Framing Britney Spears: want to “Free Britney”? Then reflect on your own role in celebrity culture

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It’s easy (and comforting) to pile blame on Britney Spears’ father, Jamie, and her ex-boyfriend Justin Timberlake, but it’s much harder to reckon with our own culpability.

In 2007, Britney Spears endured what has been described as a “very public” breakdown. Shortly afterwards, she was placed under a legal conservatorship that removed her control over her own finances, career and wellbeing – and instead granted all power to her father, Jamie.

However, as The New York Timesdocumentary, Framing Britney Spears, has made abundantly clear, a conservatorship is something which is usually limited to people with diminished capacity who might not be capable of making decisions.

And, as a result, the singer’s fans have come together to launch the #FreeBritney movement, which claims that the singer is a prisoner in her own glamorous life.

“She has NEVER had control over her life,” reads a viral Instagram post from one such fan.

“I don’t care if you personally like her or her music, NO ONE DESERVES THIS.”  

Last November, Spears’ court-appointed lawyers filed for Jamie to be removed as conservator, arguing in LA court she was “afraid of her father.”

“She will not perform again if her father is in charge of her career,” they added.

At the time, the judge in the case declined to remove Jamie, but added Bessemer Trust as a co-conservator and corporate fiduciary.

At yesterday’s hearing, though, many celebrated as Jamie lost his bid to retain the power to delegate investment powers for the estate.  

Despite this seeming setback in Jamie’s attempts to regain full control over his daughter’s estate, his attorney Vivian L Thoreen released a positive statement praising the co-conservator arrangement.

“My client looks forward to working with Bessemer to continue an investment strategy in the best interests of his daughter.”

The next hearing is scheduled for 17 March, and countless supporters of the #FreeBritney movement have taken to Twitter to wonder aloud whether the singer will finally be able to “unshackle herself” from her father.  

Britney Spears during Britney Spears performance on the Today Show. Britney's new album "Oops... I Did It Again" has reached five times platinum in six weeks in the charts. Britney's Today Show appearence brought the largest audience ever to date, to see the supestar live. at Today Show in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by KMazur/WireImage)
The #FreeBritney movement has been looking for people to blame for the singer’s downfall.

This is, of course, unsurprising; Jamie Spears has, after all, become the primary villain in the #FreeBritney narrative – for obvious reasons.

“‘My daughter is gonna be so rich she’s gonna buy me a boat’. So Jamie Spears said this, after being absent from his daughter’s life and this is the person who is in charge of her finances,” tweeted one person of Spears’ controversial conservatorship after watching the Framing Britney Spears documentary.

Many, too, have called on Justin Timberlake – who dated the singer from 1998 to 2002 – for slut-shaming his ex-girlfriend to further his career.

“Justin Timberlake cheated on his wife on camera and the media focused on that for half a day,” said one of the many people calling for the NSYNC star to apologise for his role in Spears’ downfall.

“Britney showed cleavage at the age of 18 and the media harassed her ever since.”  

As per the documentary, Spears was accused of cheating on Timberlake, and Timberlake seemingly bolstered this version of events with the music video to his single Cry Me a River, which depicts the singer catching a Spears lookalike sleeping with someone else.

Timberlake also revealed during a radio interview that he had slept with the singer, despite her doing her absolute best to keep her sex life out of the public eye – which fed into the Madonna-whore complex that the tabloids were spinning about her.

A number of other celebrity villains from the Framing Britney Spears documentary have been named and shamed on social media, too – including former Maryland First Lady Kendel Ehrlich (who said that if she “had the opportunity to shoot Britney Spears,” she would do it), and Diane Sawyer, who reduced Spears to tears in a 2003 interview when she asked the singer what she did to cause Timberlake “so much pain, so much suffering.”  

And, of course, the paparazzi have been (rightly) called out for hounding the singer every minute of the day – despite her pleading with them to leave her alone. 

They were there to capture the moment she shaved her head because she was “so sick of people touching my hair”. They fought for upskirt shots. They published invasive photos of her children. They followed her after she was denied access to her children and shoved cameras in her face as she cried, prompting her to lash out one of their number’s cars with an umbrella. And they published photos of that same incident, too.

The one villain that has been largely forgotten in all this furore, though? Us.  

Britney Spears announces new charity with The Giving Back Fund - The Britney Spears Foundation on November 22, 1999 at the Hollywood Palladium in Hollywood, California.
A recent documentary about Britney Spears underlined the damaging impact of the tabloids.

It’s all too easy, now, to forget that we were all complicit in Spears’ so-called downfall. But who were the paparazzi snapping photos for if not us? Back then, she was seen as a living commodity, an object to be photographed, fetishised, and pursued to the ends of the earth. She was a scandal to be discussed at the hairdressers, a headline to be pored over, and the butt of every joke. We all read those stories about her, and we all had an opinion on them to share.

Of course, some have recognised this, prompting a slew of apology messages on Twitter (easily identifiable by their #WereSorryBritney hashtags). But, really, these are just so many words; easily said, easily forgotten in the sea of social media. 

Because here’s the thing; Spears is just one (albeit one very extreme) example of the way we treat women in the spotlight.   

Nowadays, the pop singer has our sympathy – but the likes of Meghan Markle, Chrissy Teigen, Taylor Swift, Jameela Jamil, Michelle Obama, Jennifer Aniston, and Sophie Turner do not. Nowadays, they are just some of the women who are constantly being berated and belittled by tabloid culture.

And, while social media allows them to control their own narratives to some extent, many still eat up these stories – even now.

As Jamil herself put it in a frank Instagram post last year: “The system is: build her up, over-congratulate her, overexpose her ‘til people are sick of her face, take her out of context, start the rumour mill and destroy… then on to the next.”

Continuing her point, the actor and activist adds: “Think back to every woman who was darling for a minute and then shamed and disgraced into silence and submission.

“Thankfully I don’t give a flying fuck. So will not be silent and just politely piss off like they want me to. That’s how the abusive cycle continues. Because nobody calls out the pattern.”  

So what can we do to redeem ourselves, really? How can we take the lessons we’ve learned from Spears’ ongoing situation and use them to stop this happening to any more women in the future? How can we avoid becoming the villains once again in yet another person’s story?

Well, perhaps the best thing to do is follow the advice of Aniston, and make a conscious decision to stop buying into the tabloid narrative.

“All of us need to take responsibility for what we ingest into our brains,” she says – words we’ve echoed 1,000 times before, and will do 1,000 times again if that’s what it takes to make them stick.

“We have to stop listening to them, we have to stop buying them because we have to support each other, especially at this time.”

Amen. 

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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