Framing and Failing Britney Spears

Pop Culture

Framing and Failing Britney Spears

Illustration: Arati Gujar

Stuck between a tug-of-war of power and control, Britney Spears’ public image has been predominantly misunderstood and manipulated, reveals Framing Britney Spears,  a documentary by The New York Times. Part of the larger docu-series called The New York Times Presents, it focuses on the conservatorship which has been supervised by her father, Jamie Spears. Through this 70-minute episode, people’s personal accounts of Spears are corroborated by her past interviews and behind-the-scenes footage. By the end of the documentary, it is evident that while the media and the men in her life were vying to steer the narrative, Spears was made a helpless by-stander.

The episode traces her earlier days and builds up to her struggles of today. One of her first on-screen interviews at the age of 10 was with American announcer and host Ed McMahon who asked this doe-eyed girl if she had a boyfriend. Arbitrary questions such as these were just the foreshadowing of her impending treatment at the hands of men who in the future would soon question her breasts, her virginity, and her gaffes – questions that male artists would never be asked.

Britney Spears embodied the girl-next-door image right from her The Mickey Mouse Club days. As her career bloomed and she witnessed success overnight, she stealthily responded to questions that were a direct attempt to humiliate her. Over the course of her career, she has been prey to this over-scrutinisation because of the very virtue of her being a woman in control. Her claims that she liked looking good and feeling sexy have had the media up in arms; the same publications that have profited off this image when it served their agenda. However, it seems that she was always at the precipice of having them turn against her. While the paparazzi have helped build the brouhaha surrounding her for several years, the coverage of her conservatorship, something that could finally liberate her from under her father’s thumb, has remained rather hush hush.

A conservatorship prompts court-appointed control to a parent or a guardian over the financial affairs and personal life of someone who is deemed unfit to control it themselves. Considering his absence from her life in the early days of her career, the control and power that Jamie currently wields over her come as a shock to many. Following her very public breakdown in 2008, her father was given access to her finances which he, since then, has had complete jurisdiction over. This basically means that Spears cannot make one move that is not premeditated by her father. This is not the first time that a man in her life has attempted to control the narrative and emerge victorious. Her ex-boyfriend, Justin Timberlake, denigrated her in a radio show when asked whether he had slept with her. Her ex-manager, Sam Lutfi, forcefully tried to make his place in her life. Her ex-husband, Kevin Federline, took advantage of the brash coverage pertaining to her alleged “mental illness” and now has full custody of their children. All these men have been complicit in her public vilification.

Considering the conversation today surrounding mental health, Britney Spears was attacked by the media for being a public figure struggling through her own tribulations.

What makes this episode so heartbreaking to watch is that these men flaunt their illustrious careers even today whereas Britney is bereft of the basic right of access to her earnings. Her story is testament to the fact that society detests women who control their lives and the only way to restore the old order is to strip them off this autonomy – as illustrated by what the men and media have done. The apparatus to do her injustice was always there and they nabbed at the opportunity. While they thrive today, Britney’s supporters are forced to decrypt her Instagram captions and rally for her liberation.

Owing to her loyal and dedicated fan base, the #FreeBritney movement has helped spread awareness about her situation. The latest court verdict, while only a small victory, attempts to restore some degree of autonomy over her life. This entire ordeal speaks volumes about the perils of being a female public figure. Her mental breakdown in the past made headlines in innumerable magazines. TV show hosts and tabloids have milked her private controversies countless times in the public domain – breakups, drives with her son, breakdowns, and even shaving her head. Her past interviewers have used it as an opportunity to demean her and bring her discomfort in a world that was already turning against her. So miffed were they by her divorce from the “good girl” image that the only way to continue profiting off her was to polarise her persona, to villainise her. Considering the conversation today surrounding mental health, Britney Spears was attacked by the media for being a public figure struggling through her own tribulations. All Britney wanted was to be left alone, to stop being constantly touched.

Framing Britney Spears finally boils down to the same ideas that have been challenged in the past: there is no winning for women. It sheds some much-needed light on the double standards of an industry that supports a woman only when it is convenient for them. It highlights the hoops that women jump through just for their identity and their person to be legitimised. What really hits home about it is that this could be any woman who dares to dream big, even the girl next door.