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The autonomy of teenagers is a perpetual moral moving target. Adult judgements on teenagers’ levels of responsibility can be so coloured by wider ideological positions – an environmental activist deemed fully in control at 15 while an Isis recruit is a hapless dupe, or vice versa – that young people themselves can seem more like avatars for wider social anxieties than people in their own right. Nowhere is this haphazardness more evident than in the treatment of teenage sexuality, subject as it is to wildly variable legal controls and social attitudes around the world; and nowhere is teenage sexuality a more lucrative and contentious matter than in the pop music business.
Framing Britney Spears doesn’t really explain why or by whom the decision was taken to market the titular pop star from the very start as a jailbait sex bomb, from the erotic groan that commenced her 1998 debut single …Baby One More Time to the 1999 Rolling Stone cover shoot in which she posed provocatively in her childhood bedroom surrounded by toys. Samantha Stark’s film presents the hyper-sexualisation of Spears as at once naturally occurring (“She just captured so well that dichotomy of what a teenage girl is… teenage girls want to be women, but they are also kids,” says her former manager Kim Kaiman. “You would be lying if you said you didn’t want to be sexy!” says Spears herself in an archive interview) and aberrant in terms of its impact (“This was boy-band time; girls didn’t sell, so it really was a phenomenon!” Kaiman also comments) – but not really as a decision made by adults, which it also must have been.
The film, in which Spears herself did not participate, is on surer ground when it comes to the backlash she faced for embodying such a porn-inflected version of America’s Sweetheart. A briefly visited analogy with the concurrent Clinton-Lewinsky affair is rather vaguely applied, but we certainly see how the opprobrium and mockery meted out to Lewinsky from across the political spectrum was mirrored in Spears’s case.
If Spears’s swift journey from beloved and co-operative paparazzi target to abused quarry has a miserable familiarity to it, still less edifying is the spectacle of ostensibly credible journalists masking their prurience and judgment with shows of dewy concern. Diane Sawyer is seen prodding Spears about her morals and sex life until Spears, framed in merciless close-up, dissolves into sobs and implores, “I’m embarrassed, can we stop this now?” The Today Show host Matt Lauer (since exposed as having pursued and harassed numerous female subordinates) needles Spears about whether she maintained proper health and safety practices while she was holding her baby and being pursued by photographers.
Spears was initially lambasted for representing inappropriate precocity, but worse was in store for her when she married and had children. In one decade, Spears had publicly morphed through the female archetypes most triggering to misogynists: tempting virgin; castrating sexual powerhouse; mum with priorities other than turning men on.
Though Stark’s film evokes this grim period with heart-piercing effectiveness, it’s inescapable that it does so by reusing images and footage that were only gained by hounding its subject.
Once the narrative shifts to more recent events in Spears’s life – the assumption of control of her affairs by her father via a controversial legal conservatorship, her own growing resistance to this, and a campaign by fans to ‘free’ her – further uncomfortable resonances emerge. Though the fans who scour Spears’s Instagram account for cryptic clues to her wellbeing undoubtedly feel that they have her best interests at heart, their sentimentality and lust for drama don’t feel that different from what motivated the media frenemies of Spears’s heyday. “She never gave a clue or information to us that, ‘I would appreciate you guys leave me the eff alone,’” claims paparazzo Daniel Ramos, one of those who snapped her as she shaved her head. “If Britney tells us to leave her alone, then we will do just that,” says a Free Britney fan-activist.
And perhaps they would; but it’s an uncomfortable resonance the documentary doesn’t quite approach, raising the question of whether impassioned social media conspiracy theories reflect any more humanity or confer more dignity than have previous intrusions into Spears’s life.
But this film – produced under the banner The New York Times Presents – is, like many other examples of the form, an effort to contribute to and capitalise on a juicy ongoing scandal; like HBO’s recent Allen v. Farrow, it is a component of the phenomenon on which it comments. That it has already drawn an elaborate public apology from Spears’s ex-partner Justin Timberlake (though he comes across here as merely young and caddish) is an indication of its level and intended impact: it’s a documentary about public shaming, for an era in which public shaming is arguably more effective than ever.
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Sight & Sound May 2021
In our current issue, Barry Jenkins talks truth, justice and his powerfully resonant series adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Plus Promising Young Woman and the virgin/whore trope, Aubrey Plaza on Black Bear, Martin Scorsese’s discovery of Joe Pesci, Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning, and a classic Satyajit Ray interview. Available in print and digitally.Find out more and get a copy