Andrew Cullen/The New York Times

Britney Spears fans gather outside a Los Angeles courthouse during a hearing for the star's conservatorship case on May 10, 2019.

March 16, 2021

‘Framing Britney Spears’: A Lesson on Misogyny and Hypocrisy in the Media

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Released on Feb. 5, 2021, Hulu’s Framing Britney Spears is a compelling documentary that pieces together the timeline of pop sensation Britney Spears’ rise to fame and subsequent downfall. From her role in The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse at age eleven to the abusive conservatorship that she has been subject to over the last decade, the documentary spares no details. 

In preparation for Britney’s Feb. 11 court hearing, the documentary, as its title suggests, successfully frames Spears’ life and career to help underscore the abusive and unnecessary nature of her conservatorship. A conservatorship is when a judge appoints a conservator, a person or organization, to care for an adult incapable of caring for themselves and/or managing their finances. 

When looking at Spears’ seemingly erratic behavior since 2007, it’s easy to make jokes and question whether or not a conservator is necessary. In fact, the documentary shows many game show hosts, news anchors and paparazzi doing just that, constantly berating and mocking her. To counteract this ridicule, Framing Britney Spears expands the timeline to show how a culture of misogyny and hypocrisy provides the nuance necessary to characterize Spears’ actions. 

In the documentary, Britney is portrayed as a humble, small-town girl with an extraordinary gift: singing and performing. Yet since the dawn of her fame, she has been hyper-sexualized, scrutinized and bombarded by the paparazzi. Between her wrongful accusation of cheating on Justin Timberlake to images circulating of her shaving her head, the media has constantly used its power to condemn and question her character. This resulted in questions regarding her mental stability and need for a conservator; however, the documentary implies that concerns about her health and safety were ingenuine, as those closest to her desperately wanted to capitalize off of her talent, one such person being her dad, Jamie. Her father, who the documentary suggests was absent for much of her rise to fame, filed for a conservatorship in 2008 and refused to voluntarily step back for over a decade. 

But Framing Britney Spears isn’t just a documentary about Spears’ life and career — it’s a social commentary on the unbearable misogyny and hypocrisy that exists in the music industry and media at large. In the movie, we see the media criticize Spears for being a sexual enigma, almost blaming her for interviewers bringing up her breasts and her (then nonexistent) sex life in interviews. Yet the same media blocked any attempt for her to be portrayed as an innocent, virginal “all American girl” who is simply owning her femininity and sexuality. 

This dichotomy created a thin line which Spears carefully, yet successfully, straddled until the end of her relationship with Justin Timberlake. Timberlake quickly took control of the narrative by weaponizing the media against Spears to incriminate her as the reason for their relationship’s demise, sparking a nation-wide wave of anger which almost compromised her career. Spears, whether she was calm and composed or aggressive in her response to the national outrage, was criticized. This is a common experience for women in the music industry. Celebrities like Miley Cyrus and Hayley Williams can attest to this. Men, however, never have to worry about balancing these conflicting expectations. 

Despite women being better represented in the media and entertainment industries than before, they are still in the minority, especially in upper-level positions. This means that men in power are, unfortunately, still able to continue propagating  this dangerous culture and prevent each other from facing accountability. What I found especially worrisome, though, is that being a child star further exacerbated her abuse. Growing up in the limelight meant that the public had a gross fascination with her sexual maturation, despite continuing to treat her like a child. 

Between the intensity of her mistreatment and the years to which she endured it, the toll this took on her mental health is understandable. The same toxic industry and culture that led to the deterioration of Spears’ mental health would allow her father to portray her as unstable, helpless and in need of a conservatorship. Spears’ court battle against her father is important because the conservatorship robs her of her freedom and takes advantage of her vulnerability while signifying the level of immunity the media has in regards to the way it treats women, specifically young women. The incessant abuse is only a microcosm of the gender issues in society at large. 

Does it make sense that Britney Spears, a worldwide pop sensation, who meticulously choreographed her performances, wrote her songs and hired her own staff became suddenly incapable of caring for herself? Does contextualizing the denigratory nature of the media justify her public outbursts and erratic behavior in retrospect? And importantly, is Britney Spears still in need of a conservatorship? 

The documentary poses and answers these questions and prompts us to begin unpacking the misogyny and hypocrisy that women are still forcibly subjected to by the media. 

Nkemdirim Obodo is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at nobodo@cornellsun.com