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16 February 2021updated 18 Feb 2021 10:25am

The fight over Britney Spears

The theme of Framing Britney Spears is an ancient one: the disempowerment of a woman on the grounds of mental instability.

By Kate Mossman

A new documentary by the New York Times, Framing Britney Spears, explores how the 39-year-old mother of two, who has sold 100 million records, has been living for more than a decade under a conservatorship controlled by her father. A conservatorship is no ordinary way for a pop star to manage their unwieldy finances. It is a court order placed on an individual who is considered to be lacking the mental capacity to control their own affairs, and it is usually deployed for developmentally disabled adults, or older people with dementia.

The film shows the trajectory by which Spears arrived at this place: she fought a custody battle over her young children, had a mental breakdown and was sectioned. Yet according to her lawyers she is now a “highly functioning conservatee”: a concert residency at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas, which ended in 2017, brought in a million dollars a week. Spears has not worked for two years, and fans believe she is protesting against her extraordinary arrangement. A movement, #FreeBritney, campaigns for her “release”. Britney’s theme is an ancient one: the disempowerment of a woman on the grounds of mental instability.

Britney Spears seems, today, an old-fashioned kind of pop star. We understood her in an era when people bought CDs and before artists could control their image on social media. She had the ambition, and sales, of a 1980s megastar, but she came of age at the height of tabloid nastiness and the dawn of the bitchiest gossip sites. Most of us remember the photo from 2007 of her shaven-headed and threatening a member of the paparazzi, but few of us know the context. The photographer, Daniel Ramos, had followed her to the house of her estranged husband at the point he was trying to take control of her children, then aged one and two. In a petrol station parking lot, Spears took an umbrella and dented Ramos’s car.

[see also: Phoebe Bridgers: “It’s exhausting to call someone out”]

Looking back at that moment in 2021, what you see in her eyes is rage, not madness. But at the time, every mishap was further evidence that Spears was an unfit mother. Her ex-husband was awarded sole custody of their children in 2008. The boys are now aged 14 and 15, and she has 30 per cent visitation rights.

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Spears led a wave of slinky, urban mainstream pop at the turn of the millennium. She was a schoolgirl singing about sex – but it somehow seemed important to her image for the public to know that she was not having any. In press conferences, journalists would ask her whether she was a virgin, and the more they focused on her sexuality, the more she gave it to them. Along with her former Mickey Mouse club co-stars, including her one-time boyfriend Justin Timberlake, she was growing up in the public eye. For many years she was so powerful that every female pop star had to define themselves by their difference to her.

These days, young musicians talk about mental health all the time. Yet when Spears experienced her public collapse, there was a feeling of discomfort, but never empathy. We viewed celebrity in a different way. Before social media, the image of a star was so controlled that when it did crack, we shared some of the paparazzi’s triumph. In the same year that Britney lost custody of her children, the Glastonbury audience watched Amy Winehouse teetering drunk on stage and wondered if she would fall. Even the most casual onlooker fed on some curious thrill, and suspended feeling along the way.

[see also: Ariana Grande is magnificent. Her fans are even more so]

In the early Noughties, if a celebrity offended the public, they didn’t apologise from their Twitter account but under the lights of a TV interview. In 2003 ABC’s Diane Sawyer, smiling as gently as a therapist, questioned Spears about her negative influence on girls, and informed her that the wife of the governor of Maryland, Kendel Ehrlich, was quoted as saying, “You know, really, if I had an opportunity to shoot Britney Spears I think I would.” Quietly, Spears replied “ew”, as though looking at a fly in her ice cream. Then smiled, then cried. And there were many interviews like this: an older establishment figure, like a disapproving parent, telling her she had let America down. The lack of self-defence is painful to watch – but for much of her life Spears was trying to play along with the media because that is what stars were supposed to do. When she shaved her head she was desecrating herself, destroying what she thought they wanted. Unfortunately, they were even more interested in what was underneath.

Since Framing Britney Spears aired in the US on 5 February, Sawyer has been called out for her astonishing interview style and Timberlake has apologised for the “misogyny” in the way he behaved after his break-up with Spears in 2002. On 12 February, a court ruled that her father is to share control of her estate with a financial company, which is what Spears wanted. Meanwhile, the fans who dissect every cryptic Instagram message she writes keep watch over her in a whole new way.  

“Framing Britney Spears” is streaming on Now TV

This article appears in the 17 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, War against truth