Mirabella Miller ’23
The latest installment in The New York Times Presents documentary series, titled Framing Britney Spears, began streaming on Hulu on Feb. 5. It aims to examine how Spears came to be who she is now: withdrawn, shielded from the media, and living under the conservatorship of her father.
To understand how Spears arrived here, the filmmakers claim, it’s crucial to understand the background story. And so the documentary traverses Spears’ life from child star to hypersexualized teen pop singer to tabloid punching bag to bald and beating a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella in 2007.
That event, the documentary shows, marked a turning point in Spears’ life. Concern over her mental state after the umbrella incident prompted the court to instate a temporary conservatorship over Spears’ person and estate in 2008, with her father Jamie Spears appointed as the conservator. Conservatorship is a legal appointment in which a guardian is chosen by a judge to manage the daily life of the conservatee (conservatorship of the person) and the financial affairs of the conservatee (conservatorship of the estate).
A conservatorship is considered when age, mental, or physical limitations impair a person to such a degree that the court decides they are completely incapable of making decisions for themselves. The documentary explores the murky nature of conservatorships both in general and in regard to Spears’ case specifically. Multiple practicing estate lawyers give opinions on the arrangement, and the documentary emphasizes the peculiarity of Spears’ case by highlighting that most instances of conservatorships govern elderly people with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
Disability rights advocates have rightfully pointed out conservatorships are a disability rights issue and highlight the unjust ease with which the court can strip a disabled person’s civil liberties. Additionally, Spears’ case stands at the intersection of ableism and sexism: while mentally ill women are often stripped of their agency, infantilized, and victimized, mentally ill men get called tortured geniuses. This can be seen in the paternalistic and patronizing undertones of Spears’ father being her conservator, as opposed to her mother or female manager that the documentary alleges she was closer to and knew her situation more intimately. On the other hand, Kanye West, despite his public breakdowns and bipolar diagnosis, has never been put under a conservatorship. Instead, he speaks freely about his life as a mentally ill person, rapping “name one genius that ain’t crazy” on “Feedback” in 2016. This is not to say either of them should be in a conservatorship, but rather to show the discrepancies in how Spears’ and West’s respective mental states are treated by the court and the media.
However, one of the most concerning aspects of conservatorships is their difficulty to terminate. One lawyer in the documentary said that, in all her years of practice, she has never seen a conservatee successfully end their conservatorship. In the years following her public breakdown in 2007, Spears was widely regarded as having made a personal and professional comeback, recording albums, touring, and even getting a Las Vegas Residency. This creates a legally dubious situation: if Spears is healthy enough to record, tour, and have custody of her kids, where is the need for a conservatorship? That is one of the central questions posed by the film. Spears still lives under this conservatorship 12 years later.
The documentary identifies paparazzi and tabloid harassment as the main agents of chaos that orchestrated Spears’ 2007 breakdown and therefore led to the conservatorship arrangement that she is still trapped in. Her meteoric musical rise as a teenager (an age where many young women are already grappling with big topics like mental health, self-esteem, and body image) overlapped with the peak of tabloid culture and gossip blogs. She was subject to relentless sexism that is grossly blatant by the standards of 2021, only a decade or two later. Talk show hosts berated her about her virginity and later her parenting skills, with her kids eventually being taken away from her. Many figures in the documentary speculate that she submitted to the conservatorship in 2008 to regain her ability to see her kids.
The documentary is both engrossing and devastating, forcing a reflection on the sexism, demonization, and hyper sexualization Spears was subjected to by journalists, paparazzi, and talk show hosts alike in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But beyond encouraging reflection, the documentary weaponizes our collective perpetual fascination with both celebrity downfall and destroying women’s mental health to fashion an instrument eerily similar to the ones they identify as having caused Spears’ situation that they now want to publicly interrogate.
It is this visceral pain — Spears being separated from her kids, Spears breaking down on live TV multiple times — that the documentary allows viewers to be privy to. There is a moment from a 2003 interview with Diane Sawyer where Sawyer tells Spears that she has upset a lot of mothers in the United States with her sexuality, and one of these mothers is the wife of the current governor of Maryland. She then plays Spears a clip in which the governor’s wife says she would shoot Spears if she had the opportunity. The viewer watches Spears, 22 at the time, react to what is practically a death threat in real time. She scans the room, incredulous, almost paralyzed before breaking down in tears. “Ew,” she keeps repeating, a stand-in for what I imagine to be her overwhelming sadness in that moment, the weight of her celebrity, the weight of the sexist hate directed at her, hitting her like a truck. “Ew,” she repeats through tears.
These types of scenes make the viewer question what this project is all in service of, and ask hard questions of not only this documentary but the documentary form. All too often in documentaries, the viewer is shown painful and traumatizing scenes through a metaphorical window, and, after sufficiently gawking, led away from that window and assured that there is nothing they can do to help. Maybe, just maybe, this exploitative glimpse into Spears’ life would be worth it if all this “awareness” was coupled with some sort of action that could be taken by the viewer to improve Spears’ situation. But the documentary ends with the conservatorship battle still in the courts. The actual legal courts, not ones of public opinion, meaning public outcry only goes so far and the limits of the #FreeBritney movement highlighted in the documentary become clear. What are viewers to do besides superficially sympathize with Spears, lament how mentally ill women are portrayed in the media, and mutter “poor girl” to no one in particular before turning their TVs off after an hour and ten minutes? What could have become a powerful conversation about conservatorships, mental health, and disability justice more broadly instead doubles down on Britney’s pain, the three separate instances of her breaking down in interviews bordering on trauma porn.
Furthermore, this hypervisibility in the media with her pain displayed for all to see is what the documentary itself alleges manufactured Spears’ downfall in the first place. How is this same poison supposed to be anything except more traumatizing? Spears is so shielded by the conservatorship that she was unable to consent to this documentary being made, and it’s unclear if attempts to inform her that it was happening got through to her at all. Because of this, the documentary is far from Spears’ side of the story. Rather, it is a more sympathetic rendering of the media’s story of Spears. Many of the talking heads featured are journalists and media executives who seem remorseful of her past treatment by the media but not remorseful enough to spare her the trauma of being the subject of media frenzy once again. Understanding wrongdoing is crucial to repairing harm, of course, but this documentary is unable to move beyond abstract guilt of media insiders. However, it has opened up conversations on social media about who is to blame for these types of situations. Journalists for writing the stories about Spears? The public for consuming them? But then again, these types of discussions are more about absolving ourselves from responsibility for Spears’ suffering than helping Spears.
As I watched, I was continually struck by how beautiful Spears was in the early days of her fame, with bouncy blonde layers and a beaming smile that led many to dub her a true “American Girl.” I couldn’t help thinking that for all our cultural reverence of the pure, sweet and innocent “American Girl,” we sure do revel in her mental destruction. What’s more indicative of American girlhood than being mentally destroyed by sexism, and then other people profiting off your destruction?
Image Source: Buzzfeed