What Did We Do To Britney Spears?

The documentary about Britney Spears was eye-opening, heartbreaking, and enraging.

I became a huge fan of Britney Spears at an absurdly young age. I remember singing “…Baby One More Time” by myself, with her CD in my portable player. I was born in 1997, only two years before her first single was released. I became a fan of Britney during the Britney and In the Zone eras, only a few years before the 2007 “meltdown” (as the media calls it) that changed the course of her professional and personal life. I saw her in concert for the first (and only!) time during her Circus tour in 2009, only a year after she was placed under her conservatorship. During that time, it was great seeing her make her comeback. After the Circus era, she became a judge on The X Factor, recorded a few more albums, and had a residency in Las Vegas. Now, in 2021, the place where you can find Britney content is her much-discussed and very-dissected Instagram page. But, Britney’s person and estate have been under a conservatorship (a legal arrangement where an appointed person handles the affairs of a person who can no longer make their own decisions) for the past thirteen years, with her father, Jamie, acting as her conservator. And the conservatorship led to the formation of the #FreeBritney movement, with fans bringing awareness to the details of the legal arrangement and pushing for Britney to be “free” from the legal control.

I am going to assume (and hope) that most people reading this newsletter know who Britney Spears is. At this point, most people have at least heard about the #FreeBritney movement. Britney herself became the “good girl” that became “bad.” She was the pop diva that no longer was able to be “controlled” by the public, the media, or her team. She was no longer able to live to the unreasonably high standards that the public placed on her. She was the “virgin” that was still “too sexy” in the eyes of the public. And during the height of her infamy in 2007, she went from America’s sweetheart to the world’s target for hate and vitriol.

Framing Britney Spears, the sixth episode in the Hulu/FX series, The New York Times Presents, focuses on Britney’s career from the very beginning (including The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse days) to where it is today. The documentary also covers the various entities that took advantage of Britney during the span of her two-plus-decade career: the media, her team, her peers, the industry, and (as the members of #FreeBritney would argue) her family. Quite frankly- no one looks great in this documentary. Not Justin Timberlake- who dated Britney in the early 2000s and decided to reveal on national radio that they had sex, despite Britney’s team pushing that she would be a virgin until marriage. Not Diane Sawyer- who made Britney cry during her primetime interview after repeatedly telling Britney that American mothers were unhappy with her “sexual” image. Not every interviewer that asked Britney, who was in her late teens and early twenties, about her breasts and body in front of a large audience, clearly making her beyond uncomfortable. From the beginning of her career, Britney was navigating a world of misogyny and sexism, and it was clear that she was always expected to address people’s questions and anger about her sexuality, her womanhood, and her intentions. At the same time, she was dealing with her own team, who wanted to push a certain “good girl” image to the public so they can successfully “sell” Britney Spears.

The documentary then tackles Britney’s life from 2004-2008, which includes getting married to Kevin Federline, having her two sons, getting divorced, losing custody of her sons, and being placed under the conservatorship. Seeing the clips of Britney being hounded by the paparazzi was almost jarring, because those moments are relics of a tabloid/paparazzi that we don’t really live in anymore. While you still see paparazzi snapping shots of celebrities, the documentary reminds us that before social media, photos of Britney were selling for $1 million each. This meant that Britney, who was still at the height of her fame, was being followed by tons of paparazzi wherever she went. And it also meant that the public was always watching her, and they were waiting for her next move. And they were waiting for her next story. She’s getting divorced? Let’s watch her shave her head. She lost custody of her kids and can’t see them? Let’s follow her to a gas station and see if she has a breakdown. When she did just that, and attacked the car of the photographer that refused to leave her alone, she became the target of ridicule by the public. The clips of late-night talk show hosts making fun of her were especially damning in the documentary, exposing how the public didn’t lead with any empathy. Instead, people laughed at her.

There was no discussion, at least from what I can remember, about mental health. Lynn Spears, Britney’s mother, has said that she thought Britney was suffering from postpartum depression during that time. But, Britney’s mental health was not really discussed. The media had spent years slut-shaming the pop star and dragging her name through the mud for the sake of a good story, so it didn’t seem that they were going to tell a nuanced story about Britney possibly suffering from a mental illness, dealing with the stress of being one of the most famous women in the world, and going through a divorce after having two children. Britney became part of the circle of Hollywood (specifically female) celebrities that were torn to shreds whenever they… did anything. I mean- look at this headline below.

Britney Spears, during this time, was inducted into a circle of female celebrities that the public was seemingly able to ridicule on a weekly basis. Now, I am not saying that we should not be allowed to make fun of celebrities when they are being ridiculous. But, what was interesting about this period specifically is that it felt like an empathy chip was missing from the public when discussing female celebrities like Britney, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Nicole Richie, etc. People had a reckoning with Paris Hilton as recently as last year when she released her documentary, This Is Paris, where she details the abuse she suffered as a teenager at a boarding school before eventually dealing with the release of her sex tape, which she did not want released. And now, with Britney, people all of the events in her life that the public has seen with a new lens, seeing that the events they laughed at might have actually been rooted in deep pain and trauma. And sadly, we are faced with the fact that the behavior of both the media and general public was rooted in a deep, horrific misogyny. The media encouraged people to laugh at Britney Spears for sport, thus removing the feeling of empathy that should have been given to her. When people are given the opportunity to behave badly, many of them will do just that. And that led to Britney to be faced with cruelty and constantly facing harsh judgement. And instead of leaving her alone, like she begged the media to do, she was even more closely followed.

