The framing of 'Framing Britney Spears'

Or, how media needs to be better.

Last night, I watched the New York Times documentary on FX, “Framing Britney Spears,” and my goodness, what an indictment on media and pop culture. Oh, and a heaping portion of sexism and misogyny. It is very tough to watch.

The 75-minute documentary, which is ostensibly about Spears’ legal considerations (she is under a conservatorship, since 2008, that places her father in charge of all aspects of her life) and the social media-turned-real-life movement #freebritney, is more, at least to my eyes, a narrative about the media’s (from news to entertainment, and of course, the paparazzi) thirst to build up a person beyond any sense of “normalcy” and then tear them down. 

(Here’s a great BuzzFeed piece on the #freebritney movement)

The viewer is put into an uncomfortable position when they see adult journalists like Diane Sawyer asks a 21-year-old Britney Spears about being a virgin, her break-up with Justin Timberlake, and experimenting with drugs:

The cringe part comes when Sawyer digs into her relationship with Timberlake, which the documentary highlights: (~24:00 in the link above): 

Sawyer: “He has gone on television and pretty much said you broke his heart. You did something to cause him so much pain so much suffering. What did you do?” 

Britney: “I was upset. I was upset for a while. We were both really young...”

Sawyer: “But you said, ‘I’ve only slept with one person in my whole life, two years into my relationship with Justin.’ And yet he left the impression that you weren’t faithful. That you betrayed the relationship.”

Sawyer, after Spears gives her non-answer answer, cuts to expository of how Timberlake “has made a kind of sport out of retaliation,” showing a clip of him going on the radio and saying he had sex with Spears. 

Which then leads to the documentary showing how Sawyer pivots to the ‘harlot as role-model’ theme that pop culture both pushes and abhors, highlighted by how Sawyer explains to a shaken Spears that the then-First Lady of Maryland, Kendall Erhlich, said, “really, if I had the opportunity to shoot Britney Spears, I would. (30:53 in the link above).”

Spears reacted appropriately: “Oh, that’s horrible.”

Sawyer doesn’t respond appropriately; instead of saying, “I know, right?! That’s absurd,” the journalist justifies Erhlich by saying, “because the example for kids; and how hard it is to be a parent and keep all of this away from the kids.” 

Spears, again, reacts appropriately: “Well, that’s really sad.”

On Saturday, Erhlich simply posted a link to a non-apology apology from 2003:

Meanwhile, people are flooding TImberlake's Instagram page with comments, BuzzFeed reports, calling on him to apologize to Spears.

Liz Day, a NYT editor on the doc, writes about the media’s role in shaping Spears:

In 2006, Matt Lauer asked Ms. Spears to respond to criticism that she was a “redneck.” That same year, did the paparazzi actually take a graphic up-skirt photo of Ms. Spears a couple of months after she gave birth, and the public’s reaction was to largely laugh?

During the height of her public struggles in early 2008, a “Family Feud” episode featured contestants gleefully shouting out answers to “something Britney Spears has lost in the past year” with “her husband,” “her hair” and “her mind!” (Other approved answers included “her kids” and “her dignity.”)

There is a system at play, and one with which the New York Times mentions (through the smart perceptions of Wesley Morris) but yet doesn’t feel compelled to explain its own role in perpetuating the systemic misogynistic and sexist themes of ‘celebrity coverage.’

It’s easier to explore the 100,000-foot view, looking down, but it would serve the viewer, if not the subject, more to show how media covered Britney and other famous women of that era. There is a nod when we see this 2006 New York Post front cover about Spears, Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan pop up on screen:

Want some more cringe? Here’s the lede to a 2004 Rolling Stone article about Lohan:

LINDSAY LOHAN HAS BEEN EIGHTEEN FOR JUST UNDER A WEEK when she tells me her breasts are real. I did not ask (gentlemen never do), though my reporting (discreet visual fact checking, a goodbye hug) seems to confirm her statement. Lohan fields queries about her breasts in most interviews, which is probably why she decided to pre-emptively address the issue. “My little sister reads that stuff,” Lohan says. “She called me up one day and was like, ‘I heard you got that Pamela Anderson thing.’ It’s just so retar-” Lohan stops and glances at her assistant. They smile at each other in an inside-joke sort of way. “Stupid,” Lohan continues, and when I look puzzled, she says, “I have to watch myself. I guess I say ‘retarded a lot, and this group got mad at me.”

