[BRITNEY SPEAR'S "...Baby One More Time" Plays]
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
This week, a fringe fan protest movement resonated with a wider audience.
PROTESTERS "What do we want? Free Britney! When do we want it? Now! What do we want? Free Britney! When do we want it? Now! [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE 13 years ago, Spears was placed in a conservatorship that put control of her finances and person into the hands of her father. Thus was she shorn of the freedom to live as a grown up at the age of 39.
BRITNEY ARMY This is Free Britney 102 where we explore issues related to the Free Britney movement. The Free Britney movement is advocating for the end of Britney Spears' conservatorship. [END CLIP]
BRITNEY ARMY I need everyone who is scrolling right now to stop and watch this video. [END CLIP]
BRITNEY ARMY Britney Spears needs our help now. [END CLIP]
BRITNEY ARMY A conservatorship literally gives someone else the control of your life. They decide what you can and can't do. And it's usually used by elderly people who don’t... [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Unable to reach the star directly, her fans have been turning to the only place Britney appeared to speak for herself: her social media.
GRAY Hello, everyone, and welcome to Britney's Grab, the happiest place on the Internet. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is Barbara Gray, co-host of a podcast that scrutinizes Spears Instagram posts.
GRAY We started noticing more and more of these very cryptic things she would post. Like a hole cut out on the wall, and the caption is, "there's always a way out." And it was just like, God, like, what is this? It almost seems kind of dark. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Some fans believe she's reaching out, for example, by writing a message in tiny print on her hat.
BRITNEY ARMY So I zoomed it in, edited it so I could read it. And I think it spells help. No, I think this is an ‘H’, this is an ‘E’, an ‘L’ and this is probably a ‘P’. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE But last year, Spears made her feelings about the conservatorship plain. No zooming in required.
SAMANTHA STARK We had actually started filming this reckoning with the media piece around Britney, and while we were filming that, all these court filings started happening.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Samantha Stark is the director of the New York Times documentary Framing Britney Spears, which has brought renewed interest to her legal predicament, as well as her treatment in the media. And those court filings, Spears requests that her father be removed as conservator.
SAMANTHA STARK And so as we were filming, the free Britney fans, who had been really written off as conspiracy theorists or made fun of a lot because they were operating on this gut feeling that something was wrong with the conservatorship, that Britney wanted something to change. They all of a sudden had this vindication because now she does want something to change. So we were able to capture that, and then the film really took off.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Just for a little background after some all too public meltdowns, today, I think we'd see them as obvious cries for help, she was forced by a judge to surrender the control of her person and her money to her father, even as she continued to make millions.
SAMANTHA STARK Yeah, a conservatorship is this unique legal arrangement where a person is considered unable to make decisions that are in their own best interest. It's most often used for elderly people with Alzheimer's. That's what it's primarily meant for. It's not unheard of for a young person to be in it, but it happens not very often at all. Up until very recently, 2019, her conservator of her person was her father, Jamie Spears, and the conservator of her estate was her father with a lawyer named Andrew Wallet, if you can believe it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yeah. He also refers to the conservator relationship as a kind of hybrid business relationship, which talk about unusual.
SAMANTHA STARK Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That you can both regard people as incompetent and develop a business relationship because this incompetent person is generating millions of dollars a year... as a performer.
SAMANTHA STARK Exactly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE With a grueling schedule.
SAMANTHA STARK Exactly.
SAMANTHA STARK So that's a central mystery of what's happening now and why people are so fascinated by it and also what the free Britney fans have been trying to point out for a long time. Her conservators have the power to access all her medical records, choose medical care for her to oversee all her money, sign business deals for her, restrict who comes to visit her, decide where she lives. There's a lot of basic decisions that Britney has been deemed incompetent of making, and yet at the same time, she's jumping through fire in Las Vegas, being a judge on X Factor, TV appearances, albums, tours, all while being told that she is constantly at risk.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It seems impossible to imagine this happening to even the most out of control Hollywood male actor.
