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‘Framing Britney Spears’ recalls toxic treatment of the pop star at her highest and her lowest

Thought-provoking FX documentary examines the role of the music industry, the press and her fans in shaping the singer’s image.

The career of Britney Spears (pictured in 2019) has been under a conservatorship controlled by her father for 12 years.
VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images

On a 2008 episode of “Family Feud,” the category was, “Name something Britney Spears has lost in the last year!”

The most popular answer was “HER HAIR,” followed by “HER RESPECT/DIGNITY,” “HER MIND” and “HER HUSBAND.”

A decade before that, a Dutch TV interviewer said to the teenage Spears, “Everyone’s talking about it … well, your breasts. You seem to get furious when a talk show host comes up with this subject.”

In the 10 years between those two odious TV moments, Britney Spears released a series of chart-topping albums, played sold-out concerts across America and around the globe — and became a tabloid sensation as her life spiraled out of control. “Framing Britney Spears,” the latest installment of the “The New York Times Presents” docuseries on FX and Hulu, is a thought-provoking retrospective on Spears’ life and career, up to and including the conservatorship battle as Spears continues to fight her father in court.

Britney Spears performs at the World Music Theatre in Tinley Park (now the Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre) in 2000.
Sun-Times file

The aforementioned TV clips are featured in the documentary, along with snippets of numerous interviews, performance clips dating to when Britney was playing shopping malls, and interviews with the longtime family friend who became Britney’s assistant (and still has her home decorated like a shrine to Spears); the marketing exec who helped shaped Britney’s image; various attorneys; a remorseful paparazzo, and members of the loyal band of supporters who held rallies and marched to “Free Britney Spears.” (In the closing credits, we’re told, “The New York Times attempted to reach Britney Spears directly to request her participation in this project. It is unclear if she received the requests.”)

For 12 years, ever since Britney was put under a temporary psychiatric hold in Los Angeles, Spears’ father Jamie (and/or his representatives) has held conservatorship over her estate, business affairs and assets. Spears reportedly won’t work again until her father is permanently removed from the equation, much to the chagrin of those fans who talk about how much Britney meant to them when they were young and struggling with their self-esteem, and how much she still means to them. (The case continues to wind its way through the courts).

Supporters of Britney Spears rally at an August 2020 hearing on her conservatorship in Los Angeles.
Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

“Framing Britney Spears” also makes it clear we in the media were hardly innocent bystanders when Spears’ personal life became something of a cruel ongoing joke. There’s a telling snippet of a 2008 CNN broadcast, when Michael Moore was on Larry King’s show, and King tossed to Anderson Cooper so Cooper could tease his program, which was to include a segment on Spears’ latest troubles.

King: “Do you think the Spears story is ever going away?”

Cooper: “It’s just sad, I don’t know what’s going to happen with it …”

Moore jumps in: “I was gonna say, it’d be less sad if we just left her alone. Why don’t we just leave her alone, and let her just go on with her life?”

We couldn’t. We wouldn’t. We won’t.

Of course, like every pop star sex symbol (male and female) in modern music history, Britney and her team put herself out there and courted controversy and welcomed the attention, but as “Framing Britney Spears” reminds us, it takes a global village — stars and fans, publicists and promoters, serious journalists and bottom-feeding paparazzi — to make this happen, and we’re all in this together. Sometimes that makes for a wonderful marriage of talent and fame and fandom; nearly as often, it’s a long-term recipe for disaster.