The New York Times Presents' FX on Hulu documentary, which became a social media sensation over the weekend, features a number of horrifying, look-away-from-the-screen moments that are especially uncomfortable from the perspective of 2021. "The effect of synthesis – a bottomless well of evidence distilled and arranged in one place, with poignant commentary from Times cultural critics – is nonetheless revelatory," says Adrian Horton. He adds: "The uncomfortable quality of these images and video is due, in large part, to their mundanity – a celebrity off-stage, doing unremarkable things; the paparazzi hordes that were a staple of the mid-2000s, at the height of TMZ, tabloid and gossip blog power; the familiarity of the whole circus, which exists in America’s collective cultural memory as time capsule, old joke, or well-meaning meme (the classic 'If Britney could survive 2007, you can do this' joke). None of these images, none of this information about Britney’s stratospheric teenage fame, mental breakdown in 2008, and the legal conservatorship that has governed her daily life in the 13 years since, is new. We just don’t often sit with the evidence – not this cohesively, not this viscerally. In a brisk, bracing 75 minutes, Framing Britney combs through the mountain of archival Britney material – coming of age just before the internet, she was a heavily documented star from the start – from her childhood in smalltown Kentwood, Louisiana, to the cascading highlights of her career: tinkering in the studio, the smash success of … 'Baby One More Time' and 'Oops I Did It Again,' mass fascination over her relationship with the ‘NSync boybander Justin Timberlake, marriage to backup dancer Kevin Federline, mass fascination with her fitness as a mother, breakdown."
Framing Britney Spears shows how we haven't reckoned with sexism in the media: "In 2006, Britney Spears had reached her professional and personal nadir, brought down in part by incessant tabloid coverage of her tumultuous personal life. Attempting to regain control of the narrative, she booked a primetime interview with then-Today show co-host Matt Lauer," says Marina Fang. "It’s deeply unsettling to stumble upon archival footage of Lauer, or Charlie Rose, or Mark Halperin, or any of the other prominent men in media who were ousted after being accused of or admitting to sexual misconduct amid the Me Too movement. It’s even more unsettling when it’s footage of them covering a story involving sexism, misogyny or abuses of power. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And these clips are everywhere because of how ubiquitous and influential these men were. Framing Britney Spears ... is about Spears’ gradual loss of control over her narrative. Since 2008, the pop icon’s life decisions and finances have been under a conservatorship mostly controlled by her father, Jamie Spears. Over the years, Free Britney advocates have called for ending the conservatorship and allowing the singer to regain control over decisions about her own life. The documentary explains the conservatorship but then shifts its focus backward, tracing how Spears got to this point ― and in the process, how sexism and misogyny figured heavily in the media coverage of her. It strings together a trove of archival footage about Spears in the 1990s and 2000s, including that jaw-dropping interview with Lauer. Framing the documentary this way astutely illustrates how we haven’t properly reckoned with the extent to which misogynistic men have controlled media narratives and the ways their influence has permeated our culture."
Framing Britney Spears doesn't really accomplish what it sets out to do: "The double entendre of the title speaks to multiple intentions: Is the Times’ documentary suggesting Spears was 'framed' in the sense that she was set up by loved ones or a dehumanizing legal system to lose her rights?" says Danette Chavez "Or is the intent to frame the singer in a new context, one that restores the agency that has been lost in all the breathless and unseemly reportage? That’s never fully established by the end of the 75-minute runtime. Instead, Framing Britney Spears is caught in the same liminal state—'not that innocent,' 'not a girl, not yet a woman'—that its world-famous subject has had to contend with for much of her life."
Framing Britney Spears doesn't break new ground, but its weaving of past footage with critical commentary is effective: "By juxtaposing images of Spears in the prime of her career with discussions about conservatorship, the documentary adds to the critical conversation we are having about women, agency and trauma," says Patricia Grisafi, adding: "In the tradition of so many 'madwomen in the attic' stories before her, Framing Britney Spears asks what happens when the door is opened to reveal not a frothing hag but hints of a quirky, completely competent human who benefits from meaningful work, time with her children and an Instagram account."
Framing Britney Spears director Samantha Stark says "we tried every which way to get a smoke signal to Britney about the documentary": "We never got anything from her," says Stark, noting the tight circle around Spears. Stark also says she didn't reach out to Justin Timberlake for comment because she didn't want the documentary to be seen through the lenses of her exes. "We didn’t ask Justin Timberlake for comment, just like we didn’t ask a number of other people who appear in archival footage for comment," she says. "Interviewees make points about the media coverage surrounding the breakup, and NYT’s critic-at-large assesses a music video from a very successful album. Unlike other people who we did ask for comment, we don’t make any allegations against Justin. We simply let the footage play…So much coverage about Britney revolves around the men in her life, and we really wanted to not make it about the boyfriends and her relationships. They did affect what happened to her, but we didn’t want to focus on them. Britney has so much say for herself."