Framing Britney Spears has broken the internet, providing a harsh, but real look at the life of a beloved popstar and her ongoing struggles. On the surface, the documentary is about Britney’s public legal struggle with her conservatorship, but the film also gives a sobering look at Britney’s more silent, lifelong struggle with misogyny in the entertainment industry.
Watching Framing Britney Spears is honestly hard because it’s a reminder of just how cruel and hateful the world was to young girls in the early 2000s. Nowadays, stars like Demi Lovato or Ariana Grande can speak out about mental illness and personal struggles and be met with overwhelming support for the most part. Grande’s last album, Positions, was overtly sexual in nature, but we celebrated that fact –rightly so since there’s nothing wrong with that in the least.
Though misogyny and sexist double standards certainly still rear their ugly head in the entertainment industry, there is at least some proof that progress has been made since the heyday of Britney Spears. The world is kinder than it was before, and we’re better off for it.
Framing Britney Spears opens with a run-through of Britney’s career, setting the stage for the conversation about the #FreeBritney movement. Anyone who lived in 1999 could tell you what it was like to see “…Baby One More Time” for the first time. It was literally a cultural experience. As the documentary points out, when Spears first hit the scene, it was the boyband era, and outside of girl groups like the Spice Girls, female artists weren’t stealing the show –certainly not solo female artists. “…Baby One More Time” changed all of that, making an overnight success out of a 17-year-old girl.
It’s a little strange, in hindsight that because of “…Baby One More Time,” Spears immediately got saddled with the reputation of being “too sexy.” Not only was she a 17-year-old girl being sexualized by adults on Rolling Stone covers and hounded by reporters about her sex life, but such branding was honestly…ill-fitting. Anyone who listened to the entirety of the …Baby One More Time album could tell you that its lead single is an outlier –it’s practically the only song on the album you could pull any sort of sexual connotation from.
“Sometimes” is about a young girl falling in love, “From the Bottom of my Broken Heart” is her first heartbreak, “I Will Be There” is about offering support to someone in need. Even the album’s cover is completely innocent, a 17-year-old wide-eyed Britney smiling against a pink background. For all intents and purposes, Britney’s debut album was nothing more than a teenage girl’s pop album.
But because she showed her navel, she was too sexual? In what world was it ok for adult reporters to hound a teenager on her sex life? Or her breasts? Today, it seems so weird to even think someone could get away with it –but in 1999, that was the norm. It’s shameful really; not just that a teenager was sexualized to this degree, but the fact that despite adults sexualizing her, she got the blame.
Despite the rest of her debut album’s content, “…Baby One More Time” was the image she couldn’t shake –so she embraced it. Oops, I Did It Again launched in 2000 –“I’m not that innocent” she sings on her lead single. In “Stronger,” she insists her “loneliness” isn’t killing her anymore like it was in “…Baby One More Time.” And yet, the album still has this childlike quality to it because of its young singer, diary entry-like snippets are inserted between songs to introduce the next piece.
Framing Britney Spears makes this quite clear: Britney was on a constant tightrope. She had to be sexy, but relatable to everyday girls. She had to appeal to men sexually, but women would always be aimed as her target demographic –these were standards NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys were not held to. “…Baby One More Time” was controversial because Britney danced with her belly button out.
But NSYNC’s “Digital Get Down,” which is literally about cybersex, received no widespread backlash. In fact, NSYNC could openly sing about cybersex, but once they got to the interview stage, music would the topic they were asked most about. Britney never had that option, as she was constantly hounded about whether or not she was a virgin at age 17.
The LA Times’ Dave Holmes mentioned an MTV special on Britney which aired around this time. The segment featured reporters going around and asking people about a teenager’s sex appeal. Some people had kind words, others insulted her performances, others were crude, etc. By the special’s end, Britney herself is shown the footage and forced to react on camera. This was constantly the type of coverage she received. The media put a child under the microscope hoping they could break her as they made fun of her.
