If U Seek Britney: On “Framing Britney Spears”
At a fairly pithy 74-minutes, The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears articulates its desire to be about control even in its runtime. It hurriedly attempts to establish the authorship the pop star had in her early career, even within the confines of a misogynistic industry (“industry” here can mean so much), and the ways in which it was wrenched from her in a litany of ways and from a myriad of sources, interpersonal and institutional. Even the documentary’s title bristles with its thematizing, the star wavering between the agency of self-assured diva and object beneath public, and private, thumb. That early in the film, we see her former assistant, Felicia Culotta, take the cameraperson on a tour of the various records kept behind glass, is indicative of both the obviousness of many of the film’s points and the labyrinthine nostalgia the internet has crafted for such public figures to make even the most cynical viewer quiver with sadness.
The impulse for this film is supposedly rooted in a kind of advocacy on the part of the Times; locked in a decade-plus conservatorship by her father, Jamie Spears, Spears’ safety, work, and full autonomy has come into question by many both reading into her cryptic behavior (primarily online) as well as her subtle public acknowledgment of this growing issue (and the people supporting her) regarding her rights as a mother and, perhaps, worker. With an unusual network of power and money possibly fueling the complicated situation, the film poses itself as a contemporary analog to muckraking, on behalf of a celebrity whose ubiquity made it easy to project onto and thus, moreso, manipulate. The film, however, feels more like yellow journalism.
Framing Britney Spears’ aims are admirable, insofar as its desire to analogize or draw connective tissue between the misogynistic media and misogynistic law, that they are often intertwined, filthy bedfellows ready to wreak havoc on the lives of women and other marginalized groups. But the film finds itself in a tricky, uncomfortable situation, as it tries to crash course the audience through Spears’ career (with scant context on the concepts she is being used to embody theoretically), through the public(-engineered) spin-out, then carefully manicured comeback, leading to the ambiguous behavior of the last few years, relating to the the conservatorship. With so little concrete information or detail on the minutia and specificities of the conservatorship and its negotiation (a list of people near to Spears who would not/did not participate in the documentary closes it out), the film — which features talking heads from various Times staffers (Liz Day, Wesley Morris, Joe Coscarelli), a few other journalists, a couple lawyers, a fake contrite paparazzo, and people from the #FreeBritney movement — is left to speculate, hyper analyze (almost conspiratorially), and pry into her Instagram posts, all the while dragging you through the past as an attempt to recontextualize the images “you think you remember” from over a decade ago.
And you see many of them, several of the big ones especially. But this is hardly a new technique, old archival footage having its repulsive, slimy film wiped off to reveal just how reprehensible it is, how terrible our attitudes were, making the audience gawk at how backwards we could be and how unrepentantly we played the moral judge. The media loves to perform mea culpas with regards to people its mistreated in the past. But there’s a bizarre distance created in the use of this footage, less a confrontation of the bad behavior that the public engaged in, and therefore less of an indictment, and far more a compartmentalization with shallow analysis, like allowing an audience reprieve from their complicity. And though fame conceptually and materially may be elusive and about as easy to grab as the smoke coming from this film’s ass, it should at least be clear that it is something we all participate in, then, now, and tomorrow.
Yet, little is remarked upon in terms of the changing ways a celebrity develops their relationship with a fanbase, or how that relationship changes over time. In spite of the amount of time focused on Spears’ Instagram, no one mentions how social media and parasocial relationships with celebrities fundamentally augment or melt a dynamic that was once far more out of reach. The once untouchable are now illusorily within our grasp. Our ability to observe even a curated version of these people’s lives and glomp onto them is easier than ever. The spectatorship sport fits in your hand. But that problematizes our relationships to celebrity, what celebrity even is anymore, but there’s no discussion of that. And Britney, as someone who came to be emblematic of paradoxical concepts of Americanness, (white) femininity, strength, and perhaps even talent, is more than a useful figure to examine those ideas, especially in context of the law.
Of course, this is the crucial question here, a problem embodied by the film itself, especially given its fixation on having the audience relieve the late aughts as a form of “context” in lieu of examining how else guardianship laws have harmed women: if you historicize, examine, and document tabloid culture, to what degree are you doomed to repeat its mistakes, recapitulate its horrendous politics, reperform the gross, but entirely banal, spectatorship practices? I think the success of that goal and ability to elide the exact same transgression of autonomy lies a certain amount in the participation of the subject. While I understand that the lack of involvement from Spears or anyone on this team puts the film in a tough spot and basically shapes a majority of its body, I think work like 30 for 30: The Price of Gold, about Tonya Harding, and Lorena, about Lorena Bobbit, however flawed, at least eschew the tawdry tabloid tone that Framing Britney Spears somewhat ironically ends up replicating. There’s a sense of giving the subject a chance to assert authorship over their story. As opposed to two randos with a podcast.
(My own Brit credentials? you ask. Though I am currently, at best, a casual fan, Oops!… I Did It Again was the first album I ever bought [or was bought for me], and I used to dress up and dance around to “What U See (Is What U Get)” and “Lucky”.)
As it flattens time and, the film nearly flattens Britney herself: from sexualized by the media to slandered by the media to prisoner of her family, rarely just an artist, or an artist upon whose shoulders our complicated dynamics with fame, power, money, sex, etc. have been hoisted. It’s a film about a woman’s agency and lack thereof, and how she’s elevated or punished for that, yet it gives that woman so little of her own, for logistical reasons or otherwise. (Maybe there just wasn’t an ethical way to do this until everything played out?) It’s a tough job trying to wrench someone from the jaws of a patriarchal society, especially when you end up using the same tools that built that set of teeth, to paraphrase Audre Lorde. (Though, it keeps itself at a distance from race and class, too.) It’s a TMZ-like special with gloss, a prying tabloidy affair with prestige branding, too caught up in the scandal and spectacle to lay charges against more than the easy targets. (The Times published these gems in 2008: “Britney Spears in Hospital After Standoff”, “In the Drama of Britney Spears, a Show Business Fortune Is at Risk”, and, my favorite, “Of Badges, Straitjackets and Britney Spears”.)
Yet, a key figure in this story seems to be missing, omitted maybe because of the obviousness of his inclusion, or that he’s a sex worker, or maybe he didn’t want to be involved. He, too, is a useful tool to understand celebrity and projection and identity. Though the ubiquity of the YouTube video of a sobbing Chris Crocker was turned into a punchline (perhaps another video that will get reframed as rejected out of homophobia and misogyny in due time), his wail, both camp and sincere, nonetheless feels appropriate, and indicative of something this documentary couldn’t even do: leave Britney alone.