I was quite young when Britney Spears’ musical career initially took off. Her popular song “…Baby One More Time” was released two years before I was even born. Still, I got to enjoy hits like “Oops! I Did it Again” and “Toxic” at middle-school dances. Throughout high school, Britney remained an important staple in all of my friends’ “throwback” playlists, and early-2000s-me adored some of her most iconic fashion moments. However, over the past few years, I hadn’t heard much about her in the media––at all, really––until the #FreeBritney movement caught my attention over the summer of 2020. The movement gained notoriety, and, about a month ago, The New York Times documentary Framing Britney Spears was released.
The documentary’s main focus is the perpetual legal battle between Britney and her father, Jamie Spears. In 2008, Britney’s father became her conservator, which means he gained control over her finances, medical care and career. As a result, she basically can’t make any of her own decisions unless they’re cleared by her father. This loss of power is fueled by a side-by-side narrative of the control she had as a teen at the beginning of her career. Although, how much control can a teenage girl have when she’s constantly scrutinized or sexualized by the media and the world?
Britney was just 16 years old when the music video for her first single, “…Baby One More Time”, was released. In the video, she dons a school-girl outfit, complete with a short skirt and bare stomach. Since I was so young when the video released, I probably saw Britney as this sexy, adult pop star. Now that I’m older, and think back to the way I was sexualized by men at 16, the video makes me squirm. Interviewees in the documentary acknowledge that the song and video are both sexual in nature, but the blame is redirected onto those who decide to feel uncomfortable with a woman expressing her sexuality. It’s never mentioned once that Britney was just a child.
Regarding this video, Wesley Morris of The New York Times says, “It isn’t the sex part that seems cool. It’s the control and command over herself and her space that seems cool.” He mentions how pre-teen girls watched this music video and saw parts of themselves in it, which is empowering. The way the film juxtaposes clips of comments like these with clips of sexist interviewers is certainly powerful. While watching, I often found myself thinking, “Maybe I am in the wrong here. Maybe my uneasiness is simply clouded by a veil of internalized misogyny.” It was convincing; I was, of course, disgusted by male interviewers asking teenage Britney about her breasts and virginity. To confirm this gut feeling, Hayley Hill (Britney’s former stylist) said to the directors, “I think a lot of people were, like, uncomfortable, you know, with her sexuality.”
At just 17, Britney was photographed for Rolling Stone magazine by David LaChapelle in her bedroom. On the front cover, she’s clad in her bra and pyjama shorts next to the caption, “Inside the Heart, Mind & Bedroom of a Teen Dream.” Right after Hayley’s comment, Britney is questioned about the cover, being compared to a “sexy Lolita” (ew). In response, Britney says, “Well, I think we’re all girls, and I mean, it’s a part of who we are. You’d be lying if you said you didn’t like to feel sexy. You know what I mean?” Now, if you had any reservations about the photos of Britney, you’re not uncomfortable with the sexualization of a teenage girl, you’re actually uncomfortable with a woman freely expressing her sexuality. And that’s misogynistic.
In short, despite her current conservatorship, Britney never really was in control. She spent most of her childhood and teen years being sexualized by grown men and criticized by grown women. She was blamed for the downfall of her relationship with Justin Timberlake––because, after all, she was the one who had to have broken his heart, right? And she even received death threats from the mothers of young girls for being “too sexy.” It’s fair to say that all of this led to her eventual “breakdown” (when she shaved her head and attacked a paparazzi’s car with an umbrella), which placed her under her father’s care in the first place. It’s even fairer to say that while Britney isn’t living her own life now, perhaps she never has. So, remember, #FreeBritney. Free all of the young girls subjected to abuse and reduced to objects simply because of their bodies.