Stage fright: the tricky unease of the Britney Spears documentaries

Ekt’s understandable to feel overwhelmed by the current wave of Britney Spears content – the last week of September saw the premiere of not one but three documentaries (FX on Hulu’s Controlling Britney Spears, Netflix’s Britney vs Spears, and CNN’s Toxic: Britney Spears’ Battle for Freedom) on the subject of her conservatorship, the peculiar and suspect legal arrangement that has left her father and a business team in charge of her affairs for 13 jare. Verlede week, a judge suspended Jamie Spears as the pop star’s conservator following allegations of emotional abuse and exploitation, claims spotlighted by the #FreeBritney movement that has ballooned over the last year from fringe social media group to pop cultural cause du jour.

The public interest in and intense feeling for Britney’s situation – by all investigative accounts, one of undue control and exploitation for the better part of her late 20s and 30s – is a natural outgrowth of both the gravity of the allegations and Britney’s ubiquity as a millennial pop icon. How broken must a system be to entrap one of the most famous women in the world in silence for over a decade? How was this happening for years in the public eye?

Both the Netflix documentary, directed by Erin Lee Carr, and the New York Times’s film, directed by Samantha Stark and a follow-up to Framing Britney Spears, released in January, attend a rally by #FreeBritney supporters outside a Los Angeles courthouse this past June, for a hearing in which the 39-year-old singer addressed the conditions of her conservatorship publicly for the first time. As seen in Controlling Britney Spears, supporters wave Britney flags, wear #FreeBritney merch, signpost their devotion to the singer in shirts and signs; people cluster around phones and computers as she speaks to the court, hanging on to every word. The relief and fury at her testimony feels more than justified – she speaks of feeling bullied and silenced by conservators who made millions off her labor and, among other alleged abuses, forced to her receive an IUD to keep her from having more children. Her laundry list of grievances, like many other emerging stories from the shadowy world of conservatorships, is genuinely horrifying.

But the intensity of emotion around Britney’s case – more specifically, the intensity of devotion to freeing Britney as an identity, the fixation on saving her or encouraging her to save herself, and the subsequent wave of media engaging with it has begun, vir my, to tip into the queasy. When does it become too much? Fascination with Britney’s case could shed light on a system rife with abuses, neglect and indignity. It can also boomerang into obsession that disregards Britney’s wishes for privacy, one that resembles the furor which precipitated her mental health crisis in 2007 and led to the conservatorship in 2008.

Of the Netflix and Hulu projects, Controlling Britney Spears is by far the more substantial and organized film, with access to former tour assistants and a member of Black Box, the security firm paid by Britney’s conservatorship, which offer genuinely galling evidence that her conservators exploited her labor, forced her into a mental health facility in 2019 when she refused to perform another Las Vegas residency, spied on her text messages, and recorded conversations in her bedroom.

There’s a dark current of obsession in each of the films – in Controlling Britney Spears, it’s the adjacency to a protest movement that, while ultimately correct on the restrictions of Britney’s conservatorship and instrumental in pressuring the court for change, has often strayed into the conspiratorial (analyzing the singer’s Instagram posts for secret clues, byvoorbeeld) or self-important.

In Britney vs Spears, whose access was largely scooped by the Times, it’s the bounds of the project itself. Carr’s edge in terms of access over the Times are two shady figures from the early conservatorship era: Sam Lutfi, Britney’s former manager who her family claimed drugged her (he denies this), and Adnan Ghalib, a paparazzo-turned-boyfriend frozen out by her father. The film privileges their experiences of adjacency to Britney’s white-hot fame and shifting legal arrangements; Britney vs Spears replays footage from that traumatizing time with little new insights other than to replay it again. Carr and Jenny Eliscu, co-producer and a former Rolling Stone journalist who has profiled Britney, appear on-camera as amateur detectives making sense of the conservatorship’s dense web – a decision that highlights their emotions (thrill, disgust, horror) over the real person they’re ostensibly trying to help. There’s an ick factor here – a project loyal to the singer and committed to her freedom, that nonetheless draws attention from her past and current pain.

The duality of attention on Britney can maybe never be reconciled; discomfort is inherent to the Britney story. She soared to popularity as a teenager leveraging coquettish but confident sex appeal. For many, she remains an avatar of resilience before misogynistic dismissal and abuse, or an embodiment of the compromises teenage girls make in leveraging their hollow cultural cache, die delusions and deceptions of empowerment. None of this feels good to think about. The original New York Times documentary in January used this discomfort to sickening, clarifying effect – in just presenting a distilled capsule of the Britney’s career arc in chronological order, in just reminding us of the camera flashes and what images became normal, the 75-minute film offered a searing indictment of both the conservatorship and media exploitation of her personal life.

That discomfort can be productive; as part of an emerging genre of projects which re-examine female tabloid figures of the 90s and aughts (ranging wildly in scope and tone, from American Crime Story: Impeachment, aan Lorena, to OJ: Made in America, to even I, Tonya), Framing Britney Spears precipitated a larger conversation over who, besides her conservators, profited off Britney’s evident pain, in plain view. Public opinion has undoubtedly affected the case; it’s not far-fetched to say that without public outcry, Britney’s conservators would’ve remained in place – after all, she told her court-appointed lawyer and the court itself multiple times of her dissatisfaction and was ignored.

Britney’s feelings on recent coverage shouldn’t be the only journalistic consideration, but given their tone of concern for her, it’s notable that she has taken issue with the documentaries. In Maart, she wrote on Instagram that the New York Times documentary left her “embarrassed by the light they put me in” and so upset she “cried for two weeks”. In Mei, she took to Instagram to criticize the BBC documentary Battle for Britney: Fans, Cash and a Conservatorship: “They criticize the media," sy het geskryf, referring to ceaseless scrutiny of her life and career, “and then do the same thing 🤔🤔🤔 ????? Damn.” In a since deleted post on 27 September, Spears wrote: “It’s really crazy guys … I watched a little bit of the last documentary and I hate to inform you but a lot of what you heard is not true !!!” (It’s unclear which of the three documentaries she was referring to, but a source told TMZ it was CNN’s Toxic: Britney Spears’ Battle for Freedom).

Is the end goal of these projects, and of larger cultural obsession with her case, really Britney’s desires – which are, na verneem word, to retire and have more children with her new fiance? Or an examination of the shadowy, overgrown conservatorship system? Or is it continuation of the very one-sided fame relationship that Britney seems to have wanted to escape from, vir jare.

A telling moment comes partway through Britney vs Spears: in the aftermath of Britney’s divorce from the backup dancer and tabloid punching bag Kevin Federline, Carr, in voiceover, recalls thinking: “Now hopefully with her divorce almost finalized, she would get back to performing for us.” I do not at all assume bad faith on the part of Carr, who genuinely seems to care for the singer and her plight. But the “for us”, hier, is doing a lot of work. Who are these projects for? Who does devotion to Britney Spears serve? The answers get thornier even as the travesty of her conservatorship becomes clearer.

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