“The women in this family are very strong-minded and have their own opinion, and they wanna do what they wanna do, and as much as I admire that as a guy, being, like, one of two guys in this entire family, it kinda sucks, man.” -Bryan Spears, brother of Britney Spears, responding to questions about his sister’s conservatorship
There were a number of jaw-dropping moments in “Framing Britney Spears,” the latest installment in the New York Times documentary series. For me, the above interview snippet stood out to me for its fig leaf of political correctness (“I admire that as a guy”), inadequately covering naked chauvinism. The very idea of a young woman having an opinion–just so exhausting for the men-folk!
After exploring chivalry and the differential treatment of women in the South last week, I watched the documentary this past weekend. The renewed interest in Spears centers on her unique legal situation. Britney has remained in a financial and personal conservatorship for well over a decade, managed primarily by her father, Jamie Spears (the other guy in the “entire” family of five). This means that Britney, a high-functioning 39-year-old woman, can’t make many independent financial or personal decisions. This set of circumstances, to understate, is problematic. Reflecting on her background, though, it’s easy not to be surprised.
Lest we forget, Britney is a Southern gal, born in Mississippi, raised in Louisiana. She might even qualify as an iteration of the unSouthern ethos. Her accent and demeanor easily betray her background, but her high-gloss music videos and polished pop princess presentation make it easy to forget again. And unlike her Texas neighbor Beyonce, who is only three months older, she has never attempted any meaningful injection of her heritage into her music. She’s played the glittery Hollywood role, albeit with an increasing amount of irony as her career has progressed, without breaking character on stage or on record.
Being a woman from the South does not mean being subjugated. It does, however, often mean having to fight the assumption that you’re going to do what your daddy wants. Showbiz fathers with Southern backgrounds don’t exactly have a sterling track record of letting go and letting their daughters shine (see Joseph Jackson and Matthew Knowles). It takes deliberate poise and self-awareness for women to navigate the imposed expectations of both their actual fathers and a paternalistic culture in general.
If the narrative spun by the documentary is to be believed, Britney fought the good fight in this regard. The media coverage started to swallow her whole in 2002, progressing over the course of years: at first, examining her body and her sexuality, then questioning her mental health and her worth as a mother. Every detail of her life was dissected and consumed as another pop culture nugget.
At first she tolerated, then objected, then railed against these intrusions. When her railing became uncomfortable to watch, she was declared incompetent, and her father swooped in from nowhere and took control of her entire life via the conservatorship.
It’s a classic dramatic story arc–drive someone to the brink of insanity, then blame them for their condition and express relief when they are relieved of their independence. I recall being drawn into that narrative at the time. I did not want Britney to become another victim of paralyzing superstardom. Any outcome that did not involve her demise was a good one for me.
It is probable that Britney needed intervention during the sometimes scary events of 2007 and 2008. The case the documentary makes is that the constant, unyielding, unforgiving gaze of the media and the public made this a predictable and even an inevitable outcome.
Imbedded in most of the conversation and gossip around Britney Spears during that time was a sense of disapproval with how she presented herself to the world. The scorn was by no means limited to Southerners; Americans in general struggle with the girl/woman, madonna/whore dichotomies. It is possible, though, that Britney leveraged her Southernness to juxtapose those supposed opposite states in a volatile way.
Southern women are often groomed to drift effortlessly from sweet to sensual, and the idea of young Britney playing with that kind of fire may have been too much for too many; the snowballing resentment from the sexy Catholic schoolgirl character of the “Baby…One More Time” video may have indeed culminated in the conservatorship. That’s one heck of a dramatic story arc, with a ten-year payoff, but it is not difficult to connect the dots. And for the most part, we played into the story, acknowledging Britney’s guilt for her along the way and then accepting her penance by way of ceding her life to her father.
However, it wasn’t Britney who was going mad–it was us, for ogling her nonstop for a decade until she nearly broke.