Now, in 2021, fans of Britney are paying close attention to her Instagram page, the place where you can find videos of her dancing in her house and photos of either herself or things she has around her. And the #FreeBritney movement has been shared by fans and other celebrities. As of this year, her father, Jamie, is still her conservator, despite Britney’s objections. In 2020, her attorney filed a motion to remove Jamie as her conservator and instead have a bank be the conservator of her estate. That same year, a judge ruled to have both Jamie and her bank of choice as co-conservators of her estate. And people who are part of the #FreeBritney movement (described as “#FreeBritney Activists” in the documentary) have continued to question whether a conservatorship for Britney continues to be necessary.

Since 2008, her estate has grown, with Britney having success specifically with her Vegas residency. The documentary features two attorneys: one that represented Jamie in the conservatorship case, and one that had met with Britney in 2008. Adam Streisand, the attorney who met with Britney in 2008 once her father proceeded with getting her under a conservatorship, questioned the need for Britney’s conservatorship years after it was established. A conservatorship is seemingly more common for older people that are no longer able to handle their affairs. But, Britney, who is thirty nine years old, has continued to work in the past thirteen years, making the conservatorship look more like a business arrangement rather than a necessity.

Since her first Vegas residency ended, and then the second one was canceled before it even began, her Instagram seems to be the only place where you can really see recent content with her. To my knowledge, she hasn’t appeared in recent interviews, and it seems like her content is more… filtered than ever before. The #FreeBritney movement has questions questioning how much her team is controlling the content on her Instagram. While it’s not unusual for celebrities to have social media teams, fans have questions on whether Britney is even allowed to have access to her own social media. This has led to fans believing that Britney is sending subliminal messages asking for help on her team-approved posts. And, these questions have lead to a debate on whether Britney is really sending those messages, or if fans are essentially projecting what they want to believe on her social media, hoping that she is sending them a signal to help her.

And finally- What is Britney Spears’s legacy? It’s a hard question to answer. I am sure you have seen many articles that have been published this weekend that ask the same question. I wish I had answers, and I wish I was more insightful. But, I am just another fan that watched the documentary and felt sad, angry, and frustrated. I am angry seeing the misogyny Britney faced, knowing that it’s the same misogyny that female celebrities continue to face. I am angry because I cannot imagine a male celebrity being in the same situation that Britney is in. I am sad that Britney was not only slut-shamed, but she was also mom-shamed at a level that I can imagine would break even the most “perfect” parents. And finally, I am frustrated that our culture has only changed a little bit, but not enough.

Her story certainly isn’t over, but the documentary is a stark reminder that the media and the public at large built a pop star up, only to tear her down until she was destroyed. Of course, I think about how Britney would have been treated if everything she went through in 2007 happened now. By reframing some of the major events and stories of the 90s/00s and putting them in a different lens, there is a reckoning that was long overdue. And there is still a lot of work to be done. Britney’s story has hopefully pushed forward better conversation around mental health in our culture, but that seems to be at the cost of Britney and her own well-being. And the cultural conversation around mental health is far from perfect, unfortunately. Celebrities have more control over what they want the public to see because of the rise of social media, putting an end to some of the paparazzi frenzy that was so prevalent in the early-to-late 2000s. And Britney’s story has become a bit of a cautionary tale in Hollywood, a story about what happens when the media breaks someone.

And why do I love Britney Spears myself? I can’t remember why I loved her or her music when I was child. I just remember loving all of it. I remember feeling sad when she went through her public struggles in 2007, and then I felt hopeful when she had her comeback. Going to her concert with my mother in 2009 (who cried when watching the documentary) was one of my favorite memories when I was a child. It felt like Britney was on her next chapter, successfully pushing through the tumultuous time. And then things seemed to change again in the past couple of years, and a lot of people believe that she has become Rapunzel, stuck in her Los Angeles mansion and sending bat signals through her social media. The reality then set in. Even during the Circus tour, and The X Factor, and the Vegas residency, Britney was still in the conservatorship, still dealing with everything in her personal life, and (as the documentary points out) performing when she maybe didn’t want to anymore.

Looking back, I’m sure I became a fan of hers because she seemed “cool” and aspirational, but she was also resilient. She didn’t seem to let the critics take her down. As a closeted gay kid, I wanted her confidence and her spirit, as well as the ability to push through anything that might take you down. And as an adult, I see now how much cruelty she actually faced. I also realize that I probably projected my own hopes and dreams on a woman that I thought was perfect, despite living a life that I could not have understood. The media pushed many narratives about Britney Spears: she was a “good girl,” she was a “slut,” she was a “bad mother,” she was “crazy.” It was easy to find articles, talk shows, news programs, blogs making fun of Britney. And even though I was always a fan, I also looked at the articles. I looked at the photos of her shaving her head, and I watched the videos of paparazzi following her as she asked them to leave her alone. It’s sadly not a surprise that we were all culpable in feeding into the media frenzy, and fueling them enough to keep going. And now, I have a better appreciation for the time when she finally had enough of it all. When her former assistant and family friend, Felicia Culotta, was interviewed for the documentary, she talked about what’s next for Britney. She said she will one day tell her story, and she is “so grateful for when that point comes.” I am looking forward to that day as well.

The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears is now streaming on Hulu.