#FreeBritney: new spotlight on troubled star

Too young? The singer was only 16 when she became a household name.

Are we all partly to blame for her troubles? Britney Spears skyrocketed to fame in the 1990s. Now, a new documentary asks whether her legions of fans are responsible for her downfall too.

In the late 2000s, Britney Spears’ life was spiralling out of control.

The pop star’s second marriage had broken down. She had lost custody of her two sons after a bitter and painful dispute. Everywhere she went, she was pursued by dozens of photographers. When it all became too much, they published pictures of her, head shaven, mouth distorted, as she lashed out at them with an umbrella.

Then, on 30 January 2008, she was taken to hospital on a stretcher for an emergency psychiatric evaluation after days of bizarre behaviour, including speaking in an English accent and erratic driving.

Everyone agreed: Britney needed help. The same year, an American court made her father her legal guardian, giving him control over the singer’s £43m fortune and personal affairs.

It was supposed to be a temporary arrangement – such orders are normally only granted for people who are elderly or very ill.

But 13 years later, the court order is still in place. At the age of 39, Spears cannot even buy a coffee without first asking for her father’s permission.

Now a new documentary seeks to shed light on this strange state of affairs. In Framing Britney Spears, producers follow Spears’ attempts to fight the order in the courts and meet the fans who have created an online movement to set her free.

But the film, produced by The New York Times, does more than just examine Spears’ legal battles. It also looks back at the past, raising tough questions about the celebrity culture that turned a teenager into a megastar and then discarded her as a laughing stock.

“Now that we know Spears is a virtual captive, we want her to be free,” writes journalist Molly Roberts. “All the while, we forget that we helped make her a captive in the first place.”

Britney Spears’ rise to fame was as meteoric as her eventual descent. Already a successful child actress, she was just 16 when her first single was released in 1998. The song became a global hit, selling more than 25 million copies and catapulting her into international stardom.

But as Spears’ career took off, so the interest in her personal life grew. Interviewers asked her invasive questions and talk show hosts ridiculed her appearance. One politician’s wife was even filmed saying she wanted to “shoot her” for being a bad role model.

It sounds extraordinary, but the rise and fall of a child star is nothing new in Hollywood. Macaulay Culkin, the highest paid child actor in history, eventually became addicted to drugs. And Spears’ friend Lindsay Lohan, who rose to fame aged 12, spent time in prison as a result of drink and drug charges.

Today, Spears’ future remains uncertain. “What does freedom look like for someone whose entire adult life has been spent being famous for being Britney Spears?” asks writer Sarah Ditum.

“The most constricting part of celebrity isn’t the people who hate you; it’s the people who think they love you, and who think that love means they own you.”

Are we all to blame?

Taking responsibility

Yes, say some. There is only one reason why Spears was hounded by commentators and stalked by photographers: people wanted to know about and laugh at her struggles, and they would pay to do so. Britney Spears deserved sympathy and respect during her mental breakdown. Instead, she was the subject of cruel jokes. We are all at least partly responsible for not speaking out against it sooner.

No, say others. It is the media executives who turned a child into a worldwide sensation and the journalists who conspired to tear her down who are responsible for Britney Spears’ breakdown, not her fans. Now, more than ever, Spears needs her most ardent supporters. Indeed, without the #FreeBritney movement, few would know of her bid to regain control of her life.

You Decide

  1. Would you like to be a celebrity?
  2. Are all child stars victims of exploitation?

Activities

  1. Imagine you are being followed by dozens of photographers. Write a diary entry explaining how the photographers affect your life.
  2. Hold a class debate on the motion: “Fame is a curse.”

Some People Say...

“Celebrity is a mask that eats into the face.”

John Updike (1932 – 2009), American novelist, poet and literary critic

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that we have more access to celebrities today than ever before. Social media sites such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter have replaced gossip magazines, allowing people to follow a celebrity’s life from the moment they wake up until the time they go to bed. The result, say psychologists, is that parasocial relationships – a psychological term to describe the one-sided relationships fans have with celebrities – are becoming more and more common.
What do we not know?
One area of debate surrounds whether celebrity “cancel culture” has gone too far. In 2008, many thought that Spears was justly criticised after several high-profile scandals, such as driving with her child on her lap, but now most agree the condemnation went too far. Today, viewers of the new film are calling for Spears’ ex-partner Justin Timberlake to be “cancelled” for comments he made about the singer. Some say this is necessary to hold him to account; others say it amounts to bullying.

Word Watch

Psychiatric evaluation
Taking tests to gather information about a person within a psychiatric service, with the purpose of making a diagnosis about their mental health.
Legal guardian
Technically, Spears is under a conservatorship. This means that a judge has appointed another person, her father Jamie Spears, to manage her financial and personal affairs.
Online movement
Although the #FreeBritney movement has only gained widespread attention in the last two years, it has existed since 2009.
Laughing stock
A figure or object of ridicule. The origin of the phrase is linked to the medieval practice of putting people into stocks as punishment for a crime.
First single
After “...Baby One More Time” was released, Spears won four awards at the 1999 Billboard Music Awards. At 21, she became the youngest music artist ever to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Ridiculed
Spears was given nicknames such as “Breakdown Britney” and “Sheared Spears” in the media.
Macaulay Culkin
Culkin was just nine when he first starred as Kevin McCallister in the Home Alone film franchise.
Lindsay Lohan
Lohan made her debut performance in the 1998 romantic comedy The Parent Trap. She is best known for her starring role in Mean Girls.

Subjects

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