Britney Spears emerged from frank, photogenic sexuality. In Ryan Murphy’s Glee, the character of the dim-witted cheerleader was named Brittany S Pierce, a likeness that she herself resents. An entire episode was dedicated to Britney. The Glee Club director, Will, is initially skeptical about the club performing Britney Spears songs because she isn’t a “good role model”. He eventually relents seeing the effect her music has on the teens—an expressionism that embodied sexuality as freedom, and not just fornication. In a later season, when one of the main characters, Rachel, wants to tell her teacher at Juilliard that she can be sexual, powerful, and gather an oomph in her step, she performs ‘Oops I Did It Again’, a Britney Spears song.
As with any legacy that is built on sexuality, the brickbats outweigh the bouquets. The New York Times documentary, Framing Britney Spears, frames one aspect of this lopsided profile—her conservatorship. There are two aspects to the word conservatorship, which the definition shown in the beginning of the documentary, clarifies. One, is to preserve and protect someone. Second, this preservation and protection is happening under the assumption that the person being taken care of is “incompetent”. Britney is the one deemed incompetent by the legal system, after her husband got sole custody of her children, after she shaved her head, and after she was written off by the media. (In a popular show, one of the questions was ‘What did Britney Spears lose that year?” One of the answers to it was ‘Her mind’.)
Britney’s father, who has been missing through her journey, suddenly pops up as the conservator—for her person (from helping her with day-to-day things to more pressing issues like medical care), her money, and her estate. The context for the documentary is the legal fight where Britney is trying to remove her father as a conservator. (It is noted that it is rare for anyone fighting such a case to win in the American legal system.)
The outcome of the legal battle is forthcoming, and the documentary is a case for Britney, interviewing lawyers, fans, sympathetic critics, her friends, and #FreeBritney activists. After the release of the documentary, Justin Timberlake, Britney’s ex-boyfriend who went on a scorched-earth trail of interviews post their breakup, publicly apologized. Tiktok videos of “Gays researching how to Free Britney” with short funny montages of limp-wristed, iced-coffee slurping gays googling “What is conservatorship?” populated the internet. A side is picked as a corrective to the decade long smear campaign that Britney’s sexuality elicited, and allowed. That’s the thing about frank sexuality—it is loaded with an assumption of openness, a capaciousness to access, criticism, and even invective.
Her parents, and Britney herself were unwilling to provide comment, understandably, given the pending legal status. The documentary, like a longform piece, details her history without histrionics. The narrativizing comes from the critics interviewed, brazen in their positions that we wronged her. Wesley Morris notes, “Nobody was talking about mental health when Britney Spears was going through all that stuff in public. The conversation was about what was wrong with her.” How did this small-town girl from the Bible belt become so sexual, so much in pain, and so angry?
One of the brilliant aspects of the documentary is it gives a sense of history being entangled with Britney’s own journey. Her sexuality in the popular perception must be seen along with the growing intrigue and aversion to sex post the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal. Her image perception and the subsequent tabloid culture obsessed with “money shots”, and then, the self-curation of one’s image through the Instagram era, is all tracked by interviewing the paparazzi who once were, the podcasters who now are; they break down her Instagram captions looking for hidden meaning.
Ultimately the 80 minute documentary shows the warped nature of fame, a curious creature. Because on the one hand it distances you from the world, by marking you an exception. On the other hand, you are expected to give access to your life to the same world you are distant from; a pretense of proximity. It’s this contradiction that so many stars are unable to gulp down, especially now, given the access you wilfully provide via Twitter and Instagram and the one that is forced out of you via the paparazzi. To embody a contradiction, and a performance in a world that is constantly trying to advise “authenticity” is lethal. To be a living contradiction must be disorienting. To be a sexual living contradiction, I reckon, must be worse.
You can watch Framing Britney on Discovery+.