SAMANTHA STARK You know, one of the reasons is called framing Britney Spears is there's these very popular photos of her, one where she's shaves her head and one where she is brandishing this umbrella that she used to hit the car of a paparazzo. And those still images, you know, there's no context around them, they were on the cover of tabloids with headlines like Shocking Meltdown, Britney blows up. I had this theory that those still frames have followed her, and so one of the things we wanted to do with the film is really to pull out outside of those frames and give more context. One of the big things we found was that while this was all happening, this, quote, meltdown, Britney was in a really heated custody battle over her kids with Kevin Federline. And she loses custody but has visitation rights in early January 2008. And then mid-January, she loses visitation and at the end of January, she has a police escort while she's in an ambulance going to the hospital to be under a 5150 medical health hold. And her father files for the conservatorship while she is still in the hospital.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Her father doesn't seem to require any credentials to be a conservator beyond that familial role. But he wasn't much of a presence in her life up until that point, and she fought more than once to free herself of her father. The film points out that she always knew that she would probably lose in the court. So she offered to submit to other conservators, basically in order to see her kids, right?
SAMANTHA STARK During this custody battle when she's losing visitation. There's a lot of speculation that she may have felt that submitting to the conservatorship would allow her to see her kids. And she does get visitation rights very soon after she is in the conservatorship.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You weren't able to secure interviews with her family, but you did see some tape of her brother from a podcast called As Not Seen on TV. The interviewer was Drew Plotkin.
PLOTKIN Have you ever seen anything that led you to be concerned that your sister was being held against her will?
BRYAN SPEARS Oh, Everyday. No, I mean, like with the women in this family are very, very strong minded and have their own opinion and they want to do what they want to do. And as much as I admire that as a guy and being like one of two guys, this entire family, it kind of sucks.
PLOTKIN They're strong minded. They want to do what they want to do, kind of constitutional.
BRYAN SPEARS I mean, yeah, they have a right to do that. [END CLIP]
SAMANTHA STARK The moment the interview with Bryan Spears, Britney's brother, came out, it was so huge because no one in the family was talking about this at all. There's this cone of silence, it seems, around Britney's conservatorship. And so when this interview came out, I remember where I was standing. That's how big a deal it was that Bryan spoke. The interview was really shocking because in it he makes this joke that his sister's been held against her will every day.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Was there another Eureka moment for you when you were making the film?
SAMANTHA STARK One of the most surprising things that I found, actually, that seems like it shouldn't be surprising, but it was is how in control of Britney's career she was when she was young. I think there's this kind of assumption, probably because of all this media coverage of her, that Britney was a puppet that was over sexualized and she didn't know what she was doing and she just did whatever the male executives told her to do. That is kind of what I thought going into it, and now I'm examining why did I think that? Because every person that I talked to who was with her in her early career made a point to say Britney was the boss. When we were there, she was in charge, she was very creative, she had creative ideas for her music videos and her shows.
BRITNEY I know all the ins and outs of what I am doing, I know about all the contracts and all the deals I'm about to do. I'm not just some girl who's listening to my manager. [END CLIP]
SAMANTHA STARK She was even marketed by Kim Kaiman, the marketing director at Jive as strong because that's what Kim saw in her. And so it makes it an even larger contradiction, looking at where she is at now, where she's not able to be in control of a lot of her life.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Well, the documentary seems to be having an effect, at least potentially. I mean, just this week.
SAMANTHA STARK Oh, yes. It was such a surprise. The reaction to this, I have to tell you, the whole time that I was making it, even seeing these, you know, these awful pieces of archival footage, for example, there was this thing that people did where they would confront Britney with horrible tabloid headlines about herself and then have her react. And a lot of people did that. Diane Sawyer shows her this news coverage of a governor's wife.
SAWYER Britney Spears has upset a lot of mothers in this country, starting with the wife of the Governor of Maryland who appeared at an antiviolence rally. And we'll listen to what she said.
EHRLICH Really, if I had an opportunity to to shoot Britney Spears, I think I would.
