Framing Britney Spears is finally available to legally view for Australian audiences this week. Earlier this year, internet discourse was taken by storm by the documentary, which was made by Hulu and The New York Times. As conversations around Britney, her father, misogyny, the toxicity of stardom and the callous ruthlessness of the media continue to grow, the public's interest in arguably one of the most iconic musicians alive has resurfaced once again. We've seen Britney Spears rise, fall and rise again before the concerning and mysterious limbo she finds herself in now – and we cling to every move. Her situation has become such a conversation topic that Netflix very recently announced their own plans for a documentary on Spears.
But that announcement means that the media, and to a smaller extent everyone else, didn't really learn much from Framing Britney Spears at all.
As far as storyline goes, Framing Britney Spears is predominantly about the details of her conservatorship case, and what led to it. Her father, Jamie Spears, has been in charge of her estate for over a decade. This case has been hugely controversial, as Britney has consistently asked to be freed from her conservatorship in various degrees. It wasn't until very recently that Britney scored a slight win. Bessemer Trust is now co-conservator and corporate fiduciary, as per Britney's request. The trust was given this role temporarily upon Jamie falling ill late last year, and he argued the appointment has stripped him of some of his power as conservator.
This is a win for Britney, and is seen as a glimmer of hope for her fans and #FreeBritney supporters, the number of which has grown astronomically since the release of Framing Britney Spears. Upon airing on the Sky Documentaries channel in the UK, the documentary was watched by over 200,000 people – tripling the channel's previous viewership record. Just like in the late 90s and in 2007, Britney Spears is front and centre in the pop cultural zeitgeist. But, once again, this is completely out of her control.
Just over a week following the initial premiere of the documentary, Netflix announced plans for its own doco on Britney, directed by filmmaker Erin Lee Carr. While the project was already underway prior to Framing's debut, it's hard for me to see this as anything more than a cash grab – the dust hadn't even settled before Netflix came in to stir it up once again. The documentary's success, and its virality, is astounding, so it isn't exactly surprising that another streaming giant wants to capitalise on it as well.
But as the case continues to move at a glacial pace, with details kept relatively hidden from the public, it feels unlikely that a new documentary will provide anything new or substantial. Large parts of Framing Britney Spears was archival footage with additional commentary to help place her story under a different light. It wasn't about presenting new information – it was about presenting old information in a new way. The only people who can really add anything new had already declined, or didn't respond, to The New York Times' requests to be interviewed for Framing Britney Spears. These people include:
- Jamie Spears, Britney's father
- Lynne Spears, Britney's mother
- Jamie-Lynn Spears, Britney's sister
- Bryan Spears, Britney's brother
- Andrew Wallet, Britney's former co-conservator for almost a decade
- Samuel D. Ingham, III, Britney's lawyer
- Sam Lutfi, Britney's former manager
- Britney Spears herself
Besides Lutfi circumspectly acknowledging the existence of the original documentary on Twitter, and calling Jamie's attorney Vivian Thoreen "Satan's septic tank", none of the key players seem to want to share their stories at all. This could be for a number of reasons – respect for Britney, to avoid obstructing legal proceedings or, in Jamie's case, to evade any further public vilification. What, then, could another documentary want to add to the conversation? More importantly, what can it add?
Secondly, Erin Lee Carr's filmography is almost exclusively centred on legal issues and battles, but there's a specific focus on true crime. This is where a huge problem has the potential to arise – we're toeing a very dangerous line of using Britney's trauma for our own entertainment, once again. True crime media – be it podcasts, television series etc. – is outrageously popular. These stories give us the thrills and haunts of any good Hollywood blockbuster, with the added gravity that the events actually happened. (Note: MTV itself has its own slate of true crime content.) Scott Bonn, author and professor of criminology at Drew University, wrote a piece for TIME about why people are fascinated with the genre, with attention to serial killers.
"The public's fascination with them can be seen as a specific manifestation of its more general fixation on violence and calamity," he said.
