Searching for hope in Britney Spears documentary

It’s hard to find heroes in beleaguered former pop star’s life of litigation and lies.

Framing Britney — documentary, 1 hr 15 minutes, now streaming on Crave.

Framing Britney is nothing less than a horror film. The bombshell documentary following Britney Spears’ rise, fall and ongoing battle for legal autonomy is top of everyone’s Twitter feed right now, and for good reason. It’s heart-wrenching, intimate, and phenomenally well done.

Through a series of vintage newscasts, talk show clips and original interviews with key players in Spears’ story, the documentary paints a terrifying picture of what the American public wreaked upon their so-called sweetheart. It’s a story with very few heroes and far too many villains — the media, the legal system, the Spears family, and capitalism itself are all held in scathing reproach as the tale of the icon’s tragic downfall is pieced together bit by bit. It’s a landmark piece of film that’s sure to play a significant role in Spears’ future and it’s absolutely essential viewing. But despite its in-depth reporting, diverse cast of characters and commentators and harrowing footage, it fails to seek true accountability.

Framing Britney is an eerie watch from the start. It’s like watching Titanic in 1997 — we begin the film already knowing how the story ends. Spears is still held under her father’s conservatorship and the film shows that this year’s overwhelming outpouring of fan support did little to sway the courts’ most recent decision on her freedom. Spears and her career are still barely more than a product to be sold by her father, who’s struck gold in the Britney business: One hundred percent of the money she’s made from the albums, tours, brand deals and residencies performed over the last 12 years is in his control. When he hires lawyers to advocate for her continued subjugation, they are paid entirely with Spears’ money, just like everything else he owns. And under the terms of their arrangement, she’s not allowed to retain counsel at all.

And while it’s a tragic watch from the opening credits, Framing Britney gets more tense with each scene. The film does a terrifying job of throwing the materialism, excess and blind fanaticism of the mid-2000s tabloid era into stark relief. It’s impossible not to feel sick to your stomach as you watch a teenage Spears cry on television or wade her way through throngs of jeering paparazzi. The film works hard to capture the rancid misogyny of the aughts and the ways it contributed to Spears’ eventual spiral — but it misses a major mark by turning a blind eye to the sins of the music industry.

Central to Framing Britney’s thesis is the presentation of Spears’ early career as the heyday of her autonomy. As the first scenes of the film chronicle her rise to fame, several witnesses vouch for Spears’ creative control and empowerment during the promotion of …Baby One More Time, an album that hinged its success on the hyper-sexualization and commodification of a pubescent girl.

It’s heavily implied that the album’s sexed-up marketing was an empowering decision rather than an exploitative one. A New York Times critic says onscreen that Spears’ true appeal during this era was in her confidence and all criticisms of her persona are dismissed as prudish, sexist, and evangelical. Sources are brought in to allege that the teenage Spears was a “boss”  — despite her own recounts of manipulation and exploitation during this time.

But should we not question the morality of a record company turning a teenage girl’s hyper-sexualized body into a billion-dollar business? Is it really off-limits to criticize an institution that put a child in a schoolgirl costume to sing about sex and then led her to a media circus like a lamb to the slaughter? Some of the most powerful pop stars in the world today are still fighting a losing battle against the music industry. Are viewers really expected to believe that 16-year-old Spears was in complete control?

The film’s gender politics are obvious and can border on clumsy. Misogyny is often correctly named as the cause of Spears’ public ills, but it’s overused at the expense of digging deeper and it serves to let some players off the hook. Consciously or not, the voices highlighted in Framing Britney frame her life as a battle of the sexes. The people portrayed as the “good guys” — a record company executive, her stylist, her talent agent — are overwhelmingly women, while the “bad guys” — a paparazzo, a tabloid editor, a vindictive classmate — are all men. Her mother is good, her father is bad.

But the reality is that most of the women in her life failed her just as much as the men did. The filmmaker’s decision to paint the stylist that created her sexy-teen image and the marketing executive that sold it to the world as heroes in the Spears story is disingenuous. Despite a valiant effort, the documentary falls just short of criticizing the music industry that built her up and then threw her to the wolves, the consumerism that demanded to be satiated through misogynist tabloids and the money-hungry capitalism that made it possible for a teenage girl to be turned into a commodifiable object.

My problem with this is that there’s nothing we love more than a redemption arc. We’ve seen the cycle play out on young starlets time and time again: Janet Jackson, Winona Ryder, Kesha, Taylor Swift, Spears. It sells far more papers to tear our idols down and build them back up years later to begin the cycle anew than it does to treat them kindly and we have such a specific and insatiable bloodlust for feminine suffering that it’s almost always women that receive this treatment. While the occasional male heartthrob is unlucky enough to get wrung through this spin cycle — Justin Bieber is a perfect example — it’s an exception to the rule. By and large, nothing sells magazines like the specific, ferocious fervor with which we hunger for women’s pain.

The music industry is exploitative, violent, and capitalist and it will continue to set young women up for profitable self-destruction for as long as we’re willing to let it off the hook. And for all its strengths, Framing Britney does just that. By painting Spears’ career as an empowering, self-driven mission that was somehow derailed by a series of extenuating and external factors, it fails to aim its bullseye at the right target.

However, there are far more things that the documentary does right. The inclusion of sources that seem to genuinely care for Spears elevates the story from shocking to downright heartbreaking. The decades-old footage of Spears’ on-screen abuse holds the era’s rabid talk-show hosts and tabloid publishers in precisely the level of contempt they deserve.

The final act offers hope in the form of Spears’ most dedicated fans, who have created a thriving movement that uses multiple social media platforms, podcasts, rallies, and marches to fight for her release from captivity. Perhaps most importantly, the film has already instigated mass reflection online on how the public treated Spears during her darkest hours, which has led to a communal call to shift the way we scrutinize, exoticize and inevitably demonize female celebrities.

Framing Britney may not be a hopeful story, but it is a necessary one. More than anything, I hope its massive cultural impact will serve to dismantle the profit machine built on female suffering — even if a part of me fears that it’s just another cog.