Marlena Raines

One of my earliest and deepest fears is the fear of becoming famous. Famous famous, specifically. I’d be okay with low-level fame, the kind that leaves you unrecognized in the grocery store with maybe one or two emails in your inbox from people you don’t know every month. But celebrity-level fame is terrifying — to be ceaselessly hounded by paparazzi, to have each one of your personal relationships dissected by strangers in tabloids and on talk shows, to exist in the public eye as a deity and as an object. You know, like the kind of famous Britney Spears is.

There’s cruelty in the way people treat famous women, especially. Even more so if they happen to be working in a profession where their bodies are a focus of their work. The “moral” outrage and ridicule society voiced against Miley Cyrus when she let go of her sanitized, kid-friendly Disney image and to some extent against Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B for “WAP” surrounded Britney Spears throughout her career.

“Framing Britney Spears,” a documentary produced by the New York Times and currently available on Hulu and FXNow, comprehensively summarizes Spears’ career from her small-town Louisiana roots to her present struggle against her father’s conservator status. It goes over all the incidents that made it into the public consciousness — her relationship with Justin Timberlake, her subsequent breakup with Justin Timberlake, her marriage and children and divorce, the “breakdown” where she shaved her head, the court case that started the conservatorship and, finally, the #FreeBritney movement. Furthermore, and this is what makes the documentary stand out, it puts the events of her tumultuous life in the context of the pervading misogyny in America.

During her first appearances on television, as a young preteen, she was asked whether or not she had a boyfriend (“What about me?” asked the host, rather shamelessly putting a child on the spot about whether or not she would want to date a middle-aged man in front of a live audience). These questions would only grow more invasive as she grew older: “Are you a virgin?” “What did you do to make Justin suffer?” “What kind of image do you think you’re giving to young girls?” “You know you’re sexy?”

Hounded by photographers hungry for a mistake, for some proof that she was the “slut” that a Clinton-era America was obsessed with seeing, denigrating and destroying, it’s little wonder that Spears sought to send a message by shaving her head in 2007. At the time, the media dismissed her as “going crazy”, but “Framing Britney Spears” raises the point that she very well meant to say: “I do not exist for you to consume.” Entertainment shows, as a funny joke for the whole family, listed the things she had lost: “her relationship, her marriage, her hair, her mind.”

Should an adult woman who is capable of headlining worldwide tours and producing platinum records be denied basic agency over her own life? This is the central question of “Framing Britney Spears” and the controversy surrounding Britney Spears today as she is refusing to perform until her father is removed from conservator status. As conservator, he is legally given control over his daughter’s personal, medical and financial decisions. Given the conservatee’s loss of autonomy, this legal category is reserved for people who are elderly or incapable of the activities of daily life.

Why was Spears placed under a conservatorship at all? In January 2008, she was admitted to the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center under a psychiatric hold following her refusal to turn over her sons to her ex-husband’s representatives. This was the inciting incident that launched the bid to put her under a conservatorship, and her (previously uninvolved) father’s complete control of her life henceforth. Despite the extremity of her mental distress during her hospitalization, she was released after just five days without difficulty and went on to perform again the next month. This calls into question whether her mental state was in such jeopardy she had to lose many of her fundamental rights.

She was able to communicate with a lawyer prior to the case, and the lawyer, on record, said that she seemed perfectly capable of understanding and taking his legal advice. That, in itself, should disqualify a conservatorship. But a court order was released declaring her unfit to select a lawyer for herself.

Over a decade later, why is Spears still under a conservatorship? The documentary does not hold back in showing how much particular men in her life disregarded (and continue to disregard) her agency, and her clear, stated, preferences for how she would like to live her own life. In an interview about #FreeBritney and whether or not Britney is being held against her will, her ambivalent brother, Bryan Spears, complains that the women in his family are “very, very strong-minded, and have their own opinion, and they wanna do what they wanna do, and as much as I admire that, as a guy, being, like one of two guys in this entire family, it kinda sucks, man.”

If Spears is strong-minded, firstly, that is not something that should be treated as somehow a bad thing for the men around her, and secondly, it’s additional proof that the conservatorship is completely unsuited for her situation.

The documentary featured paparazzo Daniel Ramos, who photographed for the tabloids that would relentlessly comment on and mock Spears’ sexuality, her purported reasons for breaking up with Timberlake, her perceived failure at mothering, etc. When asked about whether he had a role in Spears’ deteriorating mental health in the years leading up to her (in)famous shaved head in 2007 (where she also attacked his truck with an umbrella), he claimed that she never indicated that she wanted to be left alone.

“What about when she said ‘Leave me alone’?” retorted the documentarian. 

Well, Ramos said, that didn’t seem to mean she wanted them to leave her alone “forever.”

“Framing Britney Spears” has a clear, obvious message, an “agenda” so to speak; it has chosen a side when it comes to the #FreeBritney movement, and for good reason. But, more than that, it shows us the essential humanity of its subject, through a quite moving examination of Spears’ roots, early struggles and first friends. She started as a small-town girl, but she was never afraid of fame in the way I am. She should never have been given reasons to be afraid.

Claire Fang | claire.fang@yale.edu