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Framing Britney Spears forces a cultural reckoning on the media's mistreatment of female celebrities

  • "There's a thought exercise I often return to as I ponder the current state of celebrity: When, exactly, did the nasty tabloid culture that reigned in the early-to-mid-2000s disappear?" says Esther Zuckerman "You can run through the names of women—because it's always women—who were tormented by a paparazzi hungry for failure and scandal: Amanda Bynes, Amy Winehouse, and, of course, Britney. That era of coverage is both largely past and yet still so relevant, a point which Samantha Stark's documentary Framing Britney Spears, now available on Hulu, hammers home again and again." The New York Times Presents' eye-opening documentary, says Zuckerman, "is as much about what's happening to Britney Spears right now as it is about how we still have to answer for the culture that ate her and spit her out, and the documentary has prompted a reckoning on social media....The outrage Framing Britney Spears has provoked is not unwarranted, nor is it new. Chris Crocker, of 'Leave Britney Alone' fame, was right all along.) What Stark does, however, is cleanly present evidence of all the ways in which Spears has been failed by society at large, so you're left, mouth agape, stunned by just how much bad stuff was out there. So what changed? The public conversation about mental health has vastly improved since the height of Spears' fame. It's hard to believe that a woman being placed on multiple psychiatric holds now would be cause for anything but concern. Discourse about feminism and slut-shaming operates on a bigger, more nuanced scale. The viciousness of the paparazzi has seemed to quell with celebrities more in control of their images thanks to social media. And yet, through no fault of Stark's or Framing Britney Spears, there is still something icky about the way Spears is covered. Even as people on Twitter issue mea culpas and rail against the rampant sexism that orbited Spears, they are still drawn to her tragedy. The bad old days are both disgusting and fascinating. Stripped of her voice, Spears been turned into a meme and a cautionary tale, and her own participation in that narrative remains elusive. After all this time, we're still projecting so much onto Britney Spears."


