Last Friday, the New York Times and FX dropped the latest episode of their joint documentary series, The New York Times Presents, the highly-anticipated Framing Britney Spears. Dissecting the gut-wrenching tale of the starlet's life and four-decade spanning career, the installment delves into the singer's conservatorship, enacted after her highly-publicized struggles in the late 2000s, and the Free Britney movement, a fan-led cause aimed at elucidating the questionable nature of this legal arrangement. From what exactly a conservator does to her bizarre connection to Monica Lewinsky, here are the ten biggest takeaways from the explosive documentary.
Britney's conservators, including her father, Jamie Spears, who once held control of her person and remains in charge of her finances, have an absurd amount of power over nearly every element of her life, according to legal documents referenced in the film. With the help of security guards that watch over the pop star "24 hours a day," her conservators can select the people she interacts with, and even have permission to "take control of her house." This jurisdiction also spans into her professional life, as her conservators maintain a firm hold over her career and are "deeply involved" in her finances, retaining the ability to cancel her credit cards and make film, TV, and even tour deals on her behalf. Under this legal statute, Britney is also exempt from doctor-patient confidentiality, as her conservators can access her medical records and freely speak with her doctors.
Before her conservatorship began in 2008, Britney was highly involved in both the creative and business elements of her career. "I know all the ins and outs of what I'm doing," the artist said in an archived interview. "I know about all the contracts and all the deals I'm about to do. I'm not just some girl who's listening to my manager."
Britney's strong involvement in shaping her brand left a lasting impression on Kevin Tancharoen, who served as her tour director and backup dancer between 1999 and 2004. "She was definitely in control of a lot of decisions," he said. "That idea that Britney is a puppet who just gets moved around and told what to do is incredibly inaccurate."
Some of this autonomy notably came in the form of creative control over her live shows. "When I was involved in all of those years, we would present a lot of ideas. She would have to like them, and she would have to approve them. She was very creative. She was the one who knew what she wanted to do, and she would make that happen, or her people would make that happen for her." Britney's decisiveness, Tancharoen explained, is even how the two began working together in the late '90s. "That's how I got hired, she just told somebody, 'No, I want him to do it,' and it happened within an hour. She was the boss."
When Britney Spears began her solo pop career in the fall of 1998, with the release of her first single "... Baby One More Time," America was embroiled in the fallout of then-President Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky, a 22-year-old White House intern. As the press and the national conversation delved into the topic of intimacy -- specifically, the relationship young women have with sex, everyone from tabloid writers to late-night talk show hosts like Jay Leno took every opportunity to dunk on Lewinsky, brutally slut-shaming her for her relationship with the Commander in Chief. Amid this media chaos, which many considered sexist, Britney seemed to absorb some of the blowback, facing intense ridicule for her sexy aesthetic.
"The thing that I find fascinating about Britney Spears' arrival at this moment is that she comes in the midst of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal," Wesley Morris, the New York Times' critic at large, recalled. "And it's this really charged moment in the country where we are talking about sex in a way we had never been talking about sex -- or hadn't been for a long time. An exponent of that interest in that relationship bled over into our interest in Britney Spears in some way."
A lot of this sexualization manifested through inappropriate questions from the press. Over the course of the documentary, we see absolutely cringe-worthy footage of reporters asking the young singer about dressing like "a sexy vamp in underwear," her breasts, and even later on, her virginity, all while ignoring Britney's clear attempts at laughing off these awkward inquiries or sometimes, her visibly uncomfortable expression.
While many pop stars, especially male artists, existed in the public eye, according to Hayley Hill, Teen People's former fashion director and the "Crazy" singer's ex-stylist, their unpleasant media experiences paled in comparison to Britney's. "I'll say this, you know, I worked with all the boy bands, all of them, not one of the boys was ever under any scrutiny," she said.
Even though Britney dated former NSYNC member Justin Timberlake in the early 2000s, it seems he's "not that innocent" -- when it comes to some of the pop star's early media struggles. After reigning supreme as the perfect couple for approximately three years, the duo called it quits in 2002 in a messy, public split. "They break up, Justin sort of made it seem -- rightly or wrongly -- like she had cheated on him, it really seemed like he took control of the narrative," ex-MTV VJ, Dave Holmes, explained.
According to Morris, part of this demonization came in the form of Timberlake's "Cry Me A River" music video, which prominently features an antagonistic Britney look-alike. "The way that people treated her, to be very high school about it, was like, she was the 'school slut,' and he was like, the school quarterback or whatever, and he essentially weaponizes the video for one of his singles to incriminate her in the demise of their relationship," he said.
In light of the documentary, and Sunday's Super Bowl, which broached another unrelated incident in which Timberlake ripped off Janet Jackson's top, exposing her breasts during the game's 2004 halftime show, several fans took to Twitter, to express their anger at the "SexyBack" singer ...
... defending both women ...
... and even calling for a boycott of his show until he takes accountability for his past actions.
To quote a certain male pop star's hit 2006 single," What Goes Around ... Comes Around." Just sayin.'
Although Britney's relationship with the press ultimately devolved into an invasive mess, as documented in the film and later by fans online, her relationship with the paparazzi wasn't always so intrusive, according to Daniel Ramos, the former celebrity videographer who snapped the now-infamous photos of the star hitting his car with an umbrella.
"In the beginning, when paparazzis were following Britney, you could tell she enjoyed it. She would give up the shots, waving," Ramos said. "She was very friendly, sweetheart of a girl. It was like she needed us, and we needed her. We both needed each other, and it was a great kind of relationship." However, Britney's interactions with photographers began to sour after the artist gave birth to her first child, Sean Preston Federline, in 2005.
