"Over the past several years there’ve been a few of these major reconsiderations of women who were once widely portrayed as irredeemable disasters — messes, trash, villains, laughingstocks — and who look quite different with even a few years of distance," says Kathryn VanArendonk. "Britney Spears joins a list that includes Monica Lewinsky, Anita Hill, Marcia Clark, Lorena Bobbitt, and Tonya Harding, an unbelievably tragic list of women whose entire lives were destroyed by media depictions that failed, first and foremost, to treat them as human beings. There’s a simple decision in Framing Britney Spears, though, that seems like a neutral, painfully obvious storytelling choice. By and large, the hour runs through Spears’s life with a detailed, chronological timeline. There’s a little bit of foreshadowing here and there; it starts with the existence of the 'Free Britney' movement and then jumps back to explain how we got to this place. But mostly, Framing Britney Spears makes the call to just walk through Britney’s life, step by step. For big buzzy documentaries in the past year, a clear, straightforward, and mostly chronological rehashing of the subject’s life goes weirdly against the grain. Tiger King, The Vow, The Last Dance, and the earlier docuseries Surviving R. Kelly each bounced through events with a willy-nilly frenzy. There’s appeal in f*cking with and distorting the timeline: Filmmakers can create surprise reveals, hold back interesting information in order to punch up cliffhangers, and generally soup up the overall drama of a story by leaping around through history. For the gain of an extra-exciting narrative, though, the cost is often coherence, legibility, and a basic relationship between cause and effect."
Social class was a big part of Britney Spears' story that Framing Britney Spears missed: "Misogyny is one of the lenses through which to see Spears’ mistreatment, but there’s another one to use too: social class," says Willa Paskin. "When the tabloids turned on Spears post-Timberlake, the narrative they pushed, the outrage they were selling, was less explicitly about licentiousness than about an All-American girl revealing herself to be white trash. There’s plenty of misogyny embedded in that, but even more class judgment. That’s what the photographs were of anyway: Spears in Uggs and sweat suits going through the drive thru, getting Starbucks, grabbing chips at the pharmacy, her hair a mess. Husband Kevin Federline was implicitly contrasted to Timberlake as a low-class sleaze—as was Spears’ behavior in her short-lived marriage to childhood friend Jason Alexander. That’s not what good girls do, but it’s not what classy ones do either. The questions Britney would go on to face about her mothering aren’t just questions women face—they are specifically questions poor women face, constantly harangued for not providing their children with the 'right' kind of home. That Spears was, by this point, not poor at all only contributed to the sense of outrage: She’s rich enough to do anything, and she’s doing this? She ascended the class ladder and now she’s descending it, on purpose. She must be crazy. Even now, just as sexism buoys Britney’s ongoing conservatorship—would a man in her position be deemed unfit to run his own life?—so does classism. Would she really know what to do with her money if she controlled it? Just look at her taste."
Former MTV VJ and Framing Britney interview subject Dave Holmes was left feeling sad and hopeful by the documentary: "Since its premiere, I have gotten texts from approximately every person I’ve ever met. Then, as now, everybody is watching," says Holmes, who notes that "I remember a great deal of public speculation as to whether teenage Britney was a virgin. Reporters would just ask her about it, point blank. I don’t think I did but I am reluctant to go back and check for sure. I wouldn’t have asked such a thing, not me, unless I did, because as Framing Britney Spears reveals, that’s the kind of thing one would do without a second thought in 1999. I cannot imagine having that kind of conversation with a teen pop star, or honestly anybody, but I cannot stand that I cannot rule it out. The one thing I know for sure is that it wouldn’t have come up with Justin Timberlake." Holmes adds: "I am heartened by how startling and repulsive all this blatant sexism is to the younger generations watching, and posting about, the doc. Social media has allowed new voices to circumvent the cis-white-male gatekeepers and begin to lead the conversation, and we’re better for it; young people just aren’t having this mess. They won’t stand for any guff on Billie Eilish’s baggy tracksuits or Lizzo’s size or whether Taylor Swift seems likable enough. It’s a nonstarter. I like how bad we look to them in Finding Britney Spears. It means there’s been progress."