    • Framing Britney Spears offers a chance to reassess the aggressive misogyny of which she was a victim, and how that impacted the course of her life: "How did incessant tabloid portrayals of her as a bad mother, or as being promiscuous, play into her custody battle? How did spiteful media roundtables about her mental state impact her father's ability to argue for the need for a conservatorship?" says Ashlie D. Stevens. "The effects aren't necessarily clear, but what is apparent, however, is that the portrayal of Spears through the 2000s was unfair and built on unquestioned sexism that has largely gone unchecked for two decades. Nevertheless, she is still punchline fodder for late night television hosts, a cultural stand-in for women who have snapped in an embarrassingly public fashion — thanks in large part to people like Timberlake and Diane Sawyer. There are already calls from fans of Spears for those two to publicly apologize for their past comments. And while 'we don't know what we don't know' about the conservatorship case, which is still ongoing, the documentary enables viewers to reassess the attitudes that led up to it, perhaps including their own. Hindsight is 20/20 for that."
    • Rolling Stone reckons with it and former sister publication Us Weekly's role in profiting off of Britney Spears: "According to the AP, two-thirds of US Weekly’s covers in 2007 featured Spears, who at one point was on the cover of the magazine for 14 weeks in a row," writes Rolling Stone's Tim Chan "OK! Magazine had Spears on more than half their covers between 2006 and 2007, with the magazine’s publisher crediting interest in the singer for helping double the company’s ad revenue, which hit more than $50 million at its peak. This magazine profited off Spears too, with many of the star’s memorable Rolling Stone covers still among some of the publication’s best-selling issues of all time. (Full disclosure: US Weekly was previously owned by Jann Wenner, who is also the founder and former owner of this magazine.) It wasn’t just magazines making money from the star though — photo agencies had camera crews in SUVs and motorcycles focused on trailing Spears, with shots of the singer reportedly selling for tens of thousands of dollars, more than ten times the going rate for other celebrities."
    • Page Six claims Britney Spears has watched Framing Britney Spears: "There are parts of the film that were too hard and emotional for her to watch — the scenes that describe the most difficult times of her life, the relentless media circus and the harsh focus on her as a young mother," a source tells Page Six. "But, she feels, for the first time in many years, that people are on her side and things will get better for her." But Framing Britney Spears director Samantha Stark says: "I don’t believe that story … Yeah, that’s a Page Six with an anonymous source. They also posted that she hadn’t seen it as well with a different anonymous source. So I’m sorry to say, I don’t believe it.”
    • Framing Britney Spears joins documentaries in recent years on Lorena Bobbitt and Paris Hilton in reconsidering how females were skewered in the media: "By retelling her story from the vantage point of 2021 — at what we hope is a time of greater sensitivity to mental health issues and a heightened post-#MeToo understanding of the misogyny that pervades much of celebrity culture — the documentary encourages viewers to reconsider their ideas about Spears, her chaotic tabloid persona and her fervently devoted fans," says Meredith Blake, adding that The New York Times Presents documentary applies the rigor of a Frontline episode to a narrative that has been shaped by thinly sourced gossip and anonymous hearsay.
    • Are we all responsible for what happened to Britney Spears?: "Most of us are comfortable now saying that this treatment was unjust, that it hurt a human being when she was at her most vulnerable, and that it contributed to the circumstances that left Spears locked in the conservatorship that controls both Spears’s finances and her personal life," says Constance Grady. "But now a new question develops: Just how much responsibility do we all bear for the way Spears was treated?" “Lots of virtuous folks on here pretending they didn’t read Perez Hilton or Us Weekly’s abusive coverage of Britney religiously in 2005,” tweeted Billy Eichner. “We are all to blame.” Us Weekly film critic Mara Reinstein responded: "I admit I wrote many of those Us Weekly cover stories back in the day. Trust me, we wouldn’t have kept reporting out the saga if public interest weren’t rampant. Everyone is complicit to varying degrees.” Grady adds: "When Reinstein and Eichner and (Framing Britney Spears interview subject and former paparazzo Daniel) Ramos argue that they weren’t personally victimizing Spears but merely giving the people what they wanted, there’s a certain amount of truth to what they’re saying. They were working within a system of incentives and consumption that they did not build. But it also remains the case that it was well within the capabilities of people like Reinstein and Ramos to stop working with that system, even if they did not build it. And it is sheer revisionist history to suggest that no one knew that the way the mainstream media talked about Spears was wrong at the time."
    • We still haven't put Britney Spears in the context of the way many women are treated: "I’m glad people are rethinking Britney," says Jude Ellison Sady Doyle of Framing Britney Spears. "Yet, as someone who’s spent a lot of time writing and talking and thinking about her — she was one of the major subjects of my first book — I worry that we still haven’t put Britney in context. Britney Spears isn’t a formerly happy pop star who 'lost control,' she’s a woman who never had control in the first place, and the media’s demonization of her was only the most famous example of something that happened to many other celebrities, and still happens to less famous women every day, with disastrous results...A misogynist culture will always have an appetite for female suffering, and any woman who looks too successful or too happy is an appealing target to be torn down. Famous or not, women are told to be sexually appealing, then shamed for any unwelcome sexual attention — or even sexual violence — that comes their way. Those dynamics are bigger and older than Britney Spears, and they still hurt women every day."
    • Framing Britney Spears never tackles the disability aspect of a conservatorship: "The topic is never couched with regards to disability," says Kristen Lopez. "Instead they make it clear that conservatorships are usually reserved for those who are elderly. The distinction is pertinent, as elderly doesn’t always mean disabled — but too often disabled always means elderly. The series also limits their discussions to #FreeBritney allies or those with legal connections to conservatorships, and never does it solicit the opinions of disabled rights advocates. And this is disturbing, because there are elements of Spears’ life that definitely sound troubling — but when you factor in the more nefarious ways conservatorships control a person’s medical and, especially, sexual and reproductive health, it’s reminiscent of the numerous ways those with disabilities have been controlled and prohibited from being considered actual people."
    • Chris Crocker reflects on going viral with his 2007 "Leave Britney Alone" video in wake of Framing Britney Spears: "Me saying Leave Britney Alone was never really the issue," he began an Instagram post on Tuesday. "Michael Moore said it & no one batted an eyelash. Maybe people reaching out to tell me, 'Chris, you were right' would feel good, if I knew that people could unpack that the reason no one took me serious was because I was a gender-bending teenager and the reaction to me was transphobic."
    • Framing Britney Spears has driven more than 1 million tweets since its premiere
    • Watch the full 2001 A Current Affair interview with Spears featured in the documentary in which she's called "aa sexy vamp in underwear"

    TOPICS: Framing Britney Spears, FX on Hulu, The New York Times Presents, Billy Eichner, Britney Spears, Samantha Stark, Documentaries, Rolling Stone

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