- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Tumblr
In 2006, Britney Spears appeared on Dateline with the now disgraced television anchor Matt Lauer. The emotional interview, which is eerie to watch 15 years later, was promoted to the public as an opportunity for Spears, who had suffered at the hands of a parasitic media, to, in Lauer’s words, “set the record straight.” Yet the wide-ranging conversation never veers far enough away from the headlines and the photographs, which she repeatedly refers to as trash, to give her a chance to do so.
At one point in the interview, Lauer asks Spears about the media frenzy surrounding the infamous photo of her first child sitting on her lap while she’s in the driver’s seat of her car. “It’s not like ‘Did Britney record a bad song?’ ‘Is Britney wearing a bad outfit?’ ‘Is Britney in a bad marriage?’,” Lauer says of the headlines that responded to the photo days after it was taken. “It’s ‘Is Britney a bad mom?’ ” Spears sits patiently, occasionally punctuating Lauer’s recitation with a knowing “Mm-hmm.” At the end of his list of questions the press has asked about Spears, the pop star responds, with a weary smile, “That’s America for you.”
That succinct and discerning statement assumes new meaning these days, on the heels of a handful of documentaries about Spears and the conservatorship from which she’s fighting to be liberated. Divergent in their views and quality, Netflix’s Britney vs Spears and FX/Hulu’s Controlling Britney Spears (a follow-up to February’s Framing Britney Spears) reflect this country’s unchanged obsession with the Princess of Pop. The investigative docs were released in the days leading up to Spears’ Sept. 29 conservatorship hearing, when a judge removed her father, Jamie, as conservator of her estate. Yet their timing points to the complicated and distressing relationship between Spears and the media.
Spears has always been a subject of American fascination. The blond singer with light brown eyes and an accent that points to her roots in rural Louisiana grew up under the watchful gaze of the nation. From her Mickey Mouse Club days to her promotional tours at the mall, the country seemed to adopt her as a daughter, a little sister, a niece and a friend. She had an aspirational coolness about her and managed to balance being both a vision of white innocence and a sultry sex icon. That duality did not make everyone comfortable — and wasn’t that always the issue, everyone else’s comfort? As a result, Spears was under constant verbal assault for her image, her body, her character. She was always too much, never enough.
Framing Britney Spears and its sequel, Controlling Britney Spears — which are part of the New York Times Presents series on FX and Hulu, and were directed by Samantha Stark — structure the pop singer’s story in the context of the misogyny she faced, the #MeToo era and a contemporary media more aware of its role and complicity in her undoing.
Framing opens with images of Spears’ fans and the #FreeBritney movement, which helped bring increasing scrutiny to the details of her conservatorship. Times reporters and critics contextualize her rise, explaining the role she played in the cultural imagination and the factors that contributed to her fall. There are mentions of paparazzi and damning interview clips that show how inappropriate the media’s attention has been. But for anyone attuned to the destructive role of publications in Spears’ life, those acknowledgments, which are not apologies, might not feel like enough. Included in this first installment are interviews with her exuberant but firm assistant Felicia Culotta and people who have worked with Spears, all of them insisting that, contrary to what the public believed at the time, the singer was always in creative and financial control of her life.
The second part of the Times investigation, Controlling Britney Spears, is a more hard-boiled look at the intense surveillance Spears was and is under. It zeros in on Black Box Security, the company hired to protect (and monitor) her, and TriStar Sports & Entertainment, Spears’ business management team. Many of the revelations in this second documentary come from Spears’ head of wardrobe, Tish Yates, her tour manager Dan George and Alex Vlasov, a former executive assistant and cybersecurity manager for Black Box. Their testimony focuses less on Britney herself and more on the people working to control her. It’s a tightly conceived documentary with a straightforward approach to the case.
Britney vs Spears tells a story that’s similarly sympathetic story toward Spears, but it takes a different approach. It’s less subjective than the FX and Hulu offerings and possesses a true-crime documentary quality. Documentarian Erin Lee Carr (Mommy Dead and Dearest, How to Fix a Drug Scandal) tells a now-familiar story of Spears’ rise to pop stardom and the isolating, troubling nature of her conservatorship.
The documentary, which premiered Sept. 28 on Netflix, suffers mostly from terrible timing. Arriving after the two FX and Hulu documentaries and a CNN special that aired Sept. 26, it feels a bit like overkill. Yet Carr, who appears onscreen with journalist Jenny Eliscu to talk about Spears’ case, clearly cares about Spears to the extent that those of us who have watched her grow up and consider ourselves fans do. The duo’s attempts to show their own investigatory process — including a clip of them downloading files sent by an anonymous source — can at times feel clumsy and less than rigorous, but it’s sincere. The most confusing aspect of Britney vs Spears is how prominently it features the voices of her former manager Sam Lutfi and her ex-boyfriend Adnan Ghalib, whose roles in the star’s life have been the subject of intense scrutiny.
If these documentaries reveal anything, though, it’s that the obsession with understanding Spears and tracking the minutiae of her life hasn’t waned, and in fact feels more desperate than ever. Is the media really trying to hear Spears, to see her as a person, or are these ventures simply a way to reshape her narrative for a different market and generation? The metric being used to rank these projects — based on how interesting the revelations or how sympathetic the portrayal — feels misguided as well when we consider them alongside the role collective spectatorship has played in Spears’ life up until this point.
At the beginning of that Dateline interview, Spears tells Lauer, “My safety, my privacy and my respect are three things that I feel are trying to be taken away from me right now.” It’s a sentiment that unfortunately still rings true.
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day