Words by Louise Oliphant
While The New York Times’‘Framing Britney Spears’ hit documentary explored the hysteria that has enveloped the major part of the celebrity’s life, the online community of the #FreeBritney campaign proved to be the real stars of the show. Their timely efforts have escaped the TV screen into a movement for change, since one week after the premiere, Los Angeles Judge, Brenda Penny supported Spears’ legal team in reducing Britney’s father’s control as the sole conservator. Whilst this may seem far from the complete freedom that the campaign’s title infers, James Spears has now been ordered to work collaboratively with a financial company on her monetary and business affairs, providing a sense of encouragement for Britney fans worldwide. So, where the documentary featured a timeline of Britney’s life, meandering from a young 10-year-old girl showcasing her talent through to paparazzi frenzies, substance abuse and penultimately a court-ordered conservatorship, online forums and Britney fanbases highlight the impact of new millennium activism.
The #FreeBritney movement arose through collective concerns about the constraints of her guardianship arrangement. Although these queries were often deemed as impulsive or even self-constructed, their use of limited resources and speculative thought nonetheless had Britney’s safety at the forefront. Conspiracy theories, rumours and gossip did lead some of the central arguments, but as fans became preoccupied as investigators --digging deeper into the information accessible from their at-home devices--sites like Free.Britney.netand BreatheHeavy.commanaged to filter through the foiling. Described as ‘millennium activists’, those who grew up on Britney, pop and the rise of a camera fuelled fame, teamed their innate relationship to ‘new media’ environments and celebrity culture, in digital activism that has unprecedented power.
Interestingly, it was this entertainment avenue that sparked apprehensions to begin with. The paradoxical nature of the media that displays only the positive apprehensions of one’s life and frames only what users want the world to see, meant fans took the release of three chart-topping albums, the performance and judge appearance on The X Factor, along with many TV appearances as contradictory to the supposed inability of Britney in taking care of herself. And who could blame them? Instagram too became a site for contested debate where the platform ‘Britney’s Gram’ analysed Spears’ Instagram posts for cryptic clues and ‘cries for help’. Questions such as ‘would Britney really use an emoticon smiley when she usually uses emojis?’, ‘Why do her posts feel so forced, without smile and random?’, circulated with each upload. Her social media manager has responded with claims that ‘this is Britney literally just living her life and trying to have fun on Instagram’, and that there is no ‘secret agenda’ to her posts. Nevertheless, with celebrity Instagram culture now attaining a certain expected aesthetic; to see anything but the norm of luxury lifestyles, studio-quality glamour and wealth that makes you happy, is undoubtedly questionable for the millennial viewer.
The #FreeBritney campaigner’s efforts thus cannot go unnoticed. By taking the role of ‘citizen journalists’ and prescribing themselves with the ‘watchdog’ role of holding power to account, unveiling the truth and being a spokes-body for those unable to speak – Britney in this case – ‘Framing Britney Spears’ displays the due-diligence, verification and determinism of the fan-run network. As they adopt the practice and methods of traditional investigative journalists, who is to say their autonomy is not granted? The documentary further gained the movement authority as it ran the audio from an anonymous voicemail message received by ‘Britney’s Gram’, claiming to be a paralegal involved in the conservatorship. Where an excitable, ready to act on any evidence fanbase would’ve naively taken the message as given, #FreeBritney acted with caution, cross-checking information before continuing to investigate the lead. The movement also gained celebrity attention. Miley Cyrus shouted ‘Free Britney’ during performances and Paris Hilton, Hayley Williams and Cher among others frequently used the #FreeBritney hashtag. The #FreeBritney campaign has become such a widespread phenomenon that their arguments can hardly be cast aside.
Thus, it remains important to consider the implications of a new media-driven environment; how it provides an opportunity for insider-access to private spheres but also positions a possibility of destroying the lives of young women in the public eye. Where the new millennium activists used the online network as an avenue for a social campaign, others may find themselves immersed in an echo-chamber of artificial darkness. As such, given that Britney’s spiral began from such a fraught relationship with the media, is bringing further animosity and discourses of scrutiny to Britney’s life, despite good intentions, really in Britney Spears’ best interest?