The documentary “Framing Britney Spears” was released on Hulu on Feb. 5. It has brought to light the mistreatment and neglect Britney Spears has endured ever since her rise to fame in 2002, including the extreme hypersexualization and blatant disregard for Spears’ mental health. The film is an episode of the series “New York Times Presents.” It highlights the ongoing conflict between Spears and her father, Jamie Spears, regarding the court-sanctioned conservatorship, which was ruled to be necessary in 2008. This was the catalyst which triggered a movement started by her fans called #FreeBritney, aiming to prove Spears’ mental capacity and liberate her from the conservatorship.
The documentary interviews people who were once close to Spears like her former assistant and friend, Felicia Culotta, and her former lawyer, Adam Streisand. Furthermore, the documentary touches on the journalists and media professionals who took part in the media coverage of Spears’ music releases, personal relationships and various “breakdowns.” Wesley Morris, a New York Times critic, examines the way journalists and newsrooms all over the country failed Spears and ultimately contributed to the limiting of her freedoms within the conservatorship. He also talks about the misogyny within our society that allows for men to benefit from the glorification of mental illness in women.
Morris acknowledged that conversations surrounding mental health were simply not happening, and the media was willing to drive Spears over the edge, bombarding her at her home, pounding on her car windows and following her every move with their cameras in her face. In one scene of the documentary, Spears is pushing through a group of paparazzi saying, “Can you guys not fight, I’m scared. I’m scared. I’m scared.” It is absolutely heartbreaking to imagine a life where no moment is private. Spears had no way out of the spotlight and nowhere to turn for help without being labeled as “crazy” or “a bad influence.”
Morris says, “There was too much money to be made off her suffering.”
Perez Hilton, the infamous celebrity blogger, said, “Thank you, Britney Spears — being bad is good for my business.”
It was these opinions and money-grabbing opportunities that the journalists of the early 2000s took advantage of. Photos of Spears at the height of her custody battle with her former husband, Kevin Federline, were sold to magazines like “Us Weekly” and “People” magazine for over a million dollars according to photographer Daniel Ramos, who took part in snapping pictures of Spears over the years. Spears pleaded with paparazzi to leave her alone when she was interviewed with Dateline in 2006, and when she was asked what she thought it would take for the media to leave her alone, she began to cry and said repeatedly that she didn’t know but it was something she wished for.
Due to this portrayal of apparent desperation and hopelessness, it was absolutely appalling to hear Ramos claim that Spears seemed to enjoy the paparazzi and never told them to leave her alone for long periods. Just a year later, when Spears shaved her head and lost custody of her children, Ramos followed Spears to her ex-husband’s house. He approached her car and flashed his camera through the windshield, and that is when Spears infamously got out of her car, grabbed an umbrella, and attacked Ramos’ vehicle. She dented the doors and repeatedly hit the windows, All the while, Ramos and other paparazzi filmed her. The next day, Ramos’ photo was on the front page of every tabloid, “It was the money shot,” he scoffed.
Spears was not only a victim of extreme abuse from tabloids and paparazzi as they exposed her personal life: marital problems, weight fluctuation and custody court cases. She was also hypersexualized ever since her first single “…Baby One More Time.” In a time of successful boy bands, Spears’ global sales were astonishing. She was one of a kind, and all eyes were on the new young girl who seemed to have control of her own body and knew how to own a crowd. Teenage girls adored her because she exuded the confidence and sex appeal they craved. In an interview with Dianne Sawyer on ABC in 2003, Sawyer asked Spears for her response to a statement made by Kendel Sibiski Ehrilch, the First Lady of Maryland. Ehrilch said, “If I had an opportunity to shoot Britney Spears, I think I would.” Her reasoning for this vile statement? Spears’ sex appeal and confidence are setting a bad example for young girls. Upon hearing this, Spears claimed that it is not her job to babysit kids.
In the same interview, Sawyer asked Spears what she had done to pop star Justin Timberlake to make him so heartbroken. The couple had recently broken up, and there had been a rumor circulating in the news that Spears cheated on Timberlake. Timberlake took control of the narrative and weaponized society’s normalization of misogyny to profit from Spears’ demise. He cast an actress who resembled Spears to be in the music video for “Cry Me a River.” Timberlake had recently left the boy band NSYNC to be a solo artist, and the societal shaming of his ex-girlfriend laid the perfect foundation for a new career. He was pitied while she was scrutinized.
Men are rarely held to the same standard as women in the entertainment industry. Timberlake released an apology for his inevitable profit from a society that derives pleasure from watching women suffer, but many are saying that it is simply not enough to acknowledge that misogyny exists everywhere we look. Journalist at CNN, Marcia Bianco, says, “If the societal change necessary for dignity and justice is to occur, we must move from awareness to accountability.” Timberlake is not the only man who benefitted from the shaming of Spears. Her father, who had never been in her life as a stable parent, was deemed as her permanent conservator in 2008.
A conservatorship was ruled necessary in 2008 after Spears had spent time in the hospital for her mental health. As her conservator, Jamie Spears has full control over his daughter’s life. Her estate is in his hands, and he can dictate who contacts Spears, make deals on her behalf, and can control how her finances are used. Conservatorships are only deemed necessary when the conservatee is unable to manage their affairs due to a decrease in their mental or physical ability. Usually, conservatorships are only granted for elderly people who need assistance balancing their estate or person. This case was out of the ordinary because Spears was young and successful. Her former lawyer, Adam Streisand, was hired by Spears to discuss the details of the conservatorship. He expresses in the documentary that he thought Spears was capable of being in control of her own life simply because she could hire him in the first place. He also revealed that Spears disclosed to him that she wanted a professional to be her conservator, not her dad. We know this did not pan out, as Jamie is still her conservator today. In the 2008 documentary, “Britney: For the Record,” Spears speaks about the lack of control she has in her life. She says she wants to be liberated and claims when she tries to speak to those closest to her, “It’s like, they hear me, but they’re really not listening. They’re hearing what they want to hear. They’re not really listening to what I’m telling them.” It is because of this that her fans have started the movement #FreeBritney. Two fans, Tess Barker and Barbara Gray, started a podcast called “Britney’s Gram” which analyzes Spears’ Instagram posts to see if she is calling out for help from her fans. For instance, fans comment on her pictures to wear yellow in her next video if she needs help, and she will. Fans are calling for an end to the abuse they speculate she is facing due to the conservatorship.
In August 2020, Spears brought her father to court in an attempt to switch her conservator to a professional organization. Fans gathered outside of the courthouse cheering for their idol and acknowledging her bravery. The court ruled not to remove Jamie from the conservatorship right now, but they did agree to add an organization as a co-conservator of Spears’ estate. Fans were relieved that the judge did not rule the idea of removing Jamie as the conservator out completely, meaning the opportunity could arise in the future. Spears refuses to work as long as her father is in control of her estate, but she has thanked her fans for continually showing her their “informed support.”
It is a complete atrocity that for the last 12 years, a woman has been ridiculed by the public, the media and the people closest to her. She has been silenced by men her entire life, and unfortunately, this is not a rare instance. The society we live in today still perpetuates misogyny, but it is inspiring to see women banding together to call attention to the abuse and harassment they have experienced and continue to face. The #MeToo movement is a perfect demonstration of this. Britney Spears is a victim of manipulation, abuse and hypersexualization, and we must recognize that she is not the exception. She is extremely brave for bearing the fight in the public eye. She should be commended for her fierceness and her ability to make so many people happy while she silently suffered in the shadows. We need to stop just hearing women when they ask for help; we must start listening to women and believing them.