The documentary Framing Britney Spears, the newest installment of the New York Times Presents series for FX and Hulu, is an hour-long deep dive into the history of the pop icon’s rise to fame and fortune and her almost immediate media implosion. Its particular focus is on the “Free Britney” movement, an increasingly urgent call among Spears fans, and now her peers, for the court to release Britney from the legal conservatorship that gives her father, Jamie Spears, immense control over her career, her estate, her relationships, and her health. It is a thorough, considerate, and enraging hour, giving careful attention to Spears’s unusual legal status and also to the nightmarish storm of media obsession that drove so much of her public image.
Over the past several years there’ve been a few of these major reconsiderations of women who were once widely portrayed as irredeemable disasters — messes, trash, villains, laughingstocks — and who look quite different with even a few years of distance. Britney Spears joins a list that includes Monica Lewinsky, Anita Hill, Marcia Clark, Lorena Bobbitt, and Tonya Harding, an unbelievably tragic list of women whose entire lives were destroyed by media depictions that failed, first and foremost, to treat them as human beings.
There’s a simple decision in Framing Britney Spears, though, that seems like a neutral, painfully obvious storytelling choice. By and large, the hour runs through Spears’s life with a detailed, chronological timeline. There’s a little bit of foreshadowing here and there; it starts with the existence of the “Free Britney” movement and then jumps back to explain how we got to this place. But mostly, Framing Britney Spears makes the call to just walk through Britney’s life, step by step.
For big buzzy documentaries in the past year, a clear, straightforward, and mostly chronological rehashing of the subject’s life goes weirdly against the grain. Tiger King, The Vow, The Last Dance, and the earlier docuseries Surviving R. Kelly each bounced through events with a willy-nilly frenzy. There’s appeal in fucking with and distorting the timeline: Filmmakers can create surprise reveals, hold back interesting information in order to punch up cliffhangers, and generally soup up the overall drama of a story by leaping around through history. For the gain of an extra-exciting narrative, though, the cost is often coherence, legibility, and a basic relationship between cause and effect.
I figured I knew all that, watching Tiger King and The Vow. I knew that those series’ willingness to hop around in time was probably confusing some elements of the story, and knew that if it was illuminating some aspects of the culture they were trying to describe, the timeline confusion was likely also obscuring other truths about the lived experiences of the participants. But it wasn’t until Framing Britney Spears, directed and produced by the Times’ Samantha Stark, that I appreciated exactly how much a straightforward, chronological timeline can be not just an aid for audience coherence, but a tool of radical empathy for the people at the center of the story.
Without the linear outline of Britney’s time in the spotlight that Framing Britney Spears builds itself around, what now stands out to me as a central, fundamental event in Spears’s life might’ve remained a footnote. At the height of her career in the early 2000s, she got married to Kevin Federline, quickly got pregnant in her early 20s, had two children who were born only 12 months apart, and then divorced her husband very shortly after her second child was born. Everything in Spears’s “downfall” — the shaved head, the umbrella incident with a paparazzi’s car, the question of her fitness as a mother, the apparently sudden frustration with all her media attention, the newly troubling partying, the in-treatment care, everything — came right after she had two small children in the middle of a fracturing marriage.
If you cast those events as separate from Britney’s life experiences, if you cut them away from the plain chronology of her life, they look like something intrinsic and troubling about who Britney is as a person. She seems unstable, with no particular cause for being so except that she’s unhinged and uncontrollable. The subsequent conservatorship, where her father takes control of her body as well as her finances, looks like comfortable paternalism because she needs some paternalism. She’s out of control! Of course she needs someone to take a firm hand in her life.
But seen in the context of the events that had immediately preceded Britney’s public meltdowns, the “problem” of Britney Spears that needs to be solved looks instead like a deep, incredibly painful and unaddressed trauma, played out in public without her consent. I can’t say whether Spears was experiencing postpartum depression, of course, and the documentary doesn’t pursue that path very far. It does mention that Spears’s mother Lynne raised the possibility at the time, though, and it presents a clip of Spears in an interview while she’s pregnant with her second child, growing extremely emotional as she describes the pain of her private life being under such intense public scrutiny at that point in her life. “I feel like they’re taking cheap shots,” she tells interviewer Matt Lauer. (Ugh.) “What do you think it’ll take to get the paparazzi to leave you alone?” Lauer asks. “I don’t know,” she says, and starts to cry.
The talking-head narrators of Framing Britney Spears (who include, among others, New York Times senior editor Liz Day and critic-at-large Wesley Morris) do not put the question bluntly to the audience, but the timeline nevertheless offers an implicit criticism of the widespread public perception of Spears. How could we have mocked this one aspect of her life, while ignoring everything that came before? How could we question her fitness as a parent, while utterly failing to empathize with her circumstances as a parent? How could we be such enthralled consumers of her personal life, while cheerfully ignoring the blatant, incredible stresses of her personal life?
The as-it-happened treatment of Spears’s life presents a fuller, more empathetic picture of her, and it also emphasizes something distinct and distinctly awful about the arc of her public image. She begins her music career as a teenager who, like most teens, wants to be seen as an adult. But in Spears’s case, the issue of her age becomes a core tension in her career. At the height of “Oops, I Did It Again,” she is simultaneously too young and too old, which is the spark of her appeal and the engine of most Spears controversy. She’s seen as having too much agency: She’s too powerful for men to resist, and she lures young kids into behaving as she does. And yet by the time Spears is actually an adult, a parent with her own children, she’s seen as an uncontrollable child. Her father is justified in stepping in to infantilize her, to take away her agency at exactly the moment when she’s old enough to wield it responsibly.
As much as anything else, Britney’s story is about never being the right age to take charge of your own life. It’s an illogical and unwinnable trap, and while I think that element would be visible in any thoughtful analysis of Britney’s media portrayal, it’s just devastatingly palpable when presented against the unembellished timeline of her life. She gets older, but the media depiction of her somehow goes backward: She’s a teen too grown-up; an adult too childlike.
Framing Britney Spears made me long for a more considerate treatment of chronological time in most documentary frameworks, even those like The Vow or Tiger King that have to stretch their stories across many episodes and rely on timeline messiness to help amp up the tension. It’s not going to be the case for every documentary, but for so many of the high-drama public deep dives into salacious material, some meaningful consideration of the timeline might be surprisingly revelatory. People experience their lives as one event after another. Honest portraits of people should consider doing the same.