The New York Times takes on the story of Britney’s 12 years of conservatorship
The most recent episode of The New York Times’ documentary series on Hulu, The New York Times Presents, was on Britney Spears, her conservatorship and the #freebritney movement that has been gaining traction on social media.
But before we dive into the documentary, let’s set the stage by looking at what a conservatorship is, and what the #freebritney movement even means. A conservator, as defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “A person, official, or institution designated to take over and protect the interests of an incompetent.” Keyword here: incompetent. Britney Spears is currently in a conservatorship, with her father acting as her conservator. The #freebritney movement is advocating for the end of Britney’s conservatorship, which she has been in for 12 years at the time of the filming of this documentary. Framing Britney Spears looks into what happened to cause this conservatorship, and what has happened since.
The documentary begins by showing us members of the #freebritney movement, protesting outside the courthouse in L.A.. We see her fans passionately marching and holding signs, making speeches and hosting live streams to update others on the court proceedings. We are then moved back in time, to when Britney first began her career. The New York Times interviews Felicia Culotta, one of Britney’s friends from Mississippi, who once served as her assistant. She tells us about Britney’s rise to fame, from a talented young girl to a multi-platinum recording artist. Throughout this, other interviews are added from former stylists, tour managers, reporters, anyone who knew her personally and could give a comment on how she became so big.
The documentary then shifts from Britney’s rise to focus on how she met her downfall. Here, The New York Times adds interviews from paparazzi, magazine editors, and other people directly involved in the tabloid circuit at the time. This is where the documentary moves to look at Britney as a woman who was villainized by the tabloids, a woman who became a punchline for TV shows. The headlines accused her of being a bad mother, or of cheating on Justin Timberlake. The media at the time was incredibly invasive, scrutinizing her every time she went in public, especially when with her children. Britney had to appear on televised interviews to attempt to clear up the rumors, but it rarely helped how she was seen. The documentary includes videos of her being harassed by the media, and many almost made me want to cry because of how brutal these people were to her. This all culminates together and peaks at the infamous moment that Britney shaved her head, and days later attacked a paparazzi’s car with an umbrella. After these two incidents, the decision was made that brings the documentary here today: the conservatorship.
The New York Times tells us that in 2008, Britney’s father Jamie Spears filed for a temporary conservatorship. Months later, the conservatorship was made permanent. In this section, a lawyer, Vivian Lee Thoreen, is interviewed to give the legal explanation of the situation, and how a conservatorship works. Jamie felt that at this time, Britney was not mentally competent enough to manage her affairs, and based the conservatorship on a concern of undue influence from those around her. Then we fast forward to the present, and the concerns of those behind the #freebritney movement. They say that this conservatorship was made 12 years ago when Britney was mentally unstable, harassed by the media, and in a downward spiral. But when we look at her now, she’s performing; she has a residency in Vegas and is able to take care of her kids. The #freebritney movement supporters question: how we can call her incompetent anymore? The rest of the documentary takes a look at the legal side, and how the battle over the conservatorship has been faring in court. It ends on the note that Britney’s father is no longer the sole conservator of her person, but is now co-conservator of her finances with the bank Bessemer Trust.
This documentary was made to compile the data and the rumors together, to give the clearest picture they can of Britney Spears’s conservatorship. Given how the episode was talked about all over social media once it came out, I would say that it reached the audience that it hoped for. The New York Times wanted to let the viewers know that this was happening, and it had a movement gaining momentum. It also used this opportunity to expose the difficulties and darker side of conservatorships, and the way they lock the dependent in. Lee Thoreen says that “Of the cases that I’ve been involved in, I have not seen a conservatee who has successfully terminated a conservatorship.”
Personally, I found this documentary highly informative, as conservatorship has never been something I had even heard of before the issue of Britney Spears’s. I had also been too young during the time of the 2000s to understand what was happening with Britney, and I had grown up without knowing the horrendous treatment she had faced. I knew her meltdown moments as punchlines in the media, so this documentary gave another perspective to what actually drove her to the edge. In this way, I think The New York Times’ documentary about Britney Spears was effective. The viewer feels compelled to side with Britney after seeing the way she was treated by the media in the 2000s, and the documentary paints her today as a strong, capable woman who no longer needs to be locked inside of a conservatorship.
Megan Bostaph is a third year English major who keeps a Britney shrine in their dorm room. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.