The release of Framing Britney Spears, an FX documentary that chronicles the struggles the legendary pop star Britney Spears faced in her personal life and in the media, has sparked social media conversations about ableism and misogyny in the entertainment industry.
In itself, the #FreeBritney movement — an effort to advocate for Britney’s release from a conservatorship that her father controls — is not new. But Framing Britney Spears digs further into the movement’s claims than anyone has done before. The documentary shows how Spears’ mental health struggles and bipolar disorder — which were seemingly exacerbated by invasive press and the public breakdown of her romantic relationships with Justin Timberlake and Kevin Federline — led to her losing control over her money and many of her life decisions.
Watching Spears lose her autonomy was traumatic for many. As a bipolar woman who has had my own autonomy taken away so many times, I found myself tearing up in front of the screen. Britney may be separated from most of us by wealth and fame, but so many disabled people can see a reflection of themselves in her actions and her treatment.
In the documentary, New York Times critic Wesley Morris says that at the height of Spears’ career as a teenager, young girls were attracted to the very quality people have tried to strip from her. “It isn’t the sex part that seems cool,” Morris said, referring to what pre-teen and teenage girls found compelling about their heroine. “It’s the control and command over herself and her space that seems cool.” This sad irony rings very true.
The #FreeBritney movement inspired people to talk about paternalism in the mental health care system, as well as the carceral quality of inpatient hospitals. Now they are connecting the dots with the misogyny of the 1990s and 2000s entertainment industry.
Needless to say, many on social media who have seen the documentary want those they see as responsible to be held accountable.
Reacting to the theory in Framing Britney Spears that Timberlake appeared to use their breakup to advance his own career, Instagram users flooded his images with snake emojis and demands to “apologize”. The same demands for apologies flooded Twitter and became the source of videos on TikTok.
Seeing how Britney was treated in the aftermath of her split with Timberlake reminded others of the infamous “wardrobe malfunction” at the 2004 Super Bowl. During the half-time show then, Timberlake ripped fabric off legendary pop singer Janet Jackson’s shirt, revealing her breast to millions of viewers. Jackson bore the brunt of the public’s shock and mockery, and appeared to pay the price through her career. In contrast, Timberlake took little of the flak and laughed off the incident in the aftermath, saying he was glad to give people something to look at (though he did apologize alongside Jackson ultimately). In 2018, he played the Super Bowl half-time show again, and referenced the incident with a wink, singing, “I’ll have you naked by the end of this song.” Jackson was not invited back, and was also fined and blacklisted by MTV and US radio, as well as reportedly banned from the Grammys.
Timberlake detailed some sexual acts he had allegedly engaged in with Spears after they’d broken up according to clips in the documentary, including laughing when questioned whether Spears had remained a virgin until marriage and admitting to “oral intercourse”. But it’s worth turning the spotlight here on the male media moguls who conducted these interviews and asked the questions in the first place. Who could forget the 2004 Rolling Stone article wherein a male journalist admitted to not only asking about an 18-year-old Lindsey Lohan’s breasts (whether they were “real”) but also joked about ogling them and touching them with a hug, “to confirm'' that she hadn’t had plastic surgery. Like Spears, Lohan has struggled with mental health issues after launching her career around the same age and in the same environment.
What is the dark legacy of this attitude in the 2020s? Countless female celebrities and public figures have had their nudes leaked as revenge porn. Stars like Chrissy Teigen have been mocked for experiencing infant loss. Female journalists receive death and rape threats daily.
It’s clear that women and mentally ill women deserve better. The question is, will society finally recognize that in ways that make tangible differences? Hopefully, with the continued conversations about the struggles of women like Spears, we’ll get there a bit quicker. The reactions to Framing Britney Spears have been strong; we can only hope that they translate into productive discussions about the intersection of misogyny and mental health crises, and a true examination of our society’s terrifying tacit acceptance of a woman’s loss of liberty.
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