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Posted by Rajeev Anand Kushwah

Trigger Warning – Mention of mental breakdown

The New York Times documentary ‘Framing Britney Spears’ is a testament to the injustice meted out to the pop star as the media transformed her cultural image from a sex-symbol to a damsel-in-distress. It is pertinent to not view the media’s cruelty towards Britney Spears as an isolated incident as it forms a part of a much larger toxic celebrity culture with many survivors. In the wake of its release, Mara Wilson also penned a powerful essay about the sexual harassment that comes at the hand of the public and the media in Hollywood.

It is pertinent to not view the media’s cruelty towards Britney Spears as an isolated incident as it forms a part of a much larger toxic celebrity culture with many survivors. In the wake of its release, Mara Wilson also penned a powerful essay about the sexual harassment that comes at the hand of the public and the media in Hollywood.

From ‘Hyper-sexualization’ to an ‘Unfit Mother’

In one of the opening scenes of the documentary, a then 10-year-old Britney Spears is asked by a grown man if ‘she has a boyfriend yet.’ In subsequent interview clips that follow Britney as her career progresses, questions about her virginity, her breasts and whatever grown men felt entitled to ask her are thrown at her face. The sexism and misogyny become apparent as the media coverage centers solely on her sexual status, short-lived marriages, divorces, and an ‘out of control’ lifestyle. Her discomfort at intrusive questions is visible but blatantly ignored by the interviewers, even though she always maintained that she doesn’t see her ‘sex-positivity’ as being equal to a ‘sex-symbol’

Also read: The Fame Blame Game: Tracing My Perception Of Celebrityhood Accountability

In one interview, Justin Timberlake proudly proclaims “Okay, I did it!” when asked if he’d sex with Britney Spears. Timberlake did issue a half-hearted apology after a wave of criticism due to the documentary’s release but did not take the onus of demonising Britney through his pure male revenge fantasy in Cry me a river.

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SNL' criticises Justin Timberlake for "20 years late" Britney apology
Justin Timberlake did issue a half-hearted apology after a wave of criticism due to the documentary’s release but did not take the onus of demonising Britney Spears through his pure male revenge fantasy in Cry me a river. Image Source: NME

In one interview, Justin Timberlake proudly proclaims “Okay, I did it!” when asked if he’d sex with Britney Spears. Timberlake did issue a half-hearted apology after a wave of criticism due to the documentary’s release but did not take the onus of demonising Britney through his pure male revenge fantasy in Cry me a river.

After her marriage, Britney Spears was criticised for being comfortable in her body and sexual expression, which is ironic but not surprising since being a married woman (and soon to be a mother) was the epitome of ‘American Womanhood’. This led to the dichotomy where a previously sexualised Britney Spears who was once called a vamp in underwear was now being discarded as an ‘unfit mother’.

Also read: It Is High Time We Had A Conversation On Body Image

Media’s capitalisation of a woman’s suffering

Britney Spears’ privacy was being increasingly invaded as well. When paparazzi photographer Daniel Ramos (who very problematically photographed Britney during her mental breakdown) was asked why he didn’t leave her alone, he responded by saying that she didn’t give any indication to him of leaving her. The interviewer simply said, “What about when she said, ‘Leave me alone?’”.

This glares like a harsh truth that Ramos and a lot of others did not want to confront. The media was capitalising on Britney Spears’ suffering, to the point that a single photo of hers could be potentially sold for $1 million. In a rare interview taken by a woman, Britney breaks down, emphasising that she wants the paparazzi to leave her alone. Especially when she was with her kids, surrounded by photographers – a scary situation by all measures, but she didn’t know what to do.

Britney Spears' new documentary reveals why she shaved her head in 2007
No one saw the act of shaving her head as an act of political resistance, a sign of Britney losing her femininity and the image that was forced upon her, which she no longer identified with. Image Source: Tribune

Subsequent media coverage led to an extremely problematic, insensitive, and intrusive portrayal of her mental health issues. A mental breakdown is essentially a very private subject, but it became the joke of Britney Spears’ life. In a “satirical” South Park episode, a caricature of Britney was shown to shoot herself while media outlets ran headlines like ‘Bald and Broken’ and ‘Meltdown’ as she became a punch line. No one saw the act of shaving her head as an act of political resistance, a sign of Britney losing her femininity and the image that was forced upon her, which she no longer identified with.

‘Infantilisation’ and the Conservatorship

What everyone forgot about the ‘Princess of Pop’ was that Britney Spears was also a woman under insurmountable pressure working hard while maintaining social grace and generosity. She was a woman in total creative control of her art and yet for all the fame, glamour and success that she deservingly got, respectability was not accorded to her.

Elderly people or people with psycho-social disabilities who are unable to make their life’s decisions are placed under ‘the legal conservatorship’. Britney Spears was placed under the same when her father, Jamie Spears, applied for a ‘temporary conservatorship’ after her much-publicised mental breakdown. Through this legal act, the ‘personhood of Britney Spears’ essentially became a subject of law. She was infantilised as a vulnerable woman who is incapable of making her own decisions. Jamie being appointed as her conservator legitimises the attitude of ‘paternalistic protectionism’ by the law towards women. Britney’s record marketing director (also a mother figure to her in her early career) recalls in the documentary what Jamie said about Britney’s career prospects – “My daughter’s gonna be so rich she’s gonna buy me a boat.”

It is now more than a decade since Britney Spears was brought under conservatorship with essentially no control over her finances, business, or personal affairs. Her filed request for the removal of Jamie from the conservatorship was declined by the court in 2020. All the while Jamie earned a lot, including even a part of Britney’s income.

It is now more than a decade since Britney Spears was brought under conservatorship with essentially no control over her finances, business, or personal affairs. Her filed request for the removal of Jamie from the conservatorship was declined by the court in 2020. All the while Jamie earned a lot, including even a part of Britney’s income. Since he refused to step down as conservator, the onus comes up on Britney to prove that she’s capable of being on her own, all the while paying for her lawyers and Jamie’s lawyers as well. The misogynistic court ignored that while under conservatorship, Britney released a chart-topping album, won numerous awards, acted as a judge on a talent show,  and also completed a very successful 4-year residency show in Las Vegas. Instead, it decided to double down on the court-ordained patriarchy.

The #FreeBritney Movement – A battle for autonomy

Britney Spears’ fans soon started using the #FreeBritney hashtag advocating for the end of the conservatorship after Britney insisted on having Jamie step down and his subsequent refusal became public. Media appearances from her mother and brother also reiterated that all she wants is for the conservatorship to end, and Britney herself thanked her fans for their informed support. As of 11th February 2021, the court has allowed Bessemer Trust Co. to be the co-conservator of Britney Spears’ estate with the next hearings slated on 17th March and 27th April 2021. The #FreeBritney movement also came upon the heels of the #metoo movement which greatly emphasised upon women’s agency and freedom. The movement is going strong with more support than it ever had, including routine protest marches, and social media support from other celebrities. The documentary successfully shows how control was systematically taken away from Britney Spears fuelling the sense of injustice when that control, autonomy and agency is taken away. 

The documentary is available to stream on FX and FX on Hulu.


Rajeev is an overthinker, a self-proclaimed chef; pop culture enthusiast, and a rainbow poet. Although a bit introverted and shy at first, he will soon make you feel like home. He is an angry feminist too, very vocal about the social injustices springing from Patriarchy. He believes the world will be a better place if we could be more sensitive about gender, be kind to each other and burn the Manusmriti. Currently, he is pursuing Masters in Women’s Studies at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.

Featured image source: NBC

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