The New York Occasions documentary Britney Spears serves as a searing indictment in opposition to misogynist media
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“Do you have a boyfriend?” Ed McMahon, the 70-year-old host of Star Search, asks 11-year-old Britney Spears after she praised her adorable, pretty eyes. “No sir,” she replies. “Why not?” he shoots back. “Because all men are mean,” she says.
This insightful exchange, broken by Britney Spears ‘life-changing appearance on Star Search in 1992, sets the tone for “Framing Britney Spears,” the New York Times’ new documentary about Britney Spears, her conservatory and the corresponding #freeBritney movement. According to the creators of Framing Britney Spears, travel is essential to truly understand the pop culture phenomenon that ravaged the hearts and minds of millennials (yours really included) in their early infancy, and the situation they were in is back in time right now – before Spears shaved her head, before she married Kevin Federline and divorced, before she allegedly broke Justin Timberlake’s heart.
Because before all of this happened, all of this happened: “For many you are a contradiction. On the one hand, you’re a cute, innocent, virgin type. On the other hand, you’re a sexy vampire in your underwear, ”one invasive interviewer said of a teenage Britney Spears. “Let’s talk about your sexy Lolita look,” demanded another. On the Today Show, Florence Henderson debated how Spears could claim to be innocent in a song she hadn’t written while also putting on slutty clothes that she hadn’t chosen for herself. “It’s certainly a paradox, isn’t it?” Henderson was amazed when their co-anchors nodded. “She doesn’t seem so innocent.”
In perhaps the most disturbing clip of them all, an unidentified male interviewer tells Spears, “Everyone’s talking about it.” “Talk about what?” Spears answers. “Your breasts,” he says shyly. Spears tries to laugh at it and avoid the question. “You seem to get angry when a talk show host takes up this topic,” the host then condescends. He seems really offended by Spears’ avoidance, as if it should be an honor for her to enter into a conversation with him about her cup size.
The story goes on
Press behavior got worse in 2003 after Justin Timberlake cast Britney Spears as the villain in the couple’s breakup story. “He made it seem right or wrong, like she cheated on him,” Esquire’s own Dave Holmes says in the documentary. “It really seemed like he had taken control of the narrative.” And the press ate it up, happily indulging in the slut shame that helped kickstart Justin Timberlake’s solo career without ever asking about Spears’ side of the story (both partners reportedly cheated on). “You did something that caused Justin so much pain and suffering,” Diane Sawyer told Spears during an interview on ABC’s Primetime Thursday. Meanwhile, Timberlake’s revenge porn single “Cry Me a River” won a Grammy for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.
In deciding to include all of this archival footage, the producers of Framing Britney Spears are making an important, if obvious, point – that the treatment Britney Spears received from the press was overtly misogynistic, and perhaps, maybe, its public Downfall contributed. But the more subtle and disturbing truth is that we were all involved in the destruction of Britney Spears. As New York Times critic Wesley Morris says in the documentary, “When it is time for people to seek a woman in a misogynist culture, there is an entire machine out there ready.”
By 2007, Britney Spears had transitioned from pop princess to punching bag, though she was never embroiled in a scandal. Unlike Tiger Woods, Bill Clinton, and Hugh Grant, she didn’t cheat on her spouse with a cocktail waitress, intern, or prostitute and then try to cover him up. She didn’t have a sex tape like Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian or Pamela Anderson. Has it unraveled publicly? Yes, but that was only after the media exploited them for nearly a decade and the public made a spectator sport by witnessing their plight. We all laughed as late at night television presenters cut their marriage to Kevin Federline and subsequent divorce from Kevin Federline over jokes. We cheered every time Perez Hilton posted an upskirt photo of Spears, then shamed her for being in command, claiming she directed the photo shoot herself. We even made fun of the guy who asked that we stop making fun of Britney Spears. Why did we do that? According to Morris, there was simply too much money to be made from her suffering.
That we all indulged and benefited from Spear’s misery is both despicable and unsurprising. In the short history of American pop culture, there are many stories about cultural media and the way we devour our own icons, and it’s far too easy to look back and assign the blame for the mistreatment of a particular celebrity. Not all of these errors are worth revisiting. but this one is because it persists. To date, Britney Spears is still in a restrictive conservatory that was created after experiencing and treating a mental health crisis more than 15 years ago. Since then she has released several successful albums and participated in one of the most successful Las Vegas residences of all time. Meanwhile, Jaime Spears, who controls his daughter’s Conservatory and almost every aspect of her career and finances, was not allowed to see his grandchildren in 2019 after a “physical altercation” with one of them resulted in Kevin Federline issuing an injunction against him . This from the man who is said to be more capable of taking care of Britney Spears than himself.
The sad truth is, none of us really know what Britney Spears is capable of because she had to live largely on someone else’s terms – first her manager’s terms, then the media, and now her father’s. Despite these limitations, she still has a record-breaking career, and if she could define herself it was to the tremendous benefit of her career – both financially and artistically. Her 2016 album Glory is a pop music masterpiece. Spears deserves the chance to speak for himself more than ever. I hope she gets this chance. And I hope this time we’ll all shut up and listen.
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