A new documentary about Britney Spears has sparked interest in how the media juggernaut treated her as she struggled at the peak of her fame as well as the pop star’s legal struggle over a court-mandated conservatorship.
“Framing Britney Spears,” airing on Hulu, has catapulted the star’s name and fan base back into the headlines, even as she remains under the control of her father, Jamie, in a conservatorship that stretches back 13 years. But a sharp focus has also been trained on how Spears was treated by everyone from famous interviewers to tabloid editors to boyfriends, as she was ridiculed for her public meltdowns and mocked without regard for her mental health.
“The rules of engagement were considered considerably different at that point,” Robert Thompson, a professor at Syracuse University specializing in television, radio, film and pop culture, told TheWrap. He compared her to other figures like Monica Lewinsky who were publicly shamed in the tabloid press. “The idea that these women who had been used and manipulated by lots of other people in power were really taken as an open season for punchlines and the fact that they were young and by conventional standards attractive made it even more the case.”
Britney’s obsessive fan base has surged to greater prominence along with the documentary, with many arguing that she has long been mistreated and misunderstood.
“Unless you were a fan of Britney, it makes sense that people weren’t aware of what she was going through,” Brittany Straede, marketing executive and a lifelong Britney fan, told TheWrap. “Now, there is a lot of attention around Britney’s conservatorship and people see how she was poorly treated by some of her peers, media and paparazzi, people want to stand up and help, to do the right thing. I think there also might be a bit of guilt from people who made assumptions about Britney and this is an opportunity for them to do what they can to help her.”
Dan Babic, a second fan, told TheWrap: “I think true Britney fans like myself welcome the renewed interest as we are just glad to see that the world has finally woken up to what has been going on and together we can hopefully set her free. There is power in the numbers!”
Since the documentary’s premiere, stars like Bette Midler and Sarah Jessica Parker have tweeted “#FreeBritney,” referencing the fan-formed movement created to lobby for abolishing Spears’ conservatorship, which was approved in 2008, that prohibits her from having control over her own fortune and from making her own financial decisions. Currently, Spears is fighting to have her father removed from the conservatorship and is on strike from performing as long as her father is in charge.
The documentary has also put previous media interviews with Spears under a magnifying glass — and with two decades of hindsight, many have been reassessed as misogynistic, cruel or sexist. Diane Sawyer in particular has come under fire for a 2003 interview in which the ABC newswoman openly asks Spears to justify her breakup with Justin Timberlake, asking, “What did you do?” And in a sign of vastly changing public perception, Timberlake apologized to Spears and Janet Jackson this month for “missteps” that he said contributed to “a system that condones misogyny and racism.”
A representative for Sawyer did not respond to TheWrap’s request for comment.
Other instances of Spears’ negative portrayal have surfaced on social media in recent days, including an Us Weekly cover showing Britney with her hair buzzed read “Help Me” and a People magazine headline was “Inside Britney’s Breakdown: wild partying, sobbing in public, shaving her head.”
In a 2006 interview, former NBC “Today” anchor Matt Lauer — who was ousted from the show after accusations of rape and sexual harassment by multiple women (he has denied engaging in nonconsensual sex) — suggested she was a “bad mom.” And comedian Sarah Silverman joked about her during the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards (for which she has already apologized).
“I don’t think anyone has been ridiculed like her and at the time, the media could say whatever they wanted,” Casey Palazzo, another lifelong Britney fan, added. “Now, after #MeToo and all of these things have been brought to light, it shines a light on how wrong it was. With the success of the Hulu doc, I think you can ignore something as long as it’s not in your face but once it’s spelled out, there is more interest.”
Thompson noted that sensational headlines have not completely gone away. Meghan Markle is a recent example of a woman who can’t catch a break from tabloids — headlines have called her things like “man-eater Meghan” and criticized such trivial missteps as a wayward bra strap. Earlier this month, the Duchess of Sussex won legal victory when a High Court judge ruled that The Mail on Sunday had invaded her privacy by publishing a private letter.
“In the time that has passed since the original Britney ‘meltdowns’ — and even that is filled with packed and coded messaging — there have been ethical reckonings,” Thompson observed. “#MeToo is the obvious place to point to, but our consciousnesses were raised gradually and slowly even before #MeToo — the kinds of places where these stories are told, (using) words like ‘meltdown’ or ‘crazy,’ even if they aren’t, generally are the ways they are packaged. I’m not sure it’s improved that much.”
Many Britney fans also believe that the renewed interest in the “…Baby One More Time” singer is fueled by shifting attitudes toward mental health conditions — and guilt. “There is guilt because it was kind of taboo to talk about mental health during her time,” Palazzo said. “To have a picture of the worst day of your life plastered on the internet for eternity is hard to deal with. How can we amends? We can hashtag for now but how can we wrong our rights from when we were younger? We can start by supporting someone getting their freedom back.”
Longtime Britney fan Jonathan Torres also agreed that people seem to want to repent for their actions — for example, Perez Hilton also expressed regret over his treatment of Spears recently — but said that people looking back on their past behavior signals a shift in society about how women are treated in general.
“It really shines a nasty light on how people perceive women and challenge women in a way that they don’t men,” Torres explained. “What people are seeing and realizing now is the innocence of Britney. She was a girl going after her dreams and people challenged her along the way and people forget there is a good person in there. It’s reframing how you look at her.”
The shifting conversation around Spears also reflects a greater awareness about mental health. In 2007, media publications exploiting Spears’ meltdowns spared little thought for the damage they might be creating by stigmatizing her condition. “A lot more people are a lot more sensitive and have their consciousnesses raised about mental health,” Thompson said. “Before one reads and approves words like ‘meltdown’ and ‘crazy’ in a headline… from a diagnostic point of view, those should have all garnered sympathy.”
The devastation of the coronavirus pandemic has left a mark on people’s mental health as well, and fans suggest that all this time spent homebound has given people insight into how Spears must feel under her conservatorship. “Quarantine-living isn’t that far off from Britney’s reality,” Sharon Kehoe wrote for PopSugar. “Imagine being trapped in your home, but no phone privileges, no ability to go for a solo drive, unable to take a walk by yourself, can’t pop by the grocery store, can’t vote, can’t spend your own money. Now imagine there’s no pandemic and this has lasted for 13 years.”
Last week, a probate judge denied an objection from Jamie Spears to retain delegation power over the singer’s investments. But Judge Brenda Penny upheld a previous November ruling that appointed the financial institution Bessmer Trust as a co-conservator for Spears. Following the ruling, Spears’ father is expected to work with Bessemer to create a budget and investment proposal for the singer’s estate. Another hearing is scheduled for March 17.
“I want her to be free of this conservatorship,” Palazzo concluded. “Everyone knows Britney went through something and maybe needed support or structure, but how long does someone have to pay for their mistakes they made as a young person?”
Torres added, “Britney has touched the lives of so many people and she’s considered overall to be a kind person — everyone that I know who has worked with her always said the kindest things. Someone who is that pure and someone who doesn’t go below the belt, people have the inclination to protect those people. People are starting to ask all the right questions.”