Op-Ed: Framing Britney Spears brings past mistakes back into frame

Jonah Dietz, Senior Reporter

The newly released New York Times documentary television film “Framing Britney Spears” ushers the viewer back to a time of intrusive paparazzi, scandalizing tabloids, invasive interviews, rampant misogyny, and a popular media culture defined by a sensationalized lack of empathy glossed over with neon hues and frosted tips. At times, the reality that the film’s protagonist navigates seems like one removed by a hundred years. But perhaps the most uncomfortable thing about the documentary is that the problems facing Spears are ongoing, and the public breakdown she experienced due to the gross treatment she underwent, and which she received two-fold afterward, happened only 14 years ago. 

The story of Britney Spears, her rise to fame, the criticisms she received, the backlash she faced and the injustices she experienced, is detailed in the documentary with the main goal of calling the viewers attention to the unfair and disenfranchising conservatorship Spears was placed in and still is imprisoned by today. The conservatorship, a legal concept originally designed for older people or people with inabilities to manage their financial or personal affairs, has given Spears’ father total control over her financial situation and her person. Ostensibly, it’s a limitation of her autonomy. This legal violation of Spear’s freedom came into effect in 2008 and is still being contested today, to little avail even after being explicitly named by Britney as something she does not need, endorse or desire. And what the Times’ documentary further elucidates is how this is just the tip of an iceberg that has plagued Britney her entire career.  

As a person in my twenties, I happened to be in a very developmental stage of my life during this era of humanity. I remember very clearly hearing about Britney Spears, and when I did she was always referenced in negative ways, talked about using derisive terms, and the insinuation was that she was a promiscuous and insane attention-seeker. I vividly remember standing in line at the grocery store and seeing racks full of magazines with grainy pictures exposing the everyday behaviors or intimate moments of hounded famous people, whom the titles were sure to ridicule as if they deserved or secretly wanted this intrusive attention. But what I don’t remember is when the culture shifted and these behaviors and norms became less important and frequent. If something in this documentary is as urgent a lesson as Spears’ conservatorship, it is that society is evolving for the better but always on the precipice of forgetting the dark past we’ve left behind. 

In the wake of the film, many have reached out to chide the celebrities mentioned in it who openly and shamefully endorsed and perpetuated the misogyny that tormented Spears. Again, the comments and late-night monologue jokes that are replayed by the film are shockingly compassionless and seem archaically toxic. Justin Timberlake, who, at one time dated Spears before their very public breakup, especially stands under harsh scrutiny for his participation in the sexist mobbing of his ex and the silence he’s kept up until this moment. And Timberlake deserves much of this scrutiny, as he trots out a late apology only after being called out with little to no reference to personal blame. But at the same time, he could simply be like a lot of us–willfully blind to the mistakes of a past too recent to be true history and too far back to rightfully recall. We’d rather forget that Family Feud used “what did Britney Spears lose this year?” as a question, with answers ranging from “her hair” to “her dignity,” to entertain their audience. We’d rather not think about the times Britney cried on live TV because an interviewer tried to validate Maryland’s first lady’s comment that she’d shoot Spears if she were given the chance. And we’d like to pretend the years of ridiculing Spears’ relationships, parenting, and personal mental health never happened. But they did. It’s wonderful that it is gross and shocking now. But in order to make sure that it stays gross and continues to be more and more shocking, we must partake in constant critical review of our past and learn from it, apologize for it, and keep it from rearing its ugly head again. 


Also, we should #FreeBritney.