“Have you seen the documentary?” we all ask each other about once a year when a groundbreaking account of a star’s life, alleged criminal activities or death emerges and sweeps through pop culture, usually challenging what we thought we knew about them, or confirming our suspicions all along.
In 2021, that’s Framing Britney Spears, the New York Times documentary that looks at Britney Spears’ conservatorship, which since 2008 has given her father Jamie control of her financial, legal and medical affairs, leading to fans’ #FreeBritney campaign. In the process, we witness truly chilling footage of paparazzi hounding Britney throughout her early years of fame to the full height of stardom, until the inevitable retreat from the public eye.
We’ve seen this before. With Amy Winehouse, with Whitney Houston, Amanda Bynes, Lindsay Lohan – I could go on. The press smell blood, they go after it, we want more, they get more; the cycle continues. Until it doesn’t. Watching the Britney documentary, though, all I could think is, how is this still happening? Why are there not laws about duty of care for these artists? The fact that they’re famous, loaded and appear to live glamorous lives doesn’t mean they should be repeatedly subjected to threatening behaviour that frequently seems to result in mental health issues and long-term lifestyle changes.
Like a lot of us, I found the Asif Kapadia documentary Amy painful to watch. And we saw Whitney Houston, pushed to exhaustion, perform for years while, behind the scenes, she grappled with a serious drug problem. We wring these women for all they can and then when they break we ridicule them, discard them to live out their days away from the public eye like a horse put out to pasture.
What struck me, aside from being disgusted with what the paparazzi are allowed to get away with (and this is despite my previously working as a picture editor, albeit for magazines, not papers), is the way that one image can create a narrative around a star that sticks for decades. When you see the footage – rather than a still – of Britney’s ‘meltdown’, as she takes an umbrella to a paparazzo’s car, you see this one, tiny, outburst for what it is: a young woman responding to almost a decade of being hounded by groups of 20 shouting men (why are paps always men?).
But with a snap, you see the angry face, the shaved head, the clutching of the umbrella and your mind fills in details that weren’t there. She’s damaged, she’s having a breakdown, off-the-rails – ‘crazy’. We dive into the drama. If a guy has an outburst like this, it’s of course in the papers, but it doesn’t dominate every article about him from then on.
It’s not always women, of course. The 2017 documentary Avicii: True Stories showed the Swedish DJ struggling with the pressures of work, fame and his own mental health. A year later, at the age of 28, he took his own life. There is a level of fame that seems to consume people without any consequences for those who fed from it once the star is extinguished.
“The cycle of a female star seems to be quicker and more extreme than that of a male celebrity”
Yet the cycle of a female star does seem to be quicker and more extreme – on both sides – than that of a male celebrity. We’ve seen backlashes almost engulf Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus, both of whom I’ve praised in previous columns and both of whom, thankfully, taken steps to preserve their autonomy. We build these women up and they’re everywhere – they’re saviours, they give us hope, they entertain us. And then we wait for then to fall. These artists are condemned whenever they show glimpses of human frailty, as if they might fail as ‘role models’ for young fans who are surely just as fallible as them – albeit without cameras documenting every false move.
The collective disgust at the way in which Britney, essentially, just dared to age and become a woman, when at first she wasn’t, is medieval. And before we even get to the should-be-illegal obsession with whether or not she was a virgin. In the new documentary, we see middle aged radio and talk show hosts salivating over every man’s archaic fantasy: a virginal woman, untouched, untainted. One asks Justin Timberlake if he’s slept with her and he sniggers in the affirmative. For the record, I don’t blame Justin; he was young too, with a huge, money-hungry record company behind him. His recent apology was an insight into his discomfort.
If you want to shine a torch on the misogyny at play here, though, look at how teen star Timberlake smoothly transitioned from a squeaky clean boyband to being a sexually charged solo R&B singer and sex symbol, before becoming a film star. Compare that to Framing Britney Spears. Yes, they’re different people and no, I’m not arguing that there are things we don’t know about. All I’m saying is that with more care, impartiality and genuine concern for women like Amy, Whitney, Britney and more, these documentaries might be a little more nostalgic, a little more ‘weren’t they fucking great?’, a little more Supersonic.
Don’t just free Britney; free the next one too.