A compelling new documentary is shedding light on how history was re-written to divest control and power from bubblegum pop star Britney Spears.
The documentary initially began as an extension of the #FreeBritney movement, which saw fans rally to have the star released from her highly controlling conservatorship overseen by her father, Jamie Spears.
But Framing Britney Spears is, for the most part, a damning indictment on the media and its treatment of women. And teenage girls.
In fact, the creation of the Britney Spears money machine, which drew heavily from her all-American, good-girl-next-door image, had begun well before she burst onto our screens at age 16 in her iconic white midriff shirt, grey cardigan and pink braids.
The alleged exploitation of Spears by those close to her was apparently obvious to those in her orbit. A marketing executive at her record label named Kim Kaiman had seen the signs.
“The only thing he ever said to me was, ‘My daughter is gonna be so rich she’s gonna buy me a boat’,” Kaiman said in the documentary.
“And that’s all I’m going to say about Jamie.”
Dr Jessica Ford, lecturer in the school of humanities and social sciences at the University of Newcastle, said the recent headlines about Spears’ conservatorship paint a grim picture about her loss of agency and autonomy.
“This version of Britney as ‘incapable’, or somehow unable to have control over her own life, is a relatively new narrative that has been prescribed to her. And it’s one that is very much rewriting history,” Dr Ford told The New Daily.
If we go back and we actually look at footage from early on in her career, particularly when she was 15, 16, 17 – the whole narrative that she is telling about herself is about control.
“It’s about her having control over her image and control over her body, and her music. She is saying, ‘I’m not someone doing just what my manager is telling me to do, I am in control here’.”
“But that control has been stripped from her in very real, legal, material and economic ways over the past 12 years that the conservatorship has been in play.”
It’s a boyband world
Spears’ rapid ascent to superstardom in the early 2000s was notable because she was predominately competing against boybands.
There was barely enough room between the frosted tips and tinted sunglasses of NSYNC, Backstreet Boys, 98 Degrees and 5ive for a young, solo pop princess to make her mark.
“She broke through in an era where the boyband really dominated. She led the way and created a path for your Mandy Moores and your Christina Aguileras: that kind of really young, overly feminine, overly pop sensibility pop-star,” Dr Ford said.
“So Britney was really an anomaly at the time.”
But rising alongside Spears in the early 2000s landscape was the world of online gossip blogging.
“Perez Hilton and TMZ were starting to gain traction and a certain amount of cultural cache.
The lives of these celebrities, whether it be Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton, became a kind of consumable object.
Spears fell into the same media narrative of the ‘at-risk young, female star’ that her peers, Hilton and Lohan did.
(Years later, media coverage about Miley Cyrus, Heidi Montag, Vanessa Hudgens, Amanda Bynes, Taylor Swift and Demi Lovato would follow suit).
“It’s this idea that young women are figures of potential but they also need protection.
“When young women challenge that idea in some way, through some kind of sexual presentation, like Miley Cyrus through Disney, there tends to be an activation of, ‘We need to protect her, we need to make sure she’s OK’.”
“But at the same time, it’s the same media apparatuses that promote the protection of young women that also are complicit, or even propagating the exploitation of young women.”
if I could genuinely apologize to a celebrity it would be taylor swift and Miley Cyrus because I was too young to notice the misogyny in media and society.
— priya (@tf_priya) February 18, 2021
Reframing the past
It’s easy to look back in horror at the way the media and the spectators surrounding these young female celebrities cashed in on their mental anguish.
We demanded front row tickets to watch their breakdowns, and penalised them for fighting back against the institutions that profited from them.
“The treatment of Britney, and Lindsay Lohan, and Paris Hilton was seen as, ‘That’s just the way things happened, and if they didn’t want to get photographed, they shouldn’t go out drinking, they should know better’,” Dr Ford said.
“Whereas now, there’s a resistance to that kind of thinking. There is a resistance to that framing of women as the problem, and instead there is a deeper interrogation of the systems that work to simultaneously empower and to exploit these women.”
This Lindsay Lohan interview on David Letterman in 2013 is horrifying to watch now. pic.twitter.com/lZxKVvbVB0
— 𝐭𝐫𝐞𝐲 𝐭𝐚𝐲𝐥𝐨𝐫 (@treytylor) February 13, 2021
But why now, after decades of watching and contributing to the rise and fall of young female celebrities, has the cultural zeitgeist shifted?
Hilton, Spears and the other women in their cohort – intelligent women who were all too often dismissed and branded as ‘bimbos’ – helped shape our notion of female celebrities in the early 2000s.
They also paved the way for women like Kim Kardashian to enter the scene, assert herself and rewrite those notions.
“One thing Keeping Up With the Kardashians did was be on our screens for 17 years – it made the labour and the work of ‘celebrity’ visible.
“The show took her seriously, and therefore positioned the audience to take her seriously and her work seriously.”
A recent documentary about Hilton that examined her mistreatment in the media, the rampant misogyny that followed her, and how she managed to turn her ‘dumb blonde’ image into a multimillion-dollar empire has been streamed more than 20 million times.
Megan Fox, who was blacklisted from Hollywood by director Michael Bay for speaking out against his over-sexualisation of her when she was a teenager, is back in the headlines as media publications apologise for their mistreatment of her.
Justin Timberlake, who dated Spears before turning on her and trashing her in the press, has issued an apology to the star since Framing Britney Spears premiered.
Perez Hilton, who essentially made his entire career off the backs of these young women, has said he “regrets” relentlessly cyberbullying Spears.
Decades later, and after countless budding stars, like Spears, have been chewed up and spat out, it seems people might be finally ready to pay attention.