'Framing Britney Spears': a flawed documentary where Spears’ humanity once again plays second fiddle to TV ratings
Without Britney Spears’ personal participation, The New York Times has succeeded in producing a deeply shocking but fundamentally disappointing film that only serves to both compound Spears’ victimisation – and humanise her abusers
Like everyone in lockdown I have become an avid viewer of documentaries; from Tiger King to Pistorius, about the murder of Reeva Steenkamp, I have watched more talking heads and archive footage in the last year than ever before. I was really excited therefore to watch the Britney Spears documentary which seemed to promise a mash up of both the colourful and the serious; a light jaunt down memory lane of a pop princess as well as what appears to be a story of control, coercion, and the exploitation of womanhood.
I was disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, I was entertained throughout the walk back through my teenage years. Who doesn’t love the old footage of Britney Spears aged six belting out a tune with the voice of a 50 year-old soul singer?
I found watching it with my 15 year-old son very amusing as he was totally flabbergasted by the obsession with Britney Spears’ virginity and could not believe the way older men spoke to her when she was a child – in one clip a man in his 50s jokes about being eight year-old Spears’ boyfriend. “It was a different time.” I assured him. “We wouldn’t have batted an eyelid about most of this.”
The story of Britney Spears’ breakdown in the 2000s and then the seemingly unfathomable loss of her agency over her affairs and finances – to what would appear like a controlling father – certainly has all of the hallmarks of a classic story of domestic abuse, coercion, and exploitation. The viewer is without question invited to be uncomfortable at the idea of a vibrant, talented, and working woman being left without the faculty to make her own decisions. There are red flags all over the place that the documentary holds up for the viewer to see. It is without question an interesting exploration of the idea of how womanhood can be owned and exploited.
It is without question an interesting exploration of the idea of how womanhood can be owned and exploited
However the crux of the problem of the documentary for me was that Britney Spears’ own voice is missing. The documentary clearly tries to humanise and tell the story of a young women who the public and the press had failed to listen to or understand over the years.
Britney Spears’ objectification, and her reduction to a product, is the crux of the problem the film tries to tackle and challenge. But the fact that Spears either cannot, or did not want to, put her own voice and experiences into this film meant I was left feeling that, once again, her humanity plays second fiddle to whatever someone else wants her to represent – whether that is virginity, sexuality, or victimhood.
Those whose voices we could hear in the documentary – like that of the Britney’s childhood chaperone – had little but conjecture to offer. However the paparazzi were given a voice and face in the documentary and got to win back their humanity and explain why they followed her everywhere and looked for stories that would pay the highest price. The footage of the sheer amount of cameras and intrusion she had to handle was deeply shocking: she was literally stalked and hunted. And when she had been injured by it, when she gave up trying to pretend, she was even easier for them to catch. One of the people who did this to her was subsequently humanised by the documentary – we got to hear how he had done it, how he had tried to be nice while he followed her everywhere. I am just not sure he was the voice that needed humanising.
Britney Spears is almost exactly the same age as me; she had her children when I had my children, she is a successful woman and I imagine has lots of views and opinions I would be fascinated to hear. Until she uses her voice to tell me what has happened to her, what she feels about it – what support, publicity and exposure she wants about what seem like clear abuses – then I am afraid I have the exact amount of questions as I had before I watched this documentary. The documentary is probably right and fair and asserts some accurate things, but until I am certain because the woman herself has said so, I shall not assume I know anything. After all, this documentary just showed me how easy it is to distort the truth about a person’s life.
Jess Phillips is Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley and shadow minister for domestic violence & safeguarding
'Framing Britney Spears' is produced by The New York Times & Left/Right and is available on Sky Documentaries