There comes a time in the life of every teenage girl who works for the Disney Corp. when that girl realizes she has suddenly – how shall we phrase this? – “broadened her appeal.” For Annette Funicello, back on the original Mickey Mouse Club, that point came when boys began to notice the tightness of her regulation Mouseketeer sweaters. In more recent years, fallen Mouseketeers Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera recognized that music videos involving school uniforms and/or nude body stockings would exponentially increase fatherly, big-brotherly and creepy-uncle-y tolerance for music that’s pretty much unlistenable if you’re not a thirteen-year-old girl.

For its part, the New York Times has 3,001 results for “Britney Spears” since 1999. And it looks like the first mention, on February 28, 1999, is a single mention in an article questioning what makes a pop artist these days. 

Where a generation ago, rock critics and record companies announced the arrival of a new ''masterpiece'' every month or two, mainstream pop has reverted to the detached consumerist ethic of the pre-Beatles era. Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys rule, and audience loyalty to a new act rarely extends beyond one or two records. As for art-pop, the radio formats that sell records leave little room for sounds that don't conform to strict niche-market formulas.

Looking through the NYT archives, she is referred to everything from a “vixen” to a “train-wreck.” 

Ok, back to the documentary.

Journalists weren’t the only offenders here. The late night comedians used Spears as a punching bag. Earlier today, former late night talk show host Craig Ferguson was trending on Twitter because he specifically and vocally chose to not use Spears as a cheap joke. 

While the documentary is about the tangled web of Spears’ life—from who controls it to how she navigates it—it also holds a mirror to society’s lust for creating stardom, and then salivating while we destroy what we created. 

So the question, like many documentaries on uncomfortable truths pose, becomes: now what? What have we learned and how do we prevent repeating our mistakes so that we don’t have to say, “oops, I did it again.”

The doc’s title gives an answer: framing. When we’re writing about women entertainers, whether in film or music, especially in arenas that play off their sexuality, we don’t have to actually make a whole entire story about a woman’s breasts. Their skill and talent and work ethic should be enough. 

We can also hold men accountable. One thing that comes through loud and clear in this film is that male equivalents of Spears are not put under the same microscope. Why does Timberlake get a pass? Why does Jamie Spears, Britney’s father, get to play guardian and savior? This is what it means when we talk about systemic issues.

The good in all of this: we can change these systems. First by understanding they exist, and then working to dismantle them and build something better, more equitable. 

Thank you for allowing me in your inbox, today and every day. If you have tips, or thoughts on the newsletter, drop me a line. Or you can follow me on Twitter. If you arrived here via social media or through a colleague please consider signing up. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you tomorrow!

Billy Joel, “The Entertainer”

Some interesting links:

For superhero origin stories:

For the future of media:

  • Spaghetti-Os Pie: Why gross viral food videos are popular (The Atlantic)

  • Mark Cuban is co-founding a podcast app where hosts can talk to fans live and monetize their conversations (The Verge)

  • EU ready to follow Australia’s lead on making Big Tech pay for news (FT)

For lawsuits:

  • Fox News files motion to dismiss Smartmatic defamation suit (L.A. Times)

For using local media to push an agenda:

  • Inside Biden’s heavily local media push for his coronavirus rescue package (Washington Post)

For potentially problematic workplace issues:

  • Reporter Forgoes Covering President as Romance Blossoms with Biden Aide Battling Cancer: ‘Didn’t Think Twice’ (People)

For media criticism:

  • Describing a Slur Is Not the Same As Using It (NY Mag)