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Maybe Britney Spears Has Never Been Free

The new FX-Hulu doc ‘Framing Britney Spears’ explores not just the singer’s conservatorship, but also how pop culture let her down

FX/Ringer illustration

They gather outside a Los Angeles courthouse in November 2020 with raised voices projected through face masks and smartphones at the ready to parse complex legal documents and, it must be said, pretty rad homemade protest signs. “WHERE’S BRITNEY’S MONEY?” “NOT A GIRL, NOT YET A FREE WOMAN.” “HER LONELINESS IS KILLING ME.” (That one’s a T-shirt and, apparently, a hashtag.) “BRITNEY WILL NOT BE A SLAVE 4 U.” Or, best in show, obviously: “FREE BRITNEY, BITCH.”

Yes, the #FreeBritney movement has mobilized once again to oppose the conservatorship under which the tumultuous pop superstar has lived since 2008. A legal conservatorship, which is most often applied to the elderly or otherwise incapacitated, grants full control of an individual’s finances and personal life to a court-appointed third party; the word “CONSERVATORSHIP,” for the record, is quite difficult to cram onto a protest sign, as it’s got, like, twice as many letters as you think. (It gums up protest chants, too: “Hey hey! Ho ho! The conservatorship has got to go!” does not exactly roll off the tongue.)

Britney’s conservatorship—controlled, primarily, by her father, Jamie Spears—arose in the aftermath of her darkest hours in the withering public eye, back in 2007 when she shaved her head, bashed a paparazzi’s SUV with an umbrella, and then disappeared for a spell amid her family’s concerns about unspecified mental illness and substance abuse. Nearly a decade later, in 2016, The New York Times offered a thorough and excellent report on Britney’s constraining legal situation, which remains in effect to this day; that report in turn energized the #FreeBritney movement, which Britney is now acknowledging more frequently (via court documents and cryptic social media posts) as she pushes back against her conservatorship more forcefully.

Framing Britney Spears, a new FX documentary released on Hulu last week as part of the network’s ongoing The New York Times Presents series, sums up all this chaos in a workmanlike manner. Access is minimal. There are talking heads aplenty, from journalists to Britney’s various (though mostly past-tense) colleagues and confidantes, but no major players: no Britney of course, no Jamie, no Britney’s long-suffering mother Lynne Spears, no present-tense inner circle. There is no earth-shattering news to break. Instead, this is an opportunity to once again watch as the cruel celebrity-industrial complex—and, more recently, a labyrinthine legal system—attempts to break her. You wouldn’t call this program a good time, but if you maybe had too good a time watching the mid-2000s tabloid cabal terrorize Britney Spears, it’s maybe a necessary form of penance.

The first half of Framing Britney Spears is a quick overview of young Britney’s rise to teen-pop megastardom, and oh, wow, is it ever unpleasant in retrospect: Every last interaction this person has ever had with the media is super gross. There’s 10-year-old Britney, plucky native of Kentwood, Louisiana, belting out the Judds’ “Love Can Build a Bridge” on Star Search, after which Ed McMahon asks if she has a boyfriend. No need to linger over the details of the ascent here. Boom: The Mickey Mouse Club. Boom: performing onstage at a shopping mall to relative indifference. Boom: performing “... Baby One More Time” onstage at a shopping mall to a tidal wave of screaming preteens. Boom: the “...Baby One More Time” video. Boom: a semi-pornographic Rolling Stone cover spread. Boom, the mega-creepy TV interview that begins thus:

CREEPY INTERVIEWER: “Everyone’s talking about it.”
BRITNEY: “What?”
CREEPY INTERVIEWER: “Well, your breasts.”

Boom: her relationship with Justin Timberlake, and their breakup, and his “Cry Me a River” video, and this irredeemably stupid Details magazine cover, which is overcompensating so violently it’s amazing it didn’t reverse the rotation of the earth.

In a brisk 75 minutes, Framing Britney Spears still manages to show us vintage footage of Britney Spears crying on camera three times: once with Diane Sawyer (they’re talking JT), once with Matt Lauer (they’re talking what it’d take for the paparazzi to leave her alone), once with MTV (she’s talking the conservatorship). Given The New York Times’s involvement, the doc excels at putting all this profound ugliness in context: NYT critic Wesley Morris, unsurprisingly among the most perceptive of the talking heads, ties Britney’s rise to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and the spectacularly gross way we (or at least Jay Leno!) talked about sex in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Then, boom: Britney marries Kevin Federline. Boom: two kids. Boom: exhaustive tabloid coverage of how she’s endangering her kids. The precise opposite of loneliness was killing her.

