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Review: 'Framing Britney Spears' opened my eyes

The documentary shows the toxic effects fame can have

20210302 Framing Brittney Spears 0001.jpg

A laptop playing the "Framing Brittney Spears" documentary by The New York Times is shown in Tempe on Tuesday, March, 2, 2021. The #FreeBritney movement is centered around the conservatorship that controls Spears's ability to make her own decisions in the business world.


In "Framing Britney Spears," the latest episode of "The New York Times Presents," viewers get important new insight into the inner workings of Spears's extremely publicized, yet deeply misunderstood whirlwind of a career.

The episode sheds light on the singer's upbringing, her explosive music career and what went on behind the scenes, including the conservatorship she’s under with her father, and the subsequent “Free Britney” movement.

I had no idea what a conservatorship was before watching the documentary. Since I’m big on pop culture, I knew about the recent drama surrounding Spears and her father, but I couldn’t understand why he was controlling the finances of a 39-year-old woman. So naturally, I joined the movement along with thousands of others.

The documentary dives deep into Spears’s initial "girl next door" image — a teenage girl who aspired to please only herself, regardless of everyone’s opinions of her wardrobe or the content of her songs. But as the years went on and the scrutiny of being a woman in the public eye began to affect her, Spears’s story was overtaken by people's judgments of her self-expression.

The harsh treatment of the singer, who got her start on "The Mickey Mouse Club," from the public seems absurd, especially because she was not even 18 years old when started out as a singer.

What's worse is the way professionals would treat her. When former  Maryland first lady Kendel Ehrlich said she would "shoot Britney Spears" if she had the chance, journalist Diane Sawyer justified the comments to Spears during an interview. Sawyer said Spears was setting an example for children, to which Spears replied, "I'm not here to, you know, babysit her kids." But she was visibly hurt. 

I had no idea this interview even existed, but in my opinion, Sawyer handled it unprofessionally. My heart ached for Britney Spears. She once felt confident and it was ripped away from her — a feeling many young women know too well.

The world eventually saw the infamous "Britney meltdown." I, like many others, remember the uproar in the news when she publicly shaved her head and subsequently attacked a paparazzo's car. After this, she was involuntarily checked into an in-patient facility and placed under a co-conservatorship of her person and estate with her father and her attorney.

Spears had clearly been through a lot, being constantly followed, having to cope with her divorce and losing custody of her children. It seemed only natural she should need a little help, at least temporarily.

But that was not the case.

After 12 years, Spears's father is still her conservator. At this point, Britney is completely able to work, make personal decisions and manage her finances. Because of her father's refusal to step down, Spears has refused to work.

It was truly alarming to see Britney’s peers, whether it was assistants, fans, attorneys or friends, speak about the way her father had treated her over the years in the documentary. 

I spent an hour and a half watching the life drain from Spears's eyes, and days later, I still feel crushed. All she wanted was to do what she loved and enjoy being a girl who was learning to live in this crazy world, but instead she was silenced. Knowing the harsh circumstances of her conservatorship, I felt violated on her behalf; to have no say in one's own life is terrifying.

The presentation of the documentary added to this feeling. The open interview style featured attorneys on both sides of the conservatorship case, as well as a family friend of the Spears's, who was also her assistant. In her account she stated that she had no relationship with Spears's father prior to the decision of conservatorship.

Once that was enacted, her role on Britney's team changed drastically. She said that was when she knew something was wrong.

Remarkably, there weren't many clips of Spears' performances, and the entire show was a compilation of interviews with the aforementioned parties as well as some that Britney had done earlier in her career, showcasing mistreatment.

Despite everything, Britney’s fans have remained loyal – from looking for coded messages in her Instagram posts to even airing their grievances on podcasts dedicated to the star.

The features from fans were extremely telling as they showed true concern over the loss of a persona that they deeply admired. The documentary even showed clips of protests being held in favor of the "Free Britney" movement outside the courts where the conservator hearings were being held.

"Framing Britney Spears" shows that there is an ugly side to fame. As a society, we place a lot of emphasis on celebrity culture because we idolize the way they live. But the documentary showed the reality of how much doesn't make it into our view of celebrities' lives and how that changes the way we see them.


Reach the reporter at skenoun@asu.edu and follow @sabrinakenoun on Twitter. 

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