There are many famous paparazzi pictures of Britney Spears, and the most recent documentary about her life is happy to revisit them. In one, she is sitting in a van, with a handful of people around her. The glare of the paparazzi’s flash bounces off the car window. She looks tired. The image was taken a few days after her very public breakdown in 2008 and it is one of several photographs of the unhappy star resurfacing now.
The latest film about Spears, the BBC’s The Battle for Britney: Fans, Cash and Conservatorship, follows the New York Times documentary Framing Britney Spears, which tackled the same topic. In fact, this latest project is one of four documentaries about the singer that will be released this year. In the coming months, Netflix will offer its own version of pop culture history with a Britney Spears documentary by the true crime director Erin Lee Carr
In 2008 Spears’s father, Jamie, took over the singer’s financial estate. The court order stated Spears was not mentally stable enough to have authority over her person or her money. This conservatorship has been in place ever since, and the BBC documentary, by filmmaker Mobeen Azhar, tries to give a balanced perspective on it.
The film is a serious journalistic investigation. But at times, rather confusingly, it also taps into something seedier: an insatiable public lust for details about Spears’s life. Azhar visits Kentwood, the star’s hometown in Louisiana, where he eats at Spears’s favourite diner. He speaks to her make-up artist and choreographer. Superficially, this documentary centres on a court hearing to appeal Spears’s conservatorship. But as we tour around a museum showcasing her childhood bed and teddy bears, it is sometimes easy to forget this premise. Instead, as with the NYT doc Framing Britney Spears, the BBC film frequently revisits the events that culminated in Spears’s breakdown and eventual conservatorship.
When the NYT documentary aired in February 2021, its director Samantha Stark celebrated its generational revisionism. She argued that her film, which remembered Spears’s paparazzi harassment, painted her as a victim of a misogynistic tabloid culture. It repackaged her story into one about feminist martyrdom; it was a film that progressive millennials should be proud of.
[see also: The fight over Britney Spears]
“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 thirties, forties, fifties,” said Stark in a Reddit thread. “We as teenagers watched that happen. Now that my/our generation are a lot of the gatekeepers, we’re saying ‘no more’.”
Spears’s reaction was less enthusiastic. After the film’s release, she posted on Instagram: “I didn’t watch the documentary but from what I did see of it I was embarrassed by the light they put me in,” she wrote. “I cried for two weeks and well…. I still cry sometimes !!!!”.
In the days following the publicity fallout from the BBC documentary, she wrote again to her followers: “So many documentaries about me this year with other people’s takes on my life…what can I say…I’m deeply flattered !!!! These documentaries are so hypocritical…they criticise the media and then do the same thing.”
For millennials, Spears’s celebrity is a symbol of Noughties nostalgia – a now old-fashioned pop star whose image lined the walls of our childhood bedrooms. It makes sense, then, that the teenagers from this era would come to question their relationship with a woman that feminism forgot. As we begin to look back critically on the age of lad mags and size zero, it seems we hope to revise our relationship with Spears too.
And yet, Spears is right. Watching her repackaged plight, we are yet again indulging our salacious desire to consume the private details of her life. The mystery of her conservatorship and the questions around her mental health are just as juicy to a modern audience as were those paparazzi images in the magazines we now deride. Who is Britney Spears? During her calamitous rise to fame, we felt entitled to know the answer. Two decades on, it seems we still do.
“The Battle for Britney: Fans, Cash and Conservatorship” is streaming now on BBC iPlayer