This downward spiral continues until Britney shaves her head and bashes that SUV with that umbrella, at which point the doc trots out the paparazzi dude who’d been driving the SUV, one Daniel Ramos, who has been dining out on this anecdote for years. (In 2017, he auctioned off the umbrella.) Ramos understands in theory that he should feel bad about his former line of work. (“It sucks you right in, and it’s hard to get out of it.”) He understands that in essence he hounded a distressed young woman desperate to see her kids amid an ugly custody battle until she blew up at him, or at least blew up at his car. “That night was not a good night for her, and it was not a good night for us,” he reflects now. “But it was a good night for us, ‘cause it was a money shot.” Also:

INTERVIEWER: “Do you think the paparazzi being around affected her at all?”
RAMOS: “I don’t really think, and I don’t really believe, because working on her for so many years, she never gave a clue or information to us that, ‘I don’t appreciate you guys. Leave me the F alone.’”
INTERVIEWER: “What about when she said, ‘Leave me alone’?”

She was hospitalized twice in early 2008. “Nobody was talking about mental health while Britney Spears was going through all of that in public,” Morris observes. And here her family steps in, and her father Jamie—established, by the documentary, as an inconsistent presence within his daughter’s career up to this point, excited primarily by the possibility that her fame and fortune might buy him a boat—reemerges as her legal caretaker. Plus he handles the money. The conservatorship, which was made permanent in 2008, is separated into financial and personal components and allows for more or less total control of her life. She can theoretically make no decisions, major or minor, without approval.

Things get a little complicated from there, or at least thoroughly soaked in legalese. To simplify: It’s arguable that Spears, in her lowest moments back in 2008, needed an extraordinary amount of help, legal and otherwise, and a temporary conservatorship made sense. (And from Britney’s perspective, it was possibly floated to her as the only way to keep seeing her kids.) But in 2021, the notion that a 39-year-old woman with two kids and an enormously lucrative career (her first Vegas residency kicked off in 2013 and made millions) can’t take care of herself is questionable, barring some shocking revelation about her mental health that’s never been made. “We don’t know what we don’t know,” shrugs one talking-head lawyer who worked on her case, and that’s where Framing Britney Spears winds up, and the dissatisfaction of that ending is maybe what we deserve.

The documentary is bookended by an inside look at the #FreeBritney movement, which keeps the fire burning via social media, upbeat podcasts, and protests outside the court hearings wherein Britney is paying all the lawyers: the lawyers fighting for her, and the lawyers fighting for the conservatorship that is ostensibly fighting for her. Forbes reported that Britney was worth around $60 million as of 2019; the primary motive behind continuing the conservatorship at this point is brutally obvious. Britney has begun to state plainly that at the very least, she doesn’t want her father controlling her life anymore; in lieu of a climax, that November 2020 court hearing ends with the court declining to suspend Jamie entirely, but electing to name the Bessemer Trust Company as a co-conservator. The protestors accept this as a partial victory. That’s gonna have to be enough for you, too.

Your tolerance, here in 2021, for a public protest on this specific topic may vary. (Members of the #FreeBritney movement do speak movingly of identifying with her and her struggles with mental health.) Your tolerance, here in 2021, for a movement reduced largely to plumbing Britney’s Instagram account for secret messages may vary. (Her decision, in her first post after a lengthy absence, to end her message about needing to take a little “me time” with a smiley face as opposed to a smiley-face emoji is held up as suspicious.) Britney has acknowledged all this, in her way: In one legal document she celebrated “the informed support of her many fans,” to the clear delight of those fans. But the entire point of Framing Britney Spears is that it can’t give you Britney Spears herself, unfiltered or unbound in any sense.

The third time we get vintage footage of Britney Spears crying, it’s part of the 2008 MTV documentary Britney: For the Record, filmed of course once the conservatorship is in place. Britney and Jamie argue a lot on camera; it has a typical Teenage Daughter vs. Father vibe, though the truth is, of course, infinitely more complicated. But at one point, Britney puts it plainly:

If I wasn’t under the restraints that I’m under right now, with all the lawyers and doctors, and people analyzing me every day, and all that kinda stuff—if that wasn’t there, I’d feel so liberated, and feel like myself. When I tell them the way I feel, it’s like they hear me, but they’re really not listening. They’re hearing what they want to hear. They’re not really listening to what I’m telling them. It’s like, it’s bad.

There’s a long pause, and then Britney Spears puts it even plainer. “I’m sad.” And then she cries again.