BRITNEY Oh, that's horrible that's really bad.
SAWYER Because of the example for kids and how hard it is to be a parent and keep all of this away from your kids.
BRITNEY Well, that's really sad that she said that. Ew. [END CLIP]
SAMANTHA STARK Britney is visibly shaken by this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It was her fault that somebody wanted to kill her.
SAMANTHA STARK Right. There was I mean, so many different versions of this. When we were trying to have people reckon with their complicity in being a part of this media coverage, whether you were enacting it yourself or you were one of the people who bought the magazines or even that you were just a person who believed what they were saying about her.
BROOKE GLADSTONE When younger generations revisit stories from the 90s, there seems to be a general horror at the public record of how the media treated women. And films like yours have become a bit of a general reckoning.
SAMANTHA STARK You know, I've been looking back on my adolescence and teenagerhood and thinking about how that affected me. She's asked if she's a virgin. She says yes, who knows if that was true. But it's like there's so much pressure to say yes. And then when she and Justin Timberlake break up, which they were so young, it was spread that she cheated on Justin. So then you could say anything you wanted about her then because she's a slut. It gives you blanket permission. I feel like that happens in high school, still. It happens everywhere. And I think that's why a lot of people are standing outside the courthouse protesting. The Free Britney people that I talked to are in their late 20s or early 30's. So they were the 12-13 year olds that she was marketed to at the very beginning. And I think they see a lot of themselves in her.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's interesting that a lot of the fans you interviewed, what they loved most about her was how she seemed to represent them, even though visually she wasn't much like a lot of them at all.
SAMANTHA STARK Yes. Something that was surprising. And also moving to me when I started interviewing the fans and standing outside the courthouse and seeing who showed up was how outsider-y they were. I heard so many stories from people who were bullied when they were kids, particularly people who are LGBTQ. And Britney had this message that was, you know, be yourself no matter what. I'll wear what I want to wear. You can't please everybody. When Britney was shown in the tabloids as having a, quote, meltdown, a lot of those fans loved her even more for that because they loved her vulnerability. Yeah. So I heard a story from a young man who, when he was a freshman in high school, was having a lot of mental health issues. He's gay. He was getting bullied a lot. And he told a story of having a Britney Spears lunchbox in elementary school and no one would sit and eat lunch with him, so he would pretend he was eating lunch with Britney. And he wrote her a letter about how she was an example that it was OK to seek mental health treatment. I actually heard this independently from him, and Felicia, who started out as her assistant and kind of lifelong friend, told me that Britney read it and started crying because she was so moved by that. And she has written him a letter back to his freshman, sophomore, junior and senior year of high school. And he told me that she said if no one ever tells you they're proud of you, know that I'm proud of you. And it's just like she's such a different person from those stories than how she has been portrayed, I think.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You are unable to get hold of Britney, obviously, did you wrestle with the ethics of doing a documentary about her and her tribulations, given that she's been so often misread and mistreated in the public eye?
SAMANTHA STARK Absolutely. It was such an I mean, it still is such an ethical internal conflict for me. The main goal that I had was that I didn't want anyone to assume what was in Britney's head, and so we selected people who had firsthand experience with her. If you listen, they're not really saying how she felt. They're telling their own perspective of what happened. Hopefully, the film tells the story of our culture and what was going on through Britney's story, but yeah I still feel an ethical conflict about that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You know, if the response has prompted a reckoning, we have to keep being reminded because we'll keep making the same mistakes. We do keep making the same mistakes.
SAMANTHA STARK #WeAreSorryBritney was trending on Twitter over the weekend, and it moved me to tears because people were apologizing for their role in how she was treated. Clearly like we've been waiting for something to spark this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thank you so much.
SAMANTHA STARK You're welcome. Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Samantha Stark is the director of Framing Britney Spears, a documentary from The New York Times, which you can find on FX and Hulu.
Coming up, the place to go for reckonings with maligned women, moral panics and other revelations in the historical record. This is On the Media.
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