"In other words, the actions of a serial killer may be horrible to behold but much of the public simply cannot look away due to the spectacle."
If we exchange serial killers here for, say, the public breakdown of highly accessible celebrities, the message largely stays the same. Netflix's choice to announce a new documentary on Britney Spears mere days after another went viral is a choice to keep that spectacle alive. Sure, many media outlets and celebrities referenced in Framing Britney Spears have retroactively apologised for their contribution to her public image, but ultimately that public image is still the conversation topic. In this sense, this new documentary might tell a similar story to Framing Britney Spears, but it also has the clear potential to be presented under a darker – and therefore more enticing – lens.
The leap for a cash grab over sensitivity is something we see in true crime media often. This week, Nine (the same Australian channel that will air Framing Britney Spears in Australia this week) announced they had greenlit a crime drama based on the disappearance of Sydney woman Melissa Caddick – whose foot was found two days ago at the time of writing. The network's head of drama, Andy Ryan, told The Australian, "The mystery of Melissa Caddick's disappearance … has all the elements of a gripping crime thriller, as well as a moving personal tragedy."
A tragedy that…only just happened.
The trauma of Britney Spears no longer conjures up visions of her shaved head or her wielding an umbrella. Now, it has the image of Britney dancing in her house, posting many selfies and her refusal to even slightly reference anything to do with her conservatorship. As we and the media continue to pry to find details of what's happening behind closed doors, we have created a new spectacle around Britney Spears' life that Britney Spears didn't want to portray. With that considered, how is a new documentary's presumed desire to unearth new information about her private life any different to how the paparazzi invade her space in footage shown in Framing Britney Spears?
This isn't the first time Netflix and Hulu have gone head-to-head on documentaries on the same topic – having both produced films centred on the ill-fated Fyre Festival a few years ago. With a glutton of streaming services as our disposal, the people behind each of them have to find ways to differentiate themselves from one another. No, Netflix can't air Framing Britney Spears on its platform but it can deliver its own production of the same story.
More concerning is that the Netflix production will probably do very well, for reasons beyond the popularity of the topic. Firstly, Netflix has a lot more money behind it. Hulu's 2019 reported revenue was 3.5 billion USD. Netflix's 2019 reported revenue? Well over 20 billion USD. More money means more resources for both execution and promotion. Furthermore, Netflix has the distinct advantage of being available in many countries around the world, as opposed to Hulu, which is only available in America. In that sense, Framing Britney Spears went viral despite its geographical barriers – a problem which Netflix doesn't have to worry about. This means the spectacle will resurface inevitably once again, and have the ability to spread much faster. This battle for commodifying trauma feels very familiar to issues raised in Framing Britney Spears, where tabloid covers, paparazzi and journalists scrapped with one another to get the winning angle or the winning shot – all of which at Britney's expense. The problem isn't merely another documentary, but a documentary with the international reach of Netflix.
Society might no longer be shaming Britney for her choices, but instead we pity her situation. We don't know if Britney's seen the documentary, nor we do know her thoughts on it, but Framing Britney Spears is a bunch of other people telling Britney's story – something the very same documentary condemns. The merits of the documentary lie in its intention to raise awareness of the issue of Britney's conservatorship, which it did to a level beyond what anyone behind it could have conceived. But with awareness raised, there's nothing more at this point that another documentary – telling the same story – could give us, besides another spectacle.
Whether it's a shameless cash grab, a power play or perhaps even just a good-hearted but misguided project, we don't need another documentary on Britney Spears' life, at least not at the moment. Framing Britney Spears outlined why. The pop star's personal life might continue to be embroiled in feuds, trauma and courtroom battles, but it shouldn't become a circus. And if we've already passed that point, then we need to remember that we don't have to buy admission.
Note: This is an opinion piece, written by one of our writers. MTV Australia acknowledges that our company also produces shows and content that look at the lives of real people.