We Need To Talk About ‘Framing Britney Spears’

The new documentary unravels how the pop star’s career was impacted by misogyny, tabloid culture, and Justin Timberlake.

If you’ve been online for the past couple of days, you may have noticed how much people have been talking about Britney Spears. Not because of her music, or even because of an innocent Instagram post that fans have been thoroughly scanning for clues about her well-being, but because of “Framing Britney Spears,” a New York Times-produced documentary that looks back at her career, from her Louisiana upbringing to the ongoing conservatorship battle with her father. 

During a little over an hour, the production addresses controversial moments from Spears’ public life, including past relationships (particularly with Kevin Federline and Justin Timberlake; we’ll get back to him in a sec), her paparazzi-infused life at the pinnacle of tabloid culture, and the 2007 breakdown that led to the subsequent guardianship matter and the #FreeBritney movement. So, from one perspective, the documentary doesn’t really offer information the public wasn’t previously aware of: for over 20 years, the singer’s life has been dissected by the media in the smallest details.

Instead, what is notable about “Framing Britney Spears” is the way her story is portrayed. This isn’t the 2000s anymore: stars now have social media, and conversations about mental health and sexism have become more and more pervasive in the celebrity world. Public perception has changed as well. We’re now in the #MeToo era. 

The documentary offers a strong insight into how Spears’ rise to fame not only happened in a very specific moment in culture but also coincided with an era when, following Bill Clinton’s infamous affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, women were portrayed as evil creatures who were to be blamed for everything bad that occurred in their relations with men. 

Enter: Justin Timberlake. The former NSYNC idol and Spears dated for three years until breaking up in 2002. Since then, he contributed to a narrative that placed the “…Baby One More Time” singer as the sole culpable for their split, having “betrayed” the sensitive, now broken-hearted musician. 

Rumors at the time accused Spears of cheating on Timberlake – something neither of them has ever confirmed. While she was chastised by the media, and even interrogated by Diane Sawyer, who pressed the singer to reveal what had she done to cause him “so much pain, so much suffering,” he went on to add fuel to the matter with the music video for “Cry Me a River,” in which he gets revenge on a Britney-look-alike. 

At a time when Spears’ virginity was at the center of celebrity content debate, Timberlake also didn’t hesitate to expose the singer: in a radio interview, he was asked if he had “f**ked Britney,” to which he confirmed with a laugh. In a later interview, he added, “I did it. I’m dirty.” While he was seen as some sort of alpha male hero, she was slut-shamed for having premarital sex. 

Since the release of the documentary, celebrities have expressed support for Spears – Miley Cyrus gave a shout out to her during a Super Bowl pre-game performance – and fans have been flooding Timberlake’s social media with demands for an apology. He has yet to comment. 

Much like Asif Kapadia’s 2015 documentary “Amy,” director Samantha Stark invites the audience to reflect on how so many of the situations inflicted on Spears over the years that were considered normal, or even taken as a joke – cue the “If Britney survived 2007 you can handle today” memes –  at the time are borderline disgusting today. Winehouse unfortunately didn’t live to see this cultural shift; we still have time to understand Spears. 

Akin to the early-aughts tabloid era, one thing missing from the “Framing Britney Spears” narrative is the main subject’s voice – Spears didn’t respond to requests to be interviewed, though Stark revealed to Variety the production team is unsure if the singer “got those requests or not.” 

Spears did write a few words that could perhaps relate to the documentary, though. “I am taking the time to learn and be a normal person,” she tweeted alongside a video from a performance of “Toxic” at the 2018 New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. 

“Each person has their story and their take on other people’s stories,” she added. “Remember, no matter what we think we know about a person’s life it is nothing compared to the actual person living behind the lens.”

“Framing Britney Spears” is now streaming on Hulu.

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