You wanna live fancy? Live in a big mansion?
Party in France?
You better work bitch.
How does a girl get free? What does it take for a working-class woman from a troubled home in Podunk Nowhere to win the kind of incandescent independence? In the beginning, Hulu’s explosive new documentary Framing Britney Spears appears to offer the same answer given over the last few centuries of capitalist boom-and-bust: you get rich. Get rich and, better yet, famous and the infinite yeses of the universe unfurl at your feet. Still in her late teens and flush off the success of her first album, Britney went to an ATM in her hometown of Kentwood, Louisiana, withdrew $10,000 in hundred-dollar bills and drove through the streets, handing them out. “I’m a Sagittarius,” says Britney, in an early interview. “I love freedom and I love independence.” There she was: she had made it.
The documentary wheels in a series of colleagues and confidantes to corroborate this, all insisting that Britney was her own woman as we watch footage of the star directing dancers, in command of the recording booth, messing about backstage. Together, their testimony makes her downfall seem all the more capricious; a cruel plot-twist in what would otherwise have been the uninterrupted romance of a woman hauling herself to freedom.
I too want to believe that Britney belonged to herself, even for a minute; that the rewards of female grit are paid in full, no fine print. There’s an enchanting simplicity to the thought. Britney telegraphed a kind of confident vulnerability that hypnotised me as a child, without words for the sexual code I would soon be expected to navigate. She was in total command of her body. She could be devastated in love and come back smiling. She could be beautiful and desirable and yet nothing bad could happen to her. It looked to me like power, like fun. It still does. Off-stage, it was a different story.
Framing Britney charts the star’s journey from international sweetheart to internet punchline. A woman who briefly stood at the giddy apex of artistic and financial freedom had it snatched from her by a motley crew of ruthless paparazzi, cruel exes and unscrupulous family members. Chief among them is her father, Jamie Spears, architect of the conservatorship agreement which declared Britney incompetent to make key decisions about her life (it is usually reserved for people with dementia). The agreement, which Britney has been under since 2008, handed near-total control to her co-conservators, Spears Senior and the lawyer Andrew Wallet. For over a decade, the pair had final say over Britney’s medical treatment, social life, access to her sons and, of course, her career. Both got a fair few Britney Bucks for their trouble.
All of which begs the question: if Britney had been at the helm of her life, why was it so easily hijacked? The documentary has no satisfactory answers. It presents a rogues’ gallery without interrogating what facilitated their roguery. It is a story about a patriarch without patriarchy; about freedom without power; about money without capital.
Take the problem of artistic control. The documentary stresses that Britney always held sway over key artistic decisions, and there’s doubtless truth in that: she continued to produce chart-topping music through public scandal and private pain. It’s also easy to see why a storyteller would want to emphasise Spears’ self-possession as a performer, her extraordinary talent, mastering melismas while other children were mastering second grade. In any case, it’s refreshing to see a pop princess not dismissed as a vapid vessel for male managers and audiences. But this overplaying artistic credentials ends up underplaying the power of the forces at play.
The question is not whether Britney had the capacity to make artistic decisions, but whether she had the power to do so as a contractually-bound employee and high-value asset rolled into one. Even before her conservatorship agreement, Britney was a highly-managed product. After she left the Mickey Mouse Club, and on the advice of her managers, she famously abandoned her lower tones in favour of what would be nicknamed her “baby voice”. The change was at the least encouraged by her management, readying her to become the girl next door. In 1997, a 16-year-old Britney was teed up to lead a girl group managed by Lou Perlman, a major player on the music scene. For a band name, the 40-something Perlman suggested “Innosense”. In 1999, Britney graced the cover of Rolling Stone. Laid on silky pink sheets in her underwear, cradling a Teletubbies doll, the strapline read: “Inside the heart, mind and bedroom of a teen dream”. Britney would go on to accuse photographer David LaChapelle of tricking her into undressing and posing with the dolls.
Wherever you see someone scantily-clad making money, people will accuse them of “selling their body”, as though there’s something inherent to sex which strips you of bodily autonomy. It’s a great way to avoid talking about the realities of the work; to gloss over the financial, legal and political structures that actually disempower workers by recasting sex-adjacent work as the doom beckoned by despoiling the temple of feminine purity. The music industry trades in extremely young women sold as professionally and sexually self-possessed – commanding and subverting the male gaze, playing off contradictory expectations of virginity and sexual hyper-availability – but with little actual agency behind the scenes.
Britney Spears was both worker and product, her body and image part-confiscated from her and transformed into a well-oiled machine for converting desire – and later disapproval and disaster – into profit. They were the means of production, and so could never be allowed to belong entirely to her. First, a network of managers, labels and record executives bought in; then multi-billion-dollar entertainment companies. Finally, a pack of prurient tabloid shock-jocks for whom spectacular failure could move more copies than dazzling success. Britney’s is a state of glamour – of influence, perhaps – but we shouldn’t mistake that for autonomy.
Of course, Britney’s eventual mental health spiral was big business. Hollywood loves a tragic blonde; one that allows us to luxuriate in moral superiority, reassured of how thoroughly sex, drugs and rock’n’roll corrupt young women, while having a cracking pair of tits to ogle at the same time. In response to press cruelty, Britney had the gall to act like someone who had been treated cruelly. Unsurprisingly, this secured a permanent target to her back, the press desperate to exculpate themselves confirming that Britney was not a mistreated woman but a crazy bitch whose in downfall they were passively documenters, rather than active conspirators.
Britney’s attempts to take back control only redoubled their efforts. She attacked the car of a paparazzo who had been following her. She shaved off her prized golden locks; “I’m sick of everybody touching me,” she said. She wasn’t just trying to regain authorship over her own image, but to vandalise her own value. Setting fire to the factory of herself. It was no good.
Where the tabloids could not extract value from a glamorous star on the rise, they would happily leech off a tearaway young mother at the end of her rope. Cue a well-practised sideshow of ritually humiliation women for minor infractions, the pathologising of pain as proof of feminine fragility.
The conservatorship offers a cartoonish exaggeration of this dynamic. For its legitimacy, it mined the same deep seams of misogyny that shaped Britney’s image. Depowering women in their work and then mistaking their powerlessness for incompetence; spurring on many-layered suspicions of sexuality and the shame attached to misbehaving motherhood.
Most sinisterly, it testified to how ready the state was prepared to strip a woman of her freedom when the business of her body was at stake; when she was not deemed a good CEO of herself. Perhaps we should not be surprised: under capitalism, the women’s work and reproductive capacities are the most fundamental graft in the economy; the state therefore reserves the last right to strip us of control and call it charity. It seems extraordinary only because these tools were trained on a star. Fame and money protect you from the ordinary unfreedoms of work – or at least, that was the promise.
When Britney’s headline shows in Las Vegas did gangbusters at the box office, her co-conservator Andrew Wallet requested a raise, arguing the conservatorship “should be viewed as a hybrid business model”. Truly, it was the most perfect business model a boss could wish for, and a classic repackaging of the endgame of workplace discipline – to strip the worker of control over their life – as paternalistic concern. Bosses love to think they are doing you a favour.
The wheels started to come off the conservatorship, however, when Britney walked out on what was feted to be a lucrative second Las Vegas show. Her strike marked an escalation in her conservatorship battle which recently saw the pop star finally wrest back control from her father. Perhaps her conservators became so comfortable in their stranglehold that they forgot how radically they depended on her, neglected the one power they could not confiscate: her labour. In the end, Britney’s is a story about a girl who, at long last, begins to get free.
Eleanor Penny is a writer and regular contributor to Novara Media.