This is the nature of a society that hates young girls as much as it does. It wasn’t even just Britney who got torn down for her music, but young girls who enjoyed her music were seen as tasteless and vapid for enjoying music that was literally targeted to them. And, for some reason, countless men found it to be some sort of sign of intellectualism and maturity to dislike something that wasn’t even marketed towards their age range or demographic.
The Framing Britney Spears documentary is quite skillful with how it pulls its interviews, showing a teenager slowly break on camera across multiple interviews as she’s received death threats from politicians’ wives to condescending finger-wagging from older women like Barbara Walters. It’s hard to watch these and to remember that this was a culture that was normalized, but it’s easy to sympathize with the young woman in the interviewee’s chair who would eventually say she just couldn’t take it anymore.
Songs like “Lucky,” which is about a girl who finally has stardom yet finds herself miserable every night, now feel like that teenage girl’s unnoticed cry for help. Yes, it’s easy to see how this industry that sought to profit off her sexualization then demonized her for said over-sexualization wore her down. But the hardest parts of the film to watch are the segments about her breakdown, not just because of its content, but because of how much enjoyment people got out of her suffering.
Social media is an easy form of news sharing –but it also allows us to check each other, calling each other out when we’re acting unkind to others’ suffering. For example, I woke up today and my entire feed was rightly covered with posts about how no one should be joking about Southern states’ misfortune in the US amid the current climate crisis. Such a thing didn’t really exist prominently in 2008 when Britney had her breakdown, resulting in “story of the week” type vulturous news coverage.
Britney’s breakdown, as Framing Britney Spears covers, was framed as a joke by tabloids at the time. After driving this woman to a point where she couldn’t take it anymore, she became a punchline. It’s hard to relive the cruelty of it all, seeing “Family Feud” make jokes on the show about her or Joel McHale crack a joke about her fighting to see her children.
Framing Britney Spears becomes a very challenging watch during these segments –but it almost doesn’t explain the horror enough. I remember the day she was chased by paparazzi with her young son in hand, seeking refuge in a nearby café. While she asked for help, they proceeded to film her crying with her baby in her arms, laughing at her misfortune –I was horrified by it back then as a child, but I’m even more disgusted by it now as an adult.
One of the most popular internet memes of the day comes from this period of time when Britney did an interview with Matt Lauer as she pleaded with the paparazzi to leave her alone. Her tearful reply of “yes” when he asked if she would like to be left alone has since become a hugely popular reaction image on sites like Twitter and Tumblr. It’s odd really, how we’ve become kinder overall but have still managed to make a joke out of her pain in a way. This phenomenon isn’t really exclusive to Britney though as so many peoples’ real-life trauma has translated to internet memes. As far as we’ve come, it seems we still have ways to go.
Framing Britney Spears makes a good point early on, that Britney soared to stardom as the country was talking about sex in a way we never have as a result of the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal (Lewinksy herself is a prime example of the double standards and sexism in media at the time). But it’s also important to remember that when Britney soared to stardom, the world had just lost Princess Diana in a tragedy that inspired many conversations about the paparazzi’s harassment. It’s strange, in hindsight, that the world had seemingly learned nothing from that tragedy.
The scathing nature of Framing Britney Spears has left many with a newfound goal to support the #FreeBritney movement. For some in the celebrity world, including her ex-boyfriend, Justin Timberlake (who often furthered his own career via misogynistic media’s response to Spears) and Sarah Silverman (who once “roasted” Spears during an award show to her face), it was a harsh wake-up call that demanded apologies to be made.
The world is horrified by what it saw in Framing Britney Spears, despite most of us living through it. But maybe that’s a sign that some progress has been made. On one hand, it’s great to finally live in an era where stars like Demi Lovato can openly speak about struggles with mental illness without as much stigmatization, helping to normalize these conversations.
But it’s also disingenuous to say we’ve completely changed, after all, Stranger Things actress Millie Bobby Brown was just 13 when creepy tabloids started to talk about “sexiest stars,” dolling her up in make-up to appear older. Hopefully, the world 13 years from now is just as horrified by today’s world as we are of the one we inherited back then.
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