Say the name “Britney Spears” and you will likely be met with an eye roll. Millions of us can rattle off the chorus to the pop star’s 1998 hit, “Baby One More Time,” even if we’ve never consciously chosen to listen to the song. Her life and lyrics have been everywhere for years. So when I saw there was a new documentary about her life, Framing Britney Spears, I admit my first reaction was to ask, “Really? Do we really need more Britney?”
It’s not only Spears’s devoted fans who know the details of her life. So too does anyone who has stood in a grocery-store line and glanced at the tabloids. Details of her divorce, her parents’ divorce, her various battles with addiction and mental illness, the custody of her children, her hairstyle, weight, and friendships have been consumed on a massive scale for more than two decades. Now at age 39, she has endured global scrutiny, fame, envy, and mockery for well over half her life.
Framing Britney Spears, now available on Hulu, is motivated in part by a fan-led movement called #FreeBritney. #FreeBritney has called attention to the controversial conservatorship that gives Spears’s father, Jamie Spears, sole decision-making power over her finances, career, property, contracts, appearances, etc. Britney Spears has asked to be released from this arrangement and refuses to perform again until this happens. As the hashtag suggests, her fans believe she should indeed be freed from this legal arrangement, but whether or not that should be granted is ultimately up to a judge.
By tracing “the long fight to free Britney,” the documentary creates a compassionate lens through which to consider the pop star. I confess it is with an air of snobbery and disdain that I often write off the details of celebrity life. Rare is the moment when I pay attention, but this situation had me intrigued. Watching the documentary, my blasé attitude was quickly replaced with empathy for this woman, whose life is most often dismissed as a bejeweled train wreck.
What conjured up empathy and deep sadness in me was a desire for a different kind of freedom for Britney Spears, freedom from the relentless scrutiny of the public, including perhaps the very fans who seek to free her. The film features heartwarming clips of a young, bright-eyed girl from Louisiana who landed in the spotlight to find it never dimmed. A girl learning to manage her talent in a ravenous world that consumed her as a product, not a person.
Early on in her career, Spears seemed to enjoy flirting with the cameras. A media sensation, she became the youngest female artist to have five albums debut at #1. As expected, the constant flash of cameras became a burden as the paparazzi chased her to exhaustion. On more than one occasion she broke down from the pressure of it all. Mainstream news outlets also featured her story over the years, but were often sexist and condescending as they tried to extract the “true story” about everything from her babies to her breasts.
As I began to follow her story in the documentary, my distanced judgment (and I confess, at times my actual mockery) of her life began to soften. Here is a woman, a mother, a daughter, and a friend who has lived and lost on a global platform. Did she ask for and enjoy some of the fame? Of course. Did she deserve some of the criticism? Yes. But does any human being deserve to have their life pushed over the edge of exhaustion and utter despair for our entertainment? No. The documentary invites viewers to look beyond these easy judgments for a deeper place of understanding.
If someone we love is tackling even one of the issues Spears faced, we would try to meet them with love and earnest grace. Consider for a moment how you engage with your friend or family member who faces illness, addiction, divorce, postpartum depression, etc. We might listen to them, ache and pray with them, challenge them, encourage them, and deeply love them. We would want healing and hope for them. We would extend the grace that God has extended to us.
If someone we love is tackling even one of the issues Spears faced, we would try to meet them with love and earnest grace.
As a person of faith, I cannot help but wonder about the role compassion, love, and grace could have played in her life, if only she had the space to receive it. I recall the mad pursuit of Jesus replayed in the Gospels. Throngs of people chasing him, pushing against him, grabbing at him, following him from city to city. Crowds that exhausted him. And yet, when the moment called for it, he not only found clarity in that crowd, but he also stopped to scoop people up who might otherwise have been trampled.
Whether among the hisses of skeptics as a "sinful woman" washed his feet or the jeering of the judgmental as he ate with the despised Zaccheaus, Jesus made a point of overcoming the crowd to honor and extend compassion to those shoved aside in its disorienting darkness. The crowds around Jesus were often hungry to see a life dismantled and he refused them.
Megastars like Spears quickly shatter, in part, due to the insatiable hunger today’s crowd has for the fragments of their lives. Fans and critics alike demand details of their vacations, children, favorite restaurants, and health. These pieces can sell for millions of dollars. Why? Because we will buy them. Whether Spears or other stars, there is a market for their lives. Consider how Tiger Woods’s recent automobile accident made headline news around the world. Was that necessary? Rushed to surgery, at risk of losing his career, the cameras could not overcome their greed. They were there. This feels like the type of crowding that Jesus found abhorrent.
Perhaps what Britney Spears really needs to be freed from is the public’s appetite for her life. When Jesus fed the crowd of 5,000, it was overwhelming and chaotic. We tend to focus on the miracle of that feeding, but Jesus knew the toll that crowd was taking on his friends: “Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.’”
As you watch Framing Britney Spears, I invite you to open your mind to the great loss in her life and consider the role we can all play in helping one another find rest from the insatiable appetites of our culture.