The most surprising revelation in Framing Britney Spears, a new New York Times-produced documentary released last weekend on FX and Hulu, isn’t the pop star’s well-documented struggles, but rather just how much in control of her career a young Spears once was.
In the documentary, the pop star’s career is explored year by year, from the little girl singing in church and eventual cast member of The Mickey Mouse Club of the early 1990s, to the teen icon of the early aughts, to the seemingly vacant, astonishingly different person of today. Her career lows, which were ridiculed by the media, the music industry, and the average supermarket shopper peering at a tabloid in the checkout line, are also investigated in the documentary, with particular attention paid to her relationship with fellow pop star Justin Timberlake, marriage and family with Kevin Federline, and the events leading up to the infamous 2007 moment when she shaved her head in rebellion.
We’re all painfully aware of just how documented those moments were, but perhaps many aren’t aware of the extent of the details of the conservatorship Spears was placed under at the age of 26. The documentary opens with the definition of a conservator, which is essentially a judge-appointed guardian who manages the daily life (including financial affairs and medical decisions) of another person deemed unfit to manage this themselves. Typically, a conservator might be assigned to someone who is elderly or someone who is physically and mentally unable to make decisions on their own. However, as the documentary presents, Spears, who is now 39, has been under conservatorship for the last 13 years, and a slew of complicated events have unfolded since then, including multiple tours and albums, a residency, and a mysterious Instagram presence.
Framing Britney Spears explores the musician’s relationship with her father, Jamie Spears, who had reportedly been mostly absent from her life up until the point where he became her conservator, and was painted in the documentary as someone whose north star was a dollar sign. The perspective shared in the documentary is that her father has been viewed as one of the architects of the details of the conservatorship which controlled the musician’s finances and medical decisions.
The documentary also provides a deep dive into Spears’s presence on Instagram, which, in the last few years, has provided more of an insight into what has been going on with Spears than a paparazzo’s video of a “gas station breakdown” ever could. Her behavior there has been characterized as erratic, or at least different from the self-assured, present person that we saw on stage and in interviews for many years up until recently. There are some theories as to why that may be, but members of the #FreeBritney movement believe that the musician uses the platform to communicate her need for freedom.
Whatever the case, it stands in stark contrast to archive footage that demonstrates how control of her image and narrative was so central to Spears’s performance as a pop star. In clips, Spears is shown as someone who had a clear vision for how she wanted her shows, music videos, and public appearances to turn out. Interviews from former assistants, show techs and entourage, back up this point.
But in interviews, a young Spears is constantly only asked about having a boyfriend or prodded about being a virgin, and she politely answers the questions every time. As the documentary points out, it was unheard of for a single female pop star to become as much of a success as Spears began to be in the early aughts. Before her rise, it was prime-time for the boy band. And you can bet her male counterparts were under nowhere near the same amount of scrutiny that was placed on Spears at the beginning of her career, and to this day.
The documentary presents a damning example of the matrices of misogyny, money, and power that are upheld by those within the music industry and even by those who might exist outside of it, whether that be label executives, ex-boyfriends, or members of the press who made it seem that for so long, she was just a helpless sexpot puppet doing whatever her managers told her. For many years, Spears did control her own narrative, and it is especially astonishing to witness how the control she seamlessly exerted in the beginning of her career is the very thing that was taken away from her by the conservatorship and has prevented her from making her own decisions about her life to this day. But hopefully, as her former assistant Felicia Culotta says in the documentary, Spears will one day be able to tell her own story.