Gabriella Bosticco takes an in-depth look at the documentary seeking to give a voice to the Free Britney debate.
Part of a long line of lockdown fads, Framing Britney Spears broke streaming records in the UK within 24 hours of release. The Free Britney movement has gained more and more traction in recent years, and the documentary seeks to give a voice to this debate. However, between contradictions and speculation throughout the documentary, the discussion has its flaws.
As a telling of Britney's career, the documentary provides an insight from her Mickey Mouse Club days to her worldwide success. Using clips from old TV shows and behind the scenes, it provides a suitably nostalgic review. Throughout the documentary we hear from family friends, agents, fans and later lawyers who knew Britney at various stages, all describing her unprecedented rise to fame.
One of the most discussed aspects of the documentary is the exploration of the sexist way in which the media treated Britney. The documentary recounts how Britney's carefully constructed wholesome image is gleefully torn apart by the press, and how people took advantage of this downfall.
The documentary explores the ways in which Justin Timberlake manipulated public opinion of her, divulging details of their sex life and letting her take the blame for their split, even using a lookalike in a video to imply that she cheated on him.
This is an unfortunately common theme when it comes to successful women, with similar threads in recent documentaries on everyone from Hilary Rodham Clinton to Caroline Flack. It's a familiar story of a judgemental media that overwhelms and misrepresents women while treating their male counterparts positively, but somehow, we're still shocked every time there's a new example.
The irony of this, though, is that the documentary itself is just a continuation of a trend. We are shown clip after clip of paparazzi surrounding Britney, all while peeking into her personal life ourselves. Every aspect of this documentary is sensationalised. Most notably, a shot of Britney's wedding freezes, turns black and white, and the excited squeals of her guests are edited into eerie, echoing screaming. In this way, it's a classic example of a media that is simultaneously seeking penance for past sins, but still giving us something to gawk at.
Framing Britney Spears is a documentary of two halves: one giving a look at her career, and the other looking into her conservatorship.
Designed to help vulnerable people manage their finances and other aspects of their life, Britney's conservatorship was put in place in 2008 after she had a series of very public mental health crises. This arrangement has been under scrutiny from the beginning, but fresh legal battles and comments from Britney herself have given fans' doubts new life. This is reflected in the documentary, but it reaches a point where it lacks the knowledge or depth to fully explore the story. With so few people actually involved in the case speaking, there's not much else to see, encouraging the audience to fill in the gaps in a very specific way.
The documentary provides evidence that her father is not the best person to be her conservator, establishing early on that he has never been an active figure in her life. However, it also seems to gloss over Britney's illness and doesn't really explore many of the symptoms that led to the conservatorship being put in place. We are just told that she is "a high-functioning conservatee… whatever that means," once again skirting around a major topic in this debate. This is a familiar frustration to many people with severe mental health issues. While the conversation around mental health has recently improved, there is still so much stigma around severe mental illness.
Even if Britney does require the conservatorship, the problematic role of her father and her lack of access to lawyers are issues in themselves, but the documentary overlooks this in favour of using her career as evidence that she doesn't require a conservatorship at all. As outsiders without a wealth of public details, it's impossible to judge the validity of her conservatorship, but the documentary doesn't even consider this possibility. This speaks to larger flaws in the way we view people with severe mental health issues - because Britney is successful, it doesn't fit what we think these illnesses look like.
Ultimately, the documentary tries to handle issues that are far too complex for the time allotted to them. While it exposes previous flaws in public perception, it is still too impacted by these misunderstandings to discuss them fairly. It has nothing new to add to an established movement and leaves the viewer with more questions than answers. However, it acts as a successful conversation starter, and has even encouraged an apology from Justin Timberlake about his treatment of Britney and other women.
Framing Britney Spears is currently available to stream on Now TV. If, like me, you've seen the documentary and want a more in-depth look at Britney's situation, I recommend the Even The Rich podcast’s #FreeBritney episodes.