Julianna Pijar / Gavel Media

“Framing Britney Spears” Confronts our Harassment of Celebrities

“Her rise was a global phenomenon. Her downfall was a cruel national sport. People close to Britney Spears and lawyers tied to her conservatorship now reassess her career as she battles her father in court over who should control her life.” - Hulu on “Framing Britney Spears”

The New York Times documentary “Framing Britney Spears” appears as the sixth episode of the “New York Times Presents” series and is a shocking assessment of the public scrutiny Britney Spears experienced in the face of stardom.

The documentary outlines the structure of Spears’ career from her break-out debut on the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse in 1993 (with notable stars such as Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera) to her present-day performances under the control of her father. The central point of conflict for the storyline considers Spears’ evolving relationship with her father, and the documentary plants the seed of doubt about his authority over her person and business. The narrative also forces the viewer to confront the public’s relationship with “celebrity gossip” and respect for privacy. 

The conservatorship has been a hot topic in recent years since Spears has gone to court to affirm her opposition to her father’s control. Despite his attempts at blocking her access to legal representation with control of her finances, Spears filed for her father to step down as her financial conservator—after he stepped down as her personal conservator following his own health complications. Although the judge did not remove Jamie from his position, she did appoint corporate fiduciary Bessemer Trust as co-conservator.

Fans and family members have continued to question the need for a conservatorship. According to them, Spears is independent enough to hire her own legal counsel and assert her personal and financial wishes to a court of law. These discrepancies are further analyzed by the NYT interviews in the documentary. 

One of the most important recurring characters in Spears’ life who appears throughout the documentary is Felicia Culotta, Spears’ former assistant and close friend. Culotta said that she began working with the hard-working and gifted Spears when she got her first record deal with Jive Records. With Spears’ mother unable to leave her other children and her father focused on providing financially with his career, Culotta acted as both a chaperone and assistant for Spears' introduction to the professional music industry. Culotta’s unwavering praise of Spears’ strong independence—despite a rapid rise to fame—introduces a stark contrast to her relationship with her parents. 

Spears and Culotta's relationship exposes the distance between Spears and her parents for so many years of her life and validates Culotta's feelings about Jamie’s conservatorship over Britney. If this woman so close to Spears and the family is confused by the conservatorship, it’s no wonder fans continue to press for Spears’ freedom. 

Many of the adults Spears worked within these early days could comment on how her mother Lynne was a strong supporter of her talent and success. However, they questioned the extent of her father’s involvement. According to the documentary, “Jamie, Britney’s father, wasn’t around very much when Britney was growing up. We know that Jamie was struggling with alcohol, and he later goes to rehab….and later ends up filing for bankruptcy. He doesn’t seem to be a big presence in her life.

The foundation presented here by the NYT explains that her father was both distant and not skilled at taking care of his own financial affairs. His control of her estate and health is both unexpected and unsettling. 

While Spears' fame skyrocketed in the early 2000s with packed concerts, invasive interviews and plenty of guest appearances, she was met with unprecedented media attention. The paparazzi appeared to follow her everywhere, catching each and every moment of her life. Even going to the drive-thru for dinner became an opportunity for the public to mock her deteriorating “perfect” image.

As a woman in the public eye, Spears was subjected to slut-shaming, accusations of hysteria, and horrible treatment, especially following her break-up with heart-throb Justin Timberlake. Despite Timberlake’s bragging about taking her virginity and spreading heinous rumors about her treatment of him during their breakup, it was Spears who faced the “What did you do to Justin?” questions in interviews and took the brunt of the public scrutiny. At the 2007 BRIT Awards, Timberlake advised Spears on national television to “stop drinking” and “not to get sloppy” as a form of continued persecution and embarrassment against her deteriorating mental state. 

Spears had two children, Sean and Jayden Federline, with her now ex-husband Kevin Federline in 2005 and 2006. Her struggle with postpartum depression was blasted across the front pages of every tabloid magazine, the stress and exhaustion building until her famed “shaved head” breakdown. Shortly afterward, Federline took full custody of the children and finalized their divorce in 2007. Instead of leaving her alone to heal and take some time for herself, the media turned her family struggles and mental illness into a nation-wide joke, blasting her misfortune across all platforms.

As might be expected, this treatment only pushed Spears further into her own mayhem, until her father eventually committed her to a hospital. The doctors were required to review her mental stability, and when they were unable to make a legal decision about whether or not she was stable enough to manage herself, her father took her to court to apply for conservatorship—a necessary position for individuals who have lost the ability to make informed decisions and care for themselves—of her person and business, including her career.  

Despite expressing many times that she wanted anyone but her father to be in charge of her finances, no one would believe the crazed-caricature of Spears expressed in the media. Her mother Lynne, Culotta and many others have stated their confusion at how the court came to their decision that Jamie should take her conservatorship. 

The decision forces us to reconsider how we treat and portray celebrities—especially female celebrities—in the media, and what real-life repercussions can come of what feels like harmless celebrity gossip. 

The NYT frames the story as a confrontation of prominent media personalities of the time and a unique insight into some of Spears' longest-running relationships. A recurring theme emerges—there is no overlap between those two groups. Those who blasted Spears’ life to the public were never involved in it, and those who knew her well provided a contrasting story of her independence, determination and deep sorrow about the way she had been treated. The paparazzi reflect very little on the consequences of their actions, focused instead on the substantive rewards they received in vilifying Spears at the time. By including these snapshots of the professionals who gave us the ‘downfall of Britney Spears,’ the NYT exposes the false presentation of information in gossip media as well as the toxic nature of a drama-hungry audience.

Britney Spears represents a new age of public displays of celebrity lifestyle in the media, and the pressures of such an intense obsession obviously damaged her mental health. The NYT provides a story in “Framing Britney Spears” that essentially paves the path for a better future for the pop star. 

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