"Once she started having her kid with Kevin Federline, it exploded. Everyone wanted a piece of Britney. The tabloids were paying a lot of money for Britney," he said. As photos of the singer were worth up to $1 million at one point, Britney was often swarmed in public -- even while holding her infant. As a result, the star had to resort to unconventional and sometimes risky means to protect herself and her son from hordes of paparazzi, leading the press to frame her as an unfit parent.
"I went to Starbucks, and I see a bunch of photographers, and I'm scared, and I want to get out of the situation, and my baby's crying," Britney explained to former NBC anchor, Matt Lauer of a 2006 incident in which she was photographed with her child sitting on her lap as she was driving. "They're coming up on the, you know, the sides of the car, which is a scary situation for me, you know, and they're banging on the windows. and that's not something I want my baby, you know. So I get my baby out of the car, and I go home," the star said, adding that she felt the press was "taking cheap shots" for criticizing her parenting skills.
Despite living under a conservatorship for approximately 13 years, Britney has historically remained tight-lipped about the arrangement. The only time the star has ever spoken on the record about her situation was during an interview for her 2008 MTV documentary, Britney: For the Record, where she tearfully expressed her frustration with being heard -- but not listened to -- by the individuals in charge of her life.
"If I wasn't under the restraints that I'm under right now, you know, with all the lawyers and doctors and people analyzing me every day, and all that kinda stuff, like if that wasn't there, I'd feel so liberated, and feel like myself. When I tell them the way I feel, it's like they hear me, but they're really not listening. They're hearing what they want to hear, they're not really listening to what I'm telling them," Britney said, fighting back tears. "It's bad. I'm sad."
As Britney is under such tight restrictions due to her conservatorship, conducting a candid interview with the singer has become a seemingly insurmountable challenge, according to New York Times culture reporter, Joe Coscarelli. "I've never interviewed Britney Spears. I would go so far as to say, anyone who has interviewed Britney Spears, at least in the last five, ten years, did so under very careful watch from her handlers." For this reason, several people have theorized the singer sends coded messages through her social media posts, with two fans, Babs Gray and Tess Barke, even launching a podcast about the matter, entitled "Britney's Gram."
"That's kind of where we started noticing more and more these very cryptic things, she would post," Gray said, specifically citing a picture the star posted in September 2018 of a hole in a brick wall, accompanied by a caption that read "There's always a way out!!!!! This looks like paradise."
"It was just like, God, like, what is this? it almost seems kinda dark." Gray remarked about the photo.
In 2019, during Britney's long and uncharacteristic Instagram hiatus, Gray and Barke received an un-verified voicemail from someone claiming to be a paralegal for an attorney that "worked with Britney's conservatorship." In the message, the mystery caller alleged that Britney was placed in a mental facility, a decision that she did not make for herself. Although the New York Times could not confirm the voicemail's contents or the caller's identity, the duo released an emergency show to share this new information. As they posted about these allegations on social media, they did so alongside the hashtag #FreeBritney. In the almost three years since the episode's release, the Free Britney movement has garnered traction from fans around the world and even other celebrities.
In the days following the film's release, several stars, including country singer, Kacey Musgraves ...
... Sex and the City's Sarah Jessica Parker ...
... Hayley Williams from Paramore ...
... And even Bette Midler have spoken out in support of the movement.
Although the pop star hasn't publicly addressed the Free Britney movement, court papers claim that she is aware of and thankful for her fans' support, especially as she strives to remove her father as the conservator of the estate, allegedly in light of their very complicated relationship.
"At this point in her life, when she is trying to regain some measure of personal autonomy, Britney welcomes and appreciates the informed support of her many fans," reads one document included in the film. "Britney herself is vehemently opposed to this effort by her father to keep her legal struggle hidden away in the closet as a family secret."
Although Britney has relatively little autonomy under her conservatorship, the artist seems to be fighting back against her father's role in overseeing her finances the only way she can -- refusing to work.
"James' attorneys were arguing that there's not really a conflict between Britney and James, but then Ingham [Britney's lawyer] came on and said that that's not true and that Britney is afraid of her father and that Britney has told him on multiple occasions that she is refusing to work until he is no longer managing her career," one activist said of a November 2020 hearing, in which the singer attempted to have her father removed as the conservator of her estate.
If these allegations are true, Britney's choice may stem from the fact that her father directly profits from her career. In 2016, Jamie was making approximately $130,000 per year as her conservator alongside reimbursement on the rent for his office, according to an article from the New York Times. The same year, he requested to receive 1.5% of Britney's gross revenues from her Las Vegas show, in which she was making close to $1 million per week.
It also should be noted that in 2018, Andrew Wallet, an attorney and Britney's former co-conservator, asked the court for a raise. In court documents surrounding this request, Wallet called the star's conservatorship a "hybrid business model," a concerning notion considering the arrangement was enacted for the sake of Britney's wellbeing.
Celebrities, even A-list pop stars like Britney Spears, deserve to be treated with basic human decency -- they may be famous, but they are people, too. As we've seen from this story, the media, the legal system, and even her fans have failed Britney on several occasions, leaving her to fend for herself through harassment from photographers, inappropriate and invasive questions about her body and personal health, and even what several have categorized as guardianship abuse. Whether you're a Britney hater or her biggest supporter, if there's anything to be gleaned from the harrowing tale of her life and struggles, it's that the legendary artist deserves to be treated with respect, kindness, and compassion. She may be one of the world's most famous pop stars, but she is still human.