Since it aired in the US earlier this month, Framing Britney Spears has provoked important conversations about sexism, mental health stigma and the paparazzi’s treatment of celebrities.
- Read more: Framing Britney Spears review: heartbreakingly human story that still lacks a happy ending
At its heart, though, is the questionable legitimacy of the singer’s conservatorship, a court-sanctioned legal arrangement that has given Spears‘ father Jamie extensive control of her financial, legal and medical affairs since 2008.
Here are 10 takeaways from this sensitive and insightful film, which was produced by The New York Times and directed by Samantha Stark.
Spears’ father Jamie wasn’t a prominent figure during her teenage years
“Her mother would do whatever it took, personally and for the family’s sake, for Britney to be a star,” recalls Kim Kaiman, a former marketing executive at Spears’ label, Jive Records. “Lynne supported Britney. I want to say Lynne because I never talked to her father. The only thing Jamie ever said to me was: ‘My daughter’s gonna be so rich, she’s gonna buy me a boat.’ That’s all I’m gonna say about Jamie.”
Justin Timberlake essentially threw Spears under the bus
Shortly after the couple’s relationship ended in 2002, Timberlake released the ‘Cry Me A River’ video, which featured a Spears lookalike and played into unconfirmed rumours that she had cheated. The film also features a clip from a radio interview in which Timberlake less than gallantly reveals that he and Spears had slept together.
“The way that people treated her, to be very high school about it, was like she was the school slut and he was the quarterback,” New York Times critic Wesley Morris observes in the film. No wonder Timberlake has felt compelled to apologise since the film premiered.
Veteran American broadcast journalist Diane Sawyer also owes Spears an apology
Excerpts from Sawyer’s 2003 interview with the pop star make for incredibly uncomfortable viewing. Holding up various images of Spears on magazine covers, Sawyer asks judgmentally: “What happened to your clothes?” Later, she leans into the singer’s split from Timberlake in a way that frames Spears as the guilty party. “He has gone on television and pretty much said you broke his heart,” the journalist says. “You did something that caused him so much pain, so much suffering. What did you do?”
By the time Sawyer asks about Spears’ “rough year” in the public eye, the singer has broken down in tears and politely asks to pause the interview. It’s heartbreaking to watch.
The paparazzi owe Spears an apology too
One photographer claims in the film that while “working on her for so many years, she never gave a clue or information to us that ‘I don’t appreciate you guys, leave me the eff alone’.”
After watching archive footage of the infamous “umbrella incident”, you’ll be left thinking this comment is deluded at best.
The way we spoke about mental health issues 13 years ago was shockingly crass and insensitive
The film features several archive clips which turn Spears’ 2007 breakdown into a punchline, but most horrifying is an excerpt from the game show Family Feud. It’s the American version of Family Fortunes, and players are asked to “name things Britney Spears has lost this year”.
When a contestant suggests she has “lost her sanity”, the studio audience laughs and applauds, then claps again when “her mind” turns out to be a correct answer.
Back in 2008, #FamilyFeud asked a question “name something Britney Spears has lost in the past year.” The clapping, the excitement, at the expense of someone’s mental health..
— Miss Bryan (@itsMissBryan) February 7, 2021
Spears’ glittering career was always tarnished by misogyny
Archive footage exposes the extent to which she was up against deeply ingrained sexism from the start. After a 10-year-old Spears delivers a show-stopping performance on a talent show in 1992, the male host has only one question for her: “Do you have a boyfriend?” Later, the clever and contradictory way she was marketed – as both Christian girl-next-door and self-confident sex symbol – make her a lightning rod for criticism. Everything from Spears’ body to her supposed shortcomings as a mother is considered fair game.
Her fans are seriously devoted
Jamie Spears has dismissed the #FreeBritney movement as “a joke”, but it continues to gather momentum because fans who call his daughter “Godney” and “the Holy Spearit” refuse to back down. The film offers an illuminating insight into the roots of their loyalty. Though many kids who grew up with Spears were initially drawn to her apparent flawlessness and poise as a performer, they only became devoted as her vulnerability began to show. Some say that because Spears allowed them to be themselves when they were coming of age, they now feel it’s time to return the favour.
Britney Spears remains an enigma
Though recent court documents reveal that Spears wants her father to be replaced as conservator, her overall opinions on the arrangement are still open to speculation. Some fans believe that she is refusing to work until the conservatorship terms are reworked to remove her father, but there’s no hard evidence to support this. As her former attorney Adam Streisand says plainly in the film: “We don’t know what we don’t know.”
Spears’ conservatorship won’t be easy to terminate
As the film explains, the courts normally approve a conservatorship when a person is too elderly or infirm to manage their own affairs. As The New York Times‘ Liz Day notes, it is “unusual” for someone as “young and productive” as Spears to have her agency taken away like this.
Later in the film, an attorney who has represented Spears’ father, Vivian Lee Thoreen, says she has never personally seen a court call time on a conservatorship.
Spears and her family members either declined or didn’t respond to interview requests
It’s difficult to say whether Spears knew the film was being made. At the end of Framing Britney Spears, an on-screen note says: “The New York Times attempted to reach Britney Spears directly to request her participation in this project. It is unclear if she received the requests.”