What does it take for justice to be served? How many Netflix and NYT documentaries, New Yorker longform investigative reportages, sustained online campaigns with hashtags, and memes of gay men sipping Starbucks and looking up the meaning of conservatorship do we need before the law recognizes its “epic fail”?
In February this year, New York Times released Framing Britney Spears, streaming on Discovery+, a scathing, sensational look at her conservatorship — by which Britney Spears had lost control over her health, her finances, and her estate — through the rough years of the pap-onslaught, the unfair covering of her mental health breakdowns, and her fans who, with investigative zeal, stood by her. In July, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Ronnan Farrow and the celebrated essayist Jia Tolentino published Britney Spears’s Conservatorship Nightmare, a longform investigative report outlining the seedy dealings that led to the conservatorship, forged behind Britney Spears’ back while she was in the hospital. One of the more egregious findings of that piece was that despite the millions she made and earned for those in charge of her, she was only allowed a $2000 weekly allowance. Later that month Spears would address the court, in a hurried, passionate, angry, rousing, and eventually viral speech that outlined the abuses she had experienced, including forcing her to keep her IUD.
At this point, it should be hard, indeed impossible, to sympathize with Jamie Spears, Britney’s father who had orchestrated this legal maze that she couldn’t get out of for more than a decade. He was an absentee father, by many accounts an alcoholic, and he was being financially gifted millions in exchange for shackling his own daughter. On September 7, Jamie formally asked to be removed from his role as conservator and for the conservatorship to be terminated. Tomorrow, that is 29th September, is the court hearing. Did it need to take this long?
Just in time, Netflix released their documentary Britney VS Spears. On the surface of it, there isn’t much here that we haven’t heard or surmised. We hear from people we haven’t heard from before like Adnan Ghalib, the photographer Britney dated, whom Tolentino and Farrow couldn’t reach for comment, the geriatric psychiatrist Dr. James Edward Spar, who may or may not have evaluated Britney deeming her mentally unfit, and most intriguingly, Jenny Eliscu, the executive producer on this documentary, once a Rolling Stone contributing editor, who got embroiled in this mess. She played a pivotal role in 2009 to help get Britney Spears her own lawyer, including hiding in a bathroom stall, a pursuit that eventually failed. Britney was deemed “lack[ing] the capacity to retain and direct counsel,” even as she was performing across America, doing cameos on How I Met Your Mother. Such is the logic of the legal system.
Directed and produced by Ellen Lee Carr, this hour and a half documentary deepens our sympathies for “America’s sweetheart”. We get access to confidential documents that further fan the flames that already exist. And that might be the problem with the documentary. It doesn’t create, as much as exacerbate. Afterall, shock and anger, once expressed, are hard to bring back with that same intensity.
Originally conceived as being a documentary about “her artistry and her media portrayal, and can someone say wow to those dance moves?”, the gaze shifted given the glut that was to be. Even now, the release of the documentary a day before the court hearing smells of the fear of being rendered redundant if the conservatorship is toppled. In that sense, this documentary falls among the evidence that pop-culture is curating in Britney’s favour. A project of mobilization, that’s it.