Framing Britney Spears' biggest flaw is giving extensive, credulous airtime to the Free Britney movement: "This loose faction of Britney fans advances the idea that the conservatorship is not only legally questionable but also a kind of hostage situation perpetrated by Jamie, who, in their telling, is essentially imprisoning Britney," says Jeffrey Bloomer. "Many in the movement contend that Spears is secretly communicating with them through covert signals and references on her Instagram account. The movement graduated to its increasingly overheated current state partly after a podcast dedicated to Spears’ Instagram, Britney’s Gram, posted an unverified voicemail from someone who claimed to be a former paralegal for a lawyer who worked on Spears’ conservatorship—and who made claims about involuntary medical holds and the reasons for Spears’ canceled Las Vegas residency in 2019. Though a purported smoking gun, this very suspect audio—from a person whose identity hasn’t been confirmed, making claims about events that have also not been confirmed—would not pass muster in any court or newsroom. But outrageously, it’s reproduced in Framing Britney Spears, presented as a tantalizing development with only a quick disclaimer that 'The voicemail’s source and claims have not been verified by the New York Times.' No kidding. (It’s hard not to wonder if the same very public issues in the Times’ audio department are playing out in a new medium.)"
Celebrity apologies get Britney Spears exactly nothing: "In a fairy-tale scenario, Diane Sawyer and Matt Lauer would be forced to sit on the other side of the interview couch, sweating under questions about why they thought they had the moral high ground despite one of them reportedly having a button in their office that locked the door to trap women inside at the very moment they were asking Britney why she was such a bad mother," says Emily Alford. "Justin Timberlake’s Q Score would remain as low as Janet Jackson’s after he ripped off her clothing during the Super Bowl then let her take the blame for it so long that by the time it recovered, a return to the full magnitude of his stardom at its height would be completely impossible. Britney would get the last 12 years of her life back. But none of these things are likely, and in Britney’s case, they’re impossible. Making blanket statements about 'our' responsibility or even self-flagellating reeks of the exact same thing that got Britney into this mess in the first place: A bunch of people with large platforms saying whatever sentiment is popular to say about Britney Spears for applause."
The documentary adds new context to Britney's Instagram account: "I and the general public have not known and will never know the 'true' Britney Spears," says Ana Diaz. "To think that the Spears we see on Instagram is a full authentic expression of herself is naïve, I know. Still, the documentary highlights how important her Instagram was in the history of her life, and that makes me like it all the more. While her feed excludes heavier topics like the conservatorship, it’s still a remarkably earnest look into the day-to-day life of a pop star."
Framing Britney Spears missed an opportunity to explore internet obsessions: "The truly new story is the devotees with which Framing Britney Spears opens and closes, some of whom are so intensely attached to Spears that they attend her conservatorship hearings with placards pronouncing their love and support," says Sonny Bunch. "Like all fandoms, the people who love Spears find personal meaning in their enthusiasm, whether crediting her with being the person 'who made it okay to struggle' with mental health or who 'gave me permission to be myself growing up as a gay boy in suburban Virginia.' And for some, Spears isn’t merely a figure of identification. Her Instagram account — an intimate glimpse into her life free of the paparazzi’s filter that strenuously avoids mentioning the conservatorship — is a sacred text potentially full of hidden truths."
Framing Britney Spears didn't originally set out to focus on her conservatorship: "At the beginning of filming, the original concept was to go back and look at this media coverage and confront people with it, so we could reckon with our own complicity and how we treated her and correct misinformation about her," says director Samantha Stark. "I don't think a lot of people know or didn't know that she was in a conservatorship. And it kind of seems like nothing was really happening in the conservatorship for so long that we know of legally. We didn’t see any public court filings from Britney asking for anything to change that we know of. The fans that had been out there since the beginning, which I guess was around April 2019, they kind of had this idea that something was wrong. And they were kind of just testing the guts, but they didn't have any confirmation. So a lot of people are like, 'Why are you doing this if you don't even know if Britney wants anything to change?' And then while we were filming, it was like all these filings started dropping, and it was such a surprise."
Director Samantha Stark points out the media members now reevaluating the treatment of Spears are of her generation: "There’s one thing I noticed in the past week doing interviews with media outlets that I never even thought of before the film came out," she says. "When Britney was being shamed for her sexuality as a teenager and stalked as a young adult, the gatekeepers to all these media outlets — the ones doing the shaming — were in their 30s, 40s, 50s. We as teenagers watched that happen. Now that my/our generation are a lot of the gatekeepers, we’re saying 'no more.'"