21 Feb 2021

Director Samantha Stark on 'Framing Britney Spears'

From Sunday Morning, 2:44 pm on 21 February 2021

At 39, Britney Spears remains stuck in a court-sanctioned conservatorship controlling much of her life, and her fortune.

Samantha Stark, director of the New York Times documentary Framing Britney Spears talked with Jim Mora about the pop star's battle for control of her estate, the #FreeBritney movement, and public apologies to Spears from other stars.

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Photo: Samantha Stark New York Times/Britney Spears- Creative Commons

Once known as the Princess of Pop, the star came to fame more than 20 years ago, has sold more than 100 million albums, twice been the highest paid female entertainer globally, and her perfume alone raked in more than a billion-and-a-half dollars in sales.

She was a child star and known for songs that sounded cute, but had a degree of honesty that was immensely appealing to her largely teenage fanbase.

But for more than a dozen years US courts have made her subject to a conservatorship, a kind of legal guardianship, which limits her in nearly every aspect of her life.

The new documentary follows the deterioration of Spear's reputation, her court battle with her father over the conservatorship, and examines the intense scrutiny, ridicule, slut-shaming and ever-present paparazzi she was subject to as she struggled to cope with fame and motherhood. It asks whether the sensational headlines around her supposed public meltdowns and mental health problems are telling anything like the whole story.

In the wake of the documentary's release Spears' ex-boyfriend Justin Timberlake and MTV host Sarah Silverman have made public apologies for their treatment of Spears. Stark is pleased, but says there needs to be a rethink about "a whole system" that has at times undoubtedly persecuted the pop star, and that there are some big questions that remain over the conservatorship.   

Cover art from Britney Spears album: Britney.

Cover art from the album Britney Photo: Supplied

"Everybody I spoke to who was involved with Britney in her early career said that the biggest myth was that Britney was a puppet and just doing what older male executives were telling her to do. Everybody told me that she was really in control even as a teenager, she was very creative and influential in what her image was, what her songs were like, what her music videos were like.

"Chronologically we watch as that control gets taken away, up until the point where she is now where somebody else is making all the basic decisions of her life for her, including what her medical care is and where her money goes."

The degree to which Spears' life has been controlled by the conservatorship for the last 13 years is "shocking", Stark says.

"It's this unique legal arrangement where a person is deemed incapable of making decisions in their own best interest, and so the court assigns someone else to legally make those decisions for them. It's usually for the elderly or people suffering from dementia, people who maybe would get taken advantage of.

"With Britney it's really strange, there's this big mystery and contradiction: since she's been in the conservatorship she has recorded albums, done tours, she was a judge judging other people on The X Factor and she had one of the most successful LA residencies in history, bringing in millions of dollars, and at the same time we're being told that she's incapable of making very basic decisions about her life... so it doesn't appear to add up, and I think that's what fascinates everybody so many people about it."

Stark says a lot of the court records about the conservatorship are sealed to the public, many because they contain private medical information, and it has been frustrating trying to discover more information about why it was set up and remains in place.

"We found they are able to limit who visits Britney and who interacts with her, so this very tight circle of people has been enabled by the conservatorship. So we as journalists can't get to Britney, we can't ask her what she's feeling."

"How is someone making millions of dollars incapable of choosing her own healthcare, and who visits her? It just feels like no matter what diagnosis Britney has... and to be clear we don't even know if Britney has a mental health diagnosis, a lot of people assume and speculate, but those are medical records, they're sealed.

Supporters hold signs at a court hearing for the Britney Spears Conservatorship, in Los Angeles, this month.

Protesters hold signs at a court hearing for the Britney Spears Conservatorship, in Los Angeles, this month. Photo: AFP

Stark says a previous conservator of Spears' estate who has now resigned, has previously described the conservatorship as a "hybrid business model" in court documents.

"This is such an extreme thing that takes away people's rights ... and it is supposed to be a last resort, and there's not a clear path to get out of one it appears. So we're really looking into the system."  

The conservatorship costs Spears more than a million dollars a year, Stark says: "on legal fees and conservatorship fees, that's outside her personal expenses and child support fees.

And to fight against the conservatorship "Britney is paying for her own lawyer that she didn't choose, to fight against her father's lawyer who she's also paying for about what's in her own best interest, and it feels like as long as it's going everyone gets paid and it feels like so much of this system is based on trust and personal accountability, that there's so much room for abuse," she says.  

Britney Spears arrives for a Hollywood film premiere in 2019.

Britney Spears arriving at a Hollywood film premiere in 2019. Photo: AFP

Stark also wants viewers to question the way we view and judge stars, and how we consume media.  

The title Framing Britney Spears alludes to media images she says have left lasting insinuations about Spears in the public consciousness; especially photos of the star shaving her head and holding up an umbrella to hit a paparazzi car.

"I feel like those two still frames really affected Britney, and are still affecting her because people look at a headline that says 'Britney's meltdown', and assume that what they see is what happened.

"So we wanted to pull outside of those frames and show you the real story. Britney was going through a custody battle at this point, and her mother wrote in her book that she thinks Britney was suffering from post-partum depression, she was going through a divorce, a group of 60-100 mostly men are following her everywhere she goes and literally standing in her way so she has to negotiate with them and flirt with them to get them to move out of her way - and... that would be illegal if one person was doing that to you.

"We wanted... to confront ourselves with our own culpability because the reasons those photographs sold and the reasons those paparazzi could make so much money is because we all bought the magazines and bought the stories."

Stark says early sexualisation of Spears' image and misogynistic attitudes to her were accepted without question in a way that may not be accepted so easily now. But she also says the picture is not black and white, because Spears herself argued she should be entitled to freedom of sexual expression.

"One of the reasons that she was so successful was that she did capture that dichotomy of a teenage girl who wants to be sexy but also is a kid, and to think that Britney had no agency in that and that wasn't real also detracts from her as a strong person.

"You see her fight back so much, which I think is not included in her story a lot of the time.

A recent post on the star's social media has said Spears is now making her own documentary.

But "we don't know if everything that's written on her social media is from her," Stark says.