Is there a more ironic song title than Britney Spears’ “Oops! … I Did It Again”? In the lead hit single off her smash second album, Spears said right out loud that she was hiding her power over the pop charts (and men) in bogus “Who me?” cluelessness. Here she was, doing it again: monopolizing the airwaves and selling millions of records. The title sounded ditzy, but it declared the opposite: There was nothing accidental about anything Spears was doing. But no one believed her. Oops.
The idea of Britney Spears as a kind of performer savant—someone who can do the work, but accidentally, incidentally, oopstastically—is at the heart of Framing Britney Spears. The documentary, produced for FX and Hulu by the New York Times, lays out the misogyny and tabloid cruelty that has dogged Spears’ entire career and resulted in her current predicament: She’s a 39-year-old woman and high-functioning professional who is nonetheless still bound by a legal conservatorship curtailing her freedom, which a judge upheld in court Thursday.
The documentary makes the compelling case that the idea of Spears as a woman unfit to take care of herself, as well as the late-aughts breakdown that got her into the conservatorship in the first place, are the end products of the leering and judgmental treatment she’s always faced. Since she first appeared on Star Search as a pre-teen and host Ed McMahon asked if he could be her boyfriend, the culture has fixated on her sexuality. When she became properly famous at the end of the millennium, she was bombarded with inappropriate questions about her virginity, a curiosity that never ended, but that—in the documentary’s telling—turned particularly spiteful after her split from Justin Timberlake, for whom we cried a river when he publicly accused her of cheating on him. Their break-up kicked off a new level of scrutiny from tabloids and paparazzi, who began pushing a narrative about a woman out of control, making terrible choice after terrible choice, even as their 24/7 surveillance of her, particularly after the birth of her two children, actively contributed to her worsening mental health. Thinking you’re constantly being followed, your every move chronicled, your every word bugged, can be a sign of insanity; in Spears’ case, it was simply the truth. The documentary is especially good on her infamous head-shaving, which at the time was seen as further evidence of her losing her grip. In retrospect, it’s as logical as a mathematical proof, announcing to the paparazzi, I’m a different kind of person now, and a different kind of photograph.
Misogyny is one of the lenses through which to see Spears’ mistreatment, but there’s another one to use too: social class. When the tabloids turned on Spears post-Timberlake, the narrative they pushed, the outrage they were selling, was less explicitly about licentiousness than about an All-American girl revealing herself to be white trash. There’s plenty of misogyny embedded in that, but even more class judgment. That’s what the photographs were of anyway: Spears in Uggs and sweat suits going through the drive thru, getting Starbucks, grabbing chips at the pharmacy, her hair a mess. Husband Kevin Federline was implicitly contrasted to Timberlake as a low-class sleaze—as was Spears’ behavior in her short-lived marriage to childhood friend Jason Alexander. That’s not what good girls do, but it’s not what classy ones do either. The questions Britney would go on to face about her mothering aren’t just questions women face—they are specifically questions poor women face, constantly harangued for not providing their children with the “right” kind of home.
That Spears was, by this point, not poor at all only contributed to the sense of outrage: She’s rich enough to do anything, and she’s doing this? She ascended the class ladder and now she’s descending it, on purpose. She must be crazy. Even now, just as sexism buoys Britney’s ongoing conservatorship—would a man in her position be deemed unfit to run his own life?—so does classism. Would she really know what to do with her money if she controlled it? Just look at her taste.
On Twitter over the last few days, the documentary has sparked conversation about how awful and cruel celebrity culture was in the aughts. And it’s true, there has been a remarkable sea change in the public’s stance towards the famous, a merciless gawking, and invasive voyeurism giving way to a more earnest, adoring stan culture. I can understand the impulse to pat ourselves on the back for this transformation, for getting kinder, gentler, woker, but I’m not sure what has changed is our sensitivity so much as our sources.
In the aughts, information about celebrities still came largely from paparazzi-fueled tabloids, which profited on drama and exploited the lowest-hanging tensions in our culture. They were cruel, bracingly impertinent, and unabashed in a way that could be fun if you glossed over the humanity of the celebrity they were spit-roasting. One of the things that’s changed since is our growing awareness of that humanity—because now our gossip comes from the celebrities themselves. When your access to a celebrity is through their social media feed, you’re getting it from their perspective. You’re getting to see what they want you to, which often includes what cuts, hurts, and bothers them. You’re getting to see them as people, not just avatars of our societal hang-ups. It’s resulted in a more humane, sympathetic stance—but I don’t know how much credit we can take for that. The way we get the story changed, not us.
If I have one quibble with Framing Britney Spears, it’s that it inhabits the new, gentler celebrity culture a little too thoroughly. It glosses Spears purely as victim of our gross culture, and although she is a victim of our gross culture, that skips over the period in which she controlled it like a marionette. Shaping and responding to how people think of you, without being run over by how people think of you, is what successful celebrities do. It’s very hard and it’s what Spears once made look easy. There’s that oops again.
For a period of about four years, Spears effortlessly surfed our icky fascination with her maturation, inhabiting “Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” territory long before she turned it into a song. She took the lurid and downright creepy interest in her blossoming sexuality and turned it into her VMA performance of “Satisfaction,” walking that line between factually tame and totally titillating. She nearly got all the way to adult sexuality, career going swimmingly, with “I’m a Slave 4 U,” which she performed while fondling a giant boa constrictor. By then, the pressures on her, always enormous and sexist, were only more so. She could no longer thread the eye of an ever-narrowing needle and her reputation stumbled—though, never, entirely, her career. That she still has one—the reason she isn’t someone we feel bad about, if we could only remember her—is because of the period when she was a step ahead, when she controlled the narrative. A class act.