The iconic photos of Britney Spears’ shaving her head are still pretty relevant to pop culture, almost 13 years after the infamous incident. It seems like the media won’t let anyone forget about the “decline” of Britney Spears, though the situation was much more complex than past coverage let show.
“Framing Britney Spears,” a documentary by the New York Times, breaks down Britney's latest conservatorship battles by exploring both her success and her struggles. And in order to understand the conservatorship, one needs to understand exactly what Britney went through. As the film shows, Britney’s story is one about choice.
With the rise of the #FreeBritney movement and the scrutiny of past celeb coverage in general, I think the internet has collectively felt bad about the way the media and society treated Britney. #FreeBritney is the social media movement demanding the freedom of the pop star from her conservatorship, which was put into effect in 2008 amid a series of publicized mental health struggles.
A conservatorship is similar to a guardianship, except the judge-appointed conservator will have legal guardianship over another adult — the conservatee — instead of a child. Typically, conservatorships occur when the conservatee might have mental or physical restrictions that prevent them from managing their finances or daily life, such as old age.
In 2008, Britney Spears’ father Jamie was granted a temporary conservatorship over his daughter, giving him control over Britney’s finances, business, health and personal life. Though it was supposed to be short-term, the conservatorship has been in effect until today, 13 years later. Britney doesn’t want to be free from the conservatorship itself, however, she reportedly doesn’t want her father to be her conservator anymore.
Fans have long been advocating for Britney’s release from the conservatorship with her father, but the #FreeBritney movement really started to gain mainstream momentum after an episode of the podcast Britney’s Gram, during which an anonymous ex-member of the firm overseeing Britney’s conservatorship reported concerns over Jamie’s control over Britney’s life.
The 40 minute documentary juxtaposes footage from rehearsals, home videos, interviews and paparazzi clips in order to capture her change over the years. Britney’s joy for her work is extremely palpable, as viewers meet the bubbly persona America first fell in love with. Immediately, we start to see the sexism and criticism emerge, as interviewers probe the young teenager with questions about her love life, raunchy clothing choices and even her virginity.
Viewers witness Britney continually stripped of her power throughout her career, as she faces constant scrutiny from the public over her relationships and her ability to parent. All the while, the media continues to release joke after joke about Britney, leading up to night she shaved her head.
As New York Times critic Wesley Morris puts it, “She’s saying essentially, with no hair, ‘I quit. Whatever you guys are looking for in terms of me coming back and being that person again… that person is gone and you have destroyed her.’”
At the time, I remember Britney’s sudden transformation as a pop culture punchline, rather than an introspective moment for the industry to take a look at the way they treat and portray celebrities.
I really liked this approach to explaining Britney’s conservatorship, though it makes me wonder about how society thinks about mental health in general. Britney doesn’t owe the public any reason for acting the way she did, nor do her mental health struggles negate the fact that she deserves control over her own life. Though Britney did not respond to interview requests for the documentary, it would be interesting to hear her thoughts on the past — uncensored and uncontrolled — rather than anecdotal commentary.
The documentary also implicitly poses a critical question to society and media; have we changed the way we treat celebrities— specifically those who aren’t male?
While I concede the media is making efforts to be more inclusive (thankfully, we don’t question young celebs about their virginity anymore), that hasn’t stopped other forms of scrutiny. Billie Eilish has spoken out about her baggy clothing choices, but that hasn’t stopped trolls from commenting on her body. When Miley broke from her “Disney” phase, she was met with backlash from the public. Young celebrities are endlessly analyzed for their bodies and life choices.
So while I believe the public owes endless apologies to the Lindsays, Parises and other women so cyclically over-sexualized and shamed for it, we should also be paying attention to the present. After all, #FreeBritney is a movement— by the public— to save Britney from what the public did to her.
Thumbnail photo "Britney Spears" is courtesy of public domain.