With the success of the high-profile New York Times documentary ‘Framing Britney Spears’, it seems that everybody wants to #freeBritney. As we watch her drama unravel, we’re drawn in, we sympathize and we want to join the movement. Spears must be saved; Britney must be freed. Yet close as we may feel, as an audience we have no way of knowing this Britney Spears. We play a part in a media game, and our engagement with the circus turns us into accomplices.
The person behind the persona
Britney Spears, like any other celebrity, is not really a person. There exists an individual by this name, made of human flesh, who eats and poops and sleeps, but this is not the person who features in our media and minds. That Britney Spears is a persona, a result of media representations and a product of the culture industry. This public character comes to us solely via media, and although she is related to the person, the two should not be confused.
As audience members, fans and haters alike, we cannot help but do exactly that: constantly conflate the persona with the person. This distinction is actually one of the major appeals of engaging with celebrities, it suggests to the audience that it’s possible to overcome the gap between the person and the persona, to find the ‘real’ behind the image. Media invite us to play this game of identification, and The New York Times documentary is no different.
Levels of meaning
‘Framing Britney Spears’, despite its noble journalistic credentials, serves us the classic star myth: we meet an ordinary girl with an extraordinary talent. The best stars went from rags to riches, and the Britney story doesn’t disappoint: her poor upbringing is foregrounded, the hardships suffered highlighted. The New York Times wasn’t the first to spot Britney’s worth as a star story, much of the viewing allure of the documentary lies with the familiar images and narrative that many of its viewers grew up with.
The meaning we attach to a celebrity comes from the cumulation and amalgamation of different ‘texts’ about the celebrity. Britney Spears happens to be the perfect example to explain this with, precisely because she is such a classic star.
At the basis, there are primary texts such as songs, like ‘Oops!…I did it again’. They become meaningful because of secondary texts: interviews, red-carpet appearances etc. So when we heard Britney talk about her relationship with Justin Timberlake, the song got an added level of significance. All these meanings then mix together with tertiary texts: the ways other members of the audience talk and gossip about Britney and her life. Let’s not forget that Britney was marketed as a virgin, the whole ‘did they or didn’t they’ fueled both their fame and makes ‘Oops!…I did it again’ especially enjoyable.
Closeness and savviness
To solve the celebrity puzzle (is it the person or the persona?), the audience searches for clues. Stars, because of their ordinary/extraordinary qualities, feel both close and distant to us. The more clues we think we’ve got, the closer we feel. That’s why people that have known the star in real life are such valued talking heads for these documentaries.
It’s a wonderful game to play from the comfort of the couch. Not only are we entertained, we might even feel savvy and critical: not fooled by the constructed images, aware that what we’re presented with is not an authentic self.
Fans are highly invested audience members, and the ones that feel closest to the star. They might think they’ve bypassed the persona and have somehow gotten to the person. Often, they compare their own lives to that of the star, mistaken in this belief that they know the person. ‘Framing Britney Spears’ contains multiple fans who express these feelings. Their investment allows them special status, they’re expert detectives. They perceive their involvement with Britney as ‘giving back’. However, the relationship between a star and a celeb is always exploitative, on both parts. It exists in a media system that capitalizes on attention.
Train wrecks unfolding
This exploitative nature of celebrity isn’t discussed in the documentary, although exploitation is a major theme. For instance, several paparazzi are featured who take no responsibility at all for Spears’ 2007 breakdown. Their ‘defense’ is indistinguishable from the ones paparazzi provide in documentaries about Lady Diana, who like Spears was hunted by the press and whose story has many parallels. She, of course, did not lose her legal capabilities, but her life.
Blaming the paparazzi is letting ourselves off easy. We feast on celebrity crises. There are many others who’ve crashed in front of the cameras: Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse, Lindsey Lohan. We’ve followed their fates like train wrecks unfolding. Child stars are especially attractive, or have we forgotten Michael Jackson so fast? It’s the dark side of the celebrity game, but we are nonetheless part of it.
From tabloid dominated celebrity culture to a celebrity-controlled Instagram culture
Media culture has changed. The paparazzi of the nineties and zeros were paid by magazines who thrived in the pre-social media era. Spears, like Houston, Winehouse and Lohan, came to fame in a peak pop moment. Since then, we have moved from a tabloid dominated celebrity culture to a celebrity-controlled Instagram culture. Both are characterized by constant surveillance.
Stars are no longer dependent on third parties to communicate with their fans. Out is the middle man: the magazine editor, video director or PR person. The star selfie is a victory of self-power: they decide the setting, angle and filter. Or at least, that’s the idea. It means that paparazzi have lost a lot of bargaining power, their awkward snapshots of celebrity newborns are worthless when celebrity moms post their baby’s all over the internet. What hasn’t changed, is that the star still needs to constantly subject themselves to the audience’s gaze.
The ‘fan activists’ of the Free Britney movement are concerned about Spears’ Instagram feed. They doubt whether she actually has control over it, they question her agency. They follow her every move; they obsess over possible signals. Now, it’s the fans that chase her. The similarity between them and the paparazzi is particularly striking in the documentary, when a fan uses the same phrasing as a photographer: “if she asks us to leave her alone, we’d do that”.
Spears’ 2007 breakdown is the turning point of the documentary. Up until there, we play the conventional celebrity game. After that, we are sucked into a true crime-like narrative about an alleged evil dad. Again, we are encouraged to search for clues. This turn allows us to forget our own role in the circus, as if we are no longer accomplices.
It seems apparent that ‘Framing Britney Spears’ aims to help free Britney by asking questions and raising concern about her father’s hold on her. But this documentary is distinctly not about the phenomenon of a conservatorship. That would have required an entirely different build up, and different talking heads. We never learn what Britney needs to be freed of. At first sight, it’s the conservatorship. But there’s much more at stake than command over her financial affairs, and the documentary barely touches upon the legal side of this construction. Spears can be rid of her dad, but as long as a she’s a celebrity she can never be in control of her life.
Her assistant remarks at the end of the documentary: “I know that at one point she will tell her story.” But there is no ‘her’ that’s knowable to the audience, neither is there a ‘her story’ that will ever satisfy. There’s only the game. The puzzle of the person and the persona can by its nature never be solved.
In 2007, the US vlogger Chris Crocker went viral with an emotional appeal to the world: leave Britney alone. Maybe we should.