‘Framing Britney Spears’ Is A Damning Portrait Of How We Treat Female Celebrities
We were all complicit in the 2007 downfall of Britney Spears. But have we learned anything since then?
“You know, really, if I had an opportunity to shoot Britney Spears, I think I would,” said Kendel Ehrlich, the wife of then Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich, as she addressed a crowd at a domestic violence conference in 2003.
This is the short and shocking clip that is played back to Britney Spears, then just 21, as she sits in the hot seat being interviewed by Diane Sawyer on Dateline. “Oh, that’s horrible. That’s really bad,” she responds, looking horrified.
Despite the young girl trembling before her, Sawyer chooses to defend Ehrlich, calling Britney a bad role model before suggesting that she has no one to blame but herself for the backlash. “It’s because of the example for kids and how hard it is to be a parent,” she tells the singer.
There are many heartwrenching moments that take you back as you watch Framing Britney Spears, a documentary by the New York Times. Though, of all the turbulent snippets — from the pearl-clutching misogyny to the detestable justifications of a paparazzo that personally harassed the star — this moment is the one that crystallizes the film’s thesis.
At just over an hour and fifteen minutes, Framing Britney presents a chronological timeline of Britney’s rise to global stardom. While for many, the film doesn’t introduce anything new, it does challenge the way we have all digested Britney’s career. Instead of presenting her in the precise eras, we tend to reminisce about the star with a glow of nostalgia, the documentary succeeds in suturing fragments of information, ultimately revealing a harrowing picture of years of senseless cruelty endured by one woman.
Whether it’s Ed McMahon asking a 10-year-old Britney if she has a boyfriend, the incessant interrogation about the star’s sexuality — more specifically her virginity — or the stomach-turning footage of a frazzled young woman being hounded by the paparazzi, it’s hard to shake the rising anxiety that fills your chest as you watch what pushed Britney to her breaking point.
Though, what makes the film palpably disheartening is that between then and now, not much has changed.
From Public Destruction…
The guests and interviewees in the documentary frame the vilification of Britney as though they’re drawing in the distant past — as though they’re outdated thoughts that we’ve simply evolved beyond. The truth is we’ve learned almost nothing from the public destruction of Britney at the hand of tabloids, photographers, interviewers, journalists, VJs, wives of politicians, Timberlake and countless others.
And what the documentary articulates is how this all culminated in what we all know happened in 2007.
We’ve learned almost nothing from the public destruction of Britney at the hand of tabloids.
Footage of Britney shaving her head on February 16, 2007 at a hair salon in Tarzana, California was captured by over 70 photographers and was immediately reported around the world. We’ve all seen the infamous photos, and we all know how it went from a hairdresser refusing to shave her hair to Britney grabbing the clippers herself, as paparazzi clamoured against the windows to get the million-dollar shot. Some reports claimed that her own security guards laughed as it all unfolded, some alleging they were also paid off to give paps a better shot of the ordeal.
In a 2019 documentary, Britney Spears: Breaking Point tattoo artist Emily Wynne-Hughes, who was there that night, explained that she asked Britney why she did it. “I just don’t want anybody, anybody touching my head,” she allegedly told Wynne-Hughes. “I don’t want anyone touching my hair. I’m sick of people touching my hair.'”
Tabloids reported the story with a flagrant disregard of her humanity. Headlines like “Bald Britney ‘Shears’ walks out of rehab,” “Britney’s hair ‘on sale for $1m,” and “Britney Spears shaved head to beat drug tests” popped up everywhere as late-night talk show hosts slotted the deterioration of her mental health into their opening monologues for cheap laughs and ratings.
Having been treated as a commodity for years leading up to this, it seemed as though her blatant cry for help continued to be monetized, whether it was phony eBay listings for Britney’s chopped locks, cheap shots in corny comedy routines or a “Britney Shears” toy doll.
Most of us probably feel a lot of shame about this time. Whether you were young and didn’t know any better or profited off her demise, many of us wished that someone at that moment cared about the then 26-year-old Britney. That as she cried in her car before walking into that salon, that she had someone to confide in, someone’s apartment to run away to, somewhere to feel safe, even just for a moment.
…To Public Punchline
But despite now realising that the world failed Britney at her darkest hour, she remains a punchline.
As recently as 2017, Katy Perry poked fun at Britney’s mental health while interviewed at the Grammy’s. When asked about taking a break between albums by Ryan Seacrest, she responded: “That’s called taking care of your mental health… and I haven’t shaved my head yet.”
In another interview on the same night, Perry spoke about her new blonde hair joking that “It’s like the last colour in the spectrum that I can do,” she said. “I’ve done all of them and the only thing left to do is shave my head, which I’m really saving for a public breakdown. I’m down for that. I’m almost moments away from that, obviously.”
In 2014, Jersey Shore star JWoww quipped that she “pulled a Britney” when she shaved the side of her hair. In 2018 a fan posed with Britney during a meet and greet, and posed to later photoshop an umbrella, mocking how Britney infamously attacked a paparazzo with an umbrella the same night she shaved her hair. RuPaul Drag Race star, Gigi Goode joked about Britney shaving her head in 2020, in a post that celebrated their shared birthday.
Today, if you search for “2007 Britney” on Etsy you’ll find a hoard of shops selling everything from mugs, t-shirts, and even face masks commodifying her 2007 breakdown.
Sure, conversations about mental health have now progressed to the point where Demi Lovato is afforded a comeback after her almost-fatal overdose, Selena Gomez can speak about depression in her Vogue cover story, Kendall Jenner is allowed to confess about her bouts of anxiety with reporters, and Justin Bieber is able to candidly talk about his loneliness as a child star. But the wheels of change are still deathly slow, and we still refuse to afford celebrities much humanity — and Britney continues a be a dirty and easy punchline.
Billie Eilish is hounded by reporters and fans about her body, despite draping herself with baggy oversized clothes as she begs to be critiqued for her music rather than her sexuality. Kim Kardashian was robbed at gunpoint in Paris, only to be mocked with a Halloween costume based on her haunting account of that night. Kehlani admittedly attempted suicide after she was inundated with vicious attacks on social media following rumours swirled about her cheating on her boyfriend.
She wasn’t allowed to be a young girl without being sexualised. She couldn’t enjoy her success without being tormented about her body.
We’ve seen it all before, too many times. We’ve seen the worst of media’s corrosive attacks, with Amy Winehouse having perhaps the most tragic outcome, with her untimely death in 2011.
What Framing Britney makes abundantly clear is that it wasn’t the fame itself that damaged Britney, or that she couldn’t handle it, but rather it was caused by the people around her denying her humanity.
She wasn’t allowed to be a young girl without being sexualised. She couldn’t enjoy her success without being tormented about her body. When she took agency over her femininity, she was threatened with violence. When she and Timberlake broke up, he monetised the split and weaponised misogyny to make bank — and it worked. When she broke down, she became a legacy punchline, one that’s all too easy to grasp and even easier to get a laugh out of. Still, through it all, Britney Spears has endured.
Framing Britney Spears offers a sobering reminder of society’s ability to switch from caring to callous. While the #FREEBRITNEY movement continuing to petition for the end of her conservatorship, they also attempt to hold those complicit in her gruelling demise accountable and demand that we do better. But the question remains: when the next Britney arrives, are we prepared to change our ways, or is history doomed to repeat itself?
Kish Lal is a writer and critic based in New York City. She is on Twitter.
Photo Credit: Dave Hogan/Getty Images