When the documentary The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears premiered on FX in February, it caused a sensation. More than 1 million reactions were tweeted within a few days of its debut. And Justin Timberlake, whose treatment of Spears after the pop stars’ breakup years ago was questioned in the film, felt compelled to issue a statement apologizing to his former girlfriend.
“We were all truly surprised at what a reception there was,” director and producer Samantha Stark said during Deadline’s Contenders Television: Documentary + Unscripted panel discussion of the documentary. “Britney Spears, for a long time, was not taken seriously, was made fun of a lot, you can see throughout her life, with the media coverage. I was worried people would continue to do that, to make fun of that…but it was really, really incredible to see people really ‘get’ what we were trying to show.”
Stark and her collaborators aimed to show how Spears was subjected to a pattern of invasive and misogynistic questions from the media as her fame grew. Case in point: a Diane Sawyer interview from 2003 when the ABC News anchor asked the 21-year-old Spears, “You did something that caused [Justin Timberlake] so much pain…so much suffering. What did you do?”
Commentators felt free to speculate on Spears’ psychiatric condition in the midst of a breakdown that occurred around the time the singer and ex-husband Kevin Federline were engaged in a custody battle over their two boys. For years the paparazzi hounded her, endangering Spears, her children, as well as themselves, in pursuit of material to feed the tabloids. One New York Times reporter notes in the film, “There was so much money to be made off her suffering.”
Showrunner and executive producer Mary Robertson says the time was right to reframe the narrative on Spears.
“We thankfully exist in a post #MeToo universe,” Robertson observed. “Most of us probably carried with us some memory of Britney in the ’90s…some memory of Britney in the early aughts, and we have enough distance now, enough change has been effectuated in our culture that we’re able to revisit her treatment.”
The film also documents the #FreeBritney movement, a push by fans to end a court-ordered conservatorship controlling Spears’ life and finances that was first imposed at the height of her personal struggles over a decade ago. Her father, Jamie Spears, stepped down temporarily as her primary conservator in 2019, but still retains a say in her finances. The film points to evidence Britney no longer wants her dad involved.
“And as we were filming, surprisingly these court documents started coming out indicating that Britney wanted something in the conservatorship to change and that she wanted her father removed,” Stark said. “That started happening over the summer and now it’s spring and she’s still in the same situation. Her father still has the same role.”
From some of her earliest days performing in public, Spears was sexualized in disturbing fashion. Framing Britney Spears includes a cringeworthy clip from Star Search in which a 10-year-old Spears is questioned by host Ed McMahon about dating boys. McMahon seems to suggest himself as a possible boyfriend. Much later, in 2006, tabloids and television news shows thought nothing of showing a graphic “upskirt” photo of Spears taken by a paparazzo. It was snapped at a time when Spears appeared to be in a vulnerable mental state.
“I think there are a lot of very chilling moments in the film that we can learn from,” said lead story editor Liz Day. “An interesting conversation has been sparked in the wake of the documentary on how much we’ve changed around mental health and understanding and discourse around those sorts of issues, but also how much really hasn’t changed. And we look around today and who are we still kind of doing this to today is a really interesting and provocative question.”
Check out the panel video above.