Framing Britney Spears Sparks Conversation & Reflection

Mary Robertson, showrunner and executive producer for The New York Times Presents and senior VP of current production at the Red Arrow Studios company Left/Right, talks to TV Real about the new documentary Framing Britney Spears.

The spectacular rise and devastating fall of pop icon Britney Spears have been well documented—who can forget the now-infamous photo of one of music’s biggest superstars sporting a shaved head while attacking paparazzi with an umbrella? Yet much mystery has remained surrounding her subsequent court-sanctioned conservatorship, which the pop princess is still in a legal battle over to this day. With her fandom reawakened, pressing questions have now been raised about mental health and an individual’s rights. The new documentary Framing Britney Spears—produced by The New York Times and Left/Right for FX and Hulu as part of their The New York Times Presents series ofdocumentaries—takes a deep dive into all of this—and then some.

“We looked at the Britney Spears story and said to ourselves, we as a culture have not taken a look back at the ways in which we represented her, perhaps ever, but certainly not in a long time,” says Mary Robertson, showrunner and executive producer for The New York Times Presents and senior VP of current production at the Red Arrow Studios company Left/Right. (Red Arrow Studios International holds global distribution rights for the doc and series, labeled The Weekly: Special Edition internationally.) “And we haven’t done it with the critical perspective that one absorbs and achieves through time. We haven’t done that in the post-MeToo era. We understand that she’s in the midst of a controversy surrounding this rare and hard-to-understand legal arrangement, and that the conditions that precipitated her landing in the conservatorship have not thoroughly been scrutinized. So we thought, let’s do this now, and let’s do this in a way that is ambitious, let’s do this in a way that is big, and let’s start at the beginning. There is so much value in any story that comes from understanding the preceding conditions, so that was a key part of our effort.”

It was also somewhat serendipitous that during production, the “Free Britney” movement—which sees fans taking to social media to bring awareness to the discrepancies surrounding the conservatorship—became more powerful, and there were several changes in the court filings around her conservatorship.

The documentary not only reexamines the pop princess’s career and offers a new assessment of the movement rallying against her court-mandated conservatorship; it also turns a spotlight on how Spears was scrutinized in the press and treated by the media, including some cringe-inducing moments from interviews with Matt Lauer and Diane Sawyer, among others. Rather than narration, the doc features sit-downs with key insiders.

“We wanted to be as close to the subject as we possibly could be,” says Robertson, an executive producer on Framing Britney Spears. “As the film makes clear, her inner circle has been closed for some years. We certainly made a run at Britney herself; we made a run at her family and some of her closest friends. We knew that the odds were slim that she would engage with us, but nonetheless, that was a goal that motivated our [interview] selection: proximity to the subject.”

She goes on to explain that the production team identified people who had first-hand experiences they could share. “We did extensive research to reach an understanding of who were the backup dancers who worked with her, who were the makeup artists, who were the agents. We include her somewhat legendary assistant and friend [Felicia Culotta] as well. We were also particularly interested in identifying and reaching out to some of the women who had worked around her because this is a story in many ways about how culture treats a female celebrity, and arguably some of the women close to her may have been sensitive to some of the dynamics of that era.”

The doc also hears from legal experts, who unravel the complicated court proceedings Spears is embroiled in. “The film is, in part, about a very rare and hard-to-parse legal arrangement called a conservatorship,” Robertson explains. “There is a lot of misinformation flying around about conservatorships generally, and certainly about this one in particular. It was of critical importance to us that we could offer clarity and accuracy and to do so in a manner that was accessible.”

Alongside these interviews, Framing Britney Spears features a bevy of photos and footage from the pop star’s heyday and the many tabloids, magazines and TV programs she’s appeared on. “We used archival material to tell the story of what happened to Britney and around Britney in the years before she entered the conservatorship and certainly in the subsequent years,” says Robertson. “We were paying a great deal of attention to the period before 2008 because our film set out to scrutinize the conditions surrounding her rise and the circumstances that may have precipitated her public unraveling circa 2008 and the circumstances surrounding her conservatorship.”

She adds, “Our objective was, and remains, to show and not tell. We were looking to present information to the viewer and let the viewer draw their own conclusions and connect the dots. We didn’t have to look far; it wasn’t necessarily that we were looking for material in which media figures were criticizing her or asking her to comment on her breasts or her virginity when she was a teenager; it was readily available. There was so much that we left out.”

With this doc, the producers were hoping to invite conversation—conversation around casual misogyny, around mental health, around tabloid culture—and it certainly has done so. “There has been a lot of discussion, online certainly, about what many perceive to be casual misogyny, or even explicit misogyny, that Britney was subjected to and that other female celebrities of her era were subjected to,” Robertson says. “I appreciate that we could invite a conversation not only around what was happening to her then but also about whether or not those currents in our culture have died, diminished or shifted to other platforms. Of course, we want to invite the conversation around Britney herself, but do it in a manner that feels respectful and nuanced and as compassionate as it can be.”

The film is inviting conversation around not only the actions of the public figures who may have lobbed unfair criticism at Spears but also “inviting reflection around our own possible complicity,” she adds. “The fact that it’s stimulating this mass contrition is deep and amazing.”