“Framing Britney Spears,” the sixth installment of FX and Hulu’s “The New York Times Presents” series of stand-alone documentaries, premieres Feb. 5 and aims to untangle for the casual pop-culture consumer the convoluted legal battles facing pop superstar Britney Spears. To the extent possible, director Samantha Stark reports out how Spears, seemingly capable and thus an unlikely candidate for a conservatorship, wound up under the long-term supervision of her father, Jamie Spears.
The documentary only gets as close to Spears as any other reporting project in the past decade — which is to say, not very close. The list of people who are revealed to have declined to speak to the Times includes both of Spears’s parents, her sister and brother, her ex-husband Kevin Federline and a former adviser. Then, an epilogue reveals that it’s unclear whether Spears herself received the requests for her participation.
Consequently, much of what’s in it has been known to devoted fans and interested followers for a long time: The conservatorship has historically given Spears’s father significant control over her daily life and her money, seems suspect to many outsiders, and has only recently been updated by a judge to put a bank in charge of Spears’s finances rather than her father. In 2019, Jamie stepped away from his role supervising Britney’s day-to-day life, but only temporarily; a professional conservator has acted in his stead.
But the strength of “Framing Britney Spears” isn’t in its new revelations; it’s in its thoughtful hindsight, which positions it squarely within that “1990s, reevaluated” genre. The documentary wisely revisits Spears’s breakneck-speed ascent beginning in 1998, quietly making the case that fame in that era — particularly for young women — was traumatizing, and that the booming tabloid industry of the time played a role in Spears’s current predicament that shouldn’t be overlooked.
As Times critic at large Wesley Morris points out in the episode, Spears rose to fame during the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal, when young women’s sexual desires were being discussed in public at once frankly, pruriently and scornfully. As a result, little daylight existed between fame as a young, attractive woman with any hint of a sex life and what we now know as public shaming. The media — both the tabloids and more credible, high-profile outlets — hounded women like Spears for disturbingly intimate details of their lives, then belittled and even villainized them for those very details.
To illustrate just how little of Spears’s private life remained private, Stark includes footage from the early 2000s of Spears being asked, before a room full of reporters, whether she’s a virgin; she confirms in a soft voice that she’s waiting until marriage. Moments later, a voice-over plays of Justin Timberlake, Spears’s ex-boyfriend, telling a radio host he slept with Spears. A Details cover depicting Timberlake and congratulating him for “getting into Britney’s pants” appears on-screen.
Even acclaimed TV journalists subject her to denigrating lines of questioning about her personal life. In an interview clip, ABC’s Diane Sawyer quotes the first lady of Maryland as saying she wishes she could “shoot Britney Spears” for being a poor role model. When Spears responds in horror, Sawyer appears to defend the statement: “Because of the example for kids, and how hard it is to be a parent.” After Spears was pictured driving away from aggressive paparazzi with her son in her lap in 2004, NBC’s Matt Lauer asks her to respond to accusations that she’s a bad mother for not using a car seat. Spears fights to hold it together before openly weeping in both interviews.
What “Framing Britney Spears” evokes so viscerally is the claustrophobia and frustration of being Britney Spears. As a young pop superstar, Spears is seen grinning and bearing it while photographers crowd around her car at a drive-through; later, she’s seen covering her face from camera flashes while she exits a gas station, while she hurries through a parking lot, while she dines in a restaurant. “I’m scared. I’m scared,” she repeats as she’s hustled through a gaggle of paparazzi gathered outside a store.
So by the time the infamous 2007 footage of Spears — wild-eyed and defiantly bald, fresh off a confrontation with Federline over custody of their two sons — attacking a paparazzo’s SUV with an umbrella appears, what’s newly surprising about this well-trod story line is that this is the first car door Spears has dented in nine years of fame. “That night was not a good night for her. And it was not a good night for us,” the paparazzo whose car Spears damaged tells Stark. Then he changes his tune: “But it was a good night for us, because it was a money shot.”
The episode makes clear that Spears was unwell at the time; it’s said that her mother believed she was suffering from postpartum depression during her 2006 divorce and the subsequent custody battle. But it also forces the viewer to consider it head-on: If this were your life, wouldn’t you act out, too? The documentary then cuts to Spears’s hospitalization and involuntary psychiatric evaluation following a dispute with Federline in early 2008, which led to the then-temporary conservatorship that Spears’s father still holds over her today.
It’s come to light in recent years just how damaging the late ‘90s and 2000s were for young women in the spotlight. Other female celebrities whose names similarly became punchlines back then have re-emerged, revealed themselves to be far more thoughtful and vulnerable than those jokes years ago implied, and addressed the psychological toll those years of tabloid celebrity took.
Lewinsky, for example, gave a TED Talk in 2015. After disarming one-liners about berets and being “the only person over 40 who does not want to be 22 again,” Lewinsky revealed that in the months when the Clinton impeachment trial put her in the news every day, her mother made her shower with the bathroom door open, for fear she would harm herself while she had the privacy.
Jessica Simpson’s 2020 memoir, “Open Book,” detailed how the tabloid frenzy that erupted when she wore a pair of high-waisted, then-uncool “mom jeans” in 2009 exacerbated an existing diet-pill habit.
And in last year’s “This Is Paris,” the YouTube documentary about Paris Hilton, Hilton’s voice — her real voice, deeper and more mature than the one you remember — wavers as she recalls 2003, when sex tapes filmed by her ex-boyfriend were released online. “That was my first real relationship,” she says. “That was a private moment of a teenage girl not in the right head space. To have everyone watching it, laughing, like it’s something funny …” Hilton’s voice trails off. A clip of David Letterman rolls: “Have you seen ’em?” he asks a studio audience. He grins. “I’ve seen ’em.” Moments later, the camera cuts to Hilton bugging her own home, installing hidden cameras before she lets a new boyfriend spend time there alone.
Stark’s “Framing Britney Spears” provides a similar glimpse at the human, warped and tortured but ultimately resilient, inside the celebrity. In light of recent revelations like Hilton’s, Simpson’s and Lewinsky’s, it seems newly remarkable that Spears has not just lived to tell the tale but remained, apparently voluntarily, visible in the public eye. The tragedy, of course, is that Spears still can’t tell that tale herself.