduated to its increasingly overheated current state partly after a podcast dedicated to Spears’ Instagram, Britney’s Gram, posted an unverified voicemail from someone who claimed to be a former paralegal for a lawyer who worked on Spears’ conservatorship—and who made claims about involuntary medical holds and the reasons for Spears’ canceled Las Vegas residency in 2019.

Though a purported smoking gun, this very suspect audio—from a person whose identity hasn’t been confirmed, making claims about events that have also not been confirmed—would not pass muster in any court or newsroom. But outrageously, it’s reproduced in Framing Britney Spears, presented as a tantalizing development with only a quick disclaimer that “The voicemail’s source and claims have not been verified by the New York Times.” No kidding. (It’s hard not to wonder if the same very public issues in the Times’ audio department are playing out in a new medium.) The hosts of the fan podcast, Tess Barker and Barbara Gray, are extensively featured, screen time they use to repeat claims that a Spears Instagram post was suspect because she used a typed-out smiley face instead of an emoji. They are then allowed to idly analyze conservatorship legal documents. This is the kind of “evidence” that fuels much of Free Britney, but rather than using it to show the movement’s vigilante embrace of half-baked instinct and the scantest of breadcrumbs, the documentary presents these “activists” as the likely heroes of Britney’s story. Following their release of the voicemail, Barker and Gray put out a statement that declared, “We want to be clear that we believe mental health is a highly personal matter, and that the details of Britney’s mental health are nobody else’s business.” But they are still happy to push their insinuations and demand information to which they have no conceivable claim in the documentary. They are given a much more favorable edit than, say, a paparazzi photographer featured, and the pair have enthusiastically endorsed Framing Britney Spears on their Instagram accounts.

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Over the course of the hour-plus, Dave Holmes, an MTV VJ who had featured Spears on air on Total Request Live, is a kind of voice of reason: He notes that no one could possibly know the things Free Britney claims to know. “Everyone’s interpretation of what Britney is putting forth is something that they are bringing to those Instagram videos. It’s impossible to know her, so we never knew her. We know her even less now,” he says. In an interview with Variety that notes the documentary gives “validity” to Free Britney, Stark seems to agree with Holmes’ point: “We don’t know what’s in her head, and she never talks about the conservatorship.” To another question about Spears’ psychological state, she responds, “I don’t know what is in Britney’s psyche, and I was very cognizant of that when we were making this. So many people want to psycho-analyze her without knowing her.” But her film, and its choice to give so much weight to Free Britney’s often insidious speculation, seems to forget this. The stark on-screen note that concludes the show is rich with implication: “The New York Times attempted to reach Britney Spears directly to request her participation in this project. It is unclear if she received the requests.” There’s a certain irony to the film correctly portraying how our incessant obsession with Spears in the early 2000s harmed her, and then propping up our modern incarnation of that obsession as the thing that may save her. Paparazzi and tabloids may have been usurped by Instagram and podcasts in the intervening years, but these new manifestations suffer many of the same problems.

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Free Britney’s adherents have long claimed skeptics “gaslight” them when they point out the movement’s patently unproven claims. There’s certainly no “gaslighting” from the documentary—it treats as a major turning point a legal document filed by Spears’ attorney last year that noted Spears appreciated her fans’ “informed support,” an interestingly worded phrase a more critical narrator might ponder more. A more sober assessor might note that when Spears’ actions match Free Britney’s hopes, they’re embraced, and when they don’t, they’re dismissed out of hand: In the wake of the documentary, Spears’ Instagram posted a video clipped from a performance three years ago, with the caption, “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.” A top comment quickly rose up: “Britney did NOT POST THIS.”

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The Free Britney movement will likely continue to take developments like these—no matter what they are—as a benediction. It will twist anything into a signal that its search for hidden clues and peddled claims is paying off. The documentary has brought a renewed interest in the “cause,” and now celebrities as varied as Sarah Jessica Parker and Meghan McCain are tweeting in favor of #FreeBritney. But even if Spears is appreciative of everything her fans are doing—still a big if—the real-life consequences for her are impossible to know. This film, and its reaction, is just another sign that the movement has successfully helped create another volatile news cycle that will affect Spears’ life in ways no one can predict, least of all these supposed activists. Framing Britney Spears traffics in and arguably escalates this latest churn, even as it condemns the old ones, and refuses to apply its own analysis to our current moment. With Spears’ conservatorship back in court Thursday, I hope her reputed fans—and the members of the press who still can’t get enough—bear in mind the cycle they’re repeating.

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