#27: opinions and falling under spells
on wading through celebrity and the golden age of streaming documentaries
Writing a newsletter every week is hard. But I started this project to learn in public so here we are.
The other day, I went for a long walk through Central Park with two friends, and then we stopped for lunch at Chelsea Market. As we ate, one of them asked, “So what do you think of the whole Britney Spears thing?” to which I replied, “Did you see the documentary?!”
She hadn’t, so the two of us regaled her with our observations and astonishment at Britney’s life and how it had been taken advantage of by the people around her. I had watched Framing Britney Spears at the end of June (as I imagine many who followed the news of her conservatorship hearing did) over two sleepless nights, trying to decide what I believed.
How do you decide what you believe when your own memories are entangled with the evidence provided to you?
My friend and I came away from the documentary with a similar takeaway: Britney was stronger, more powerful and more in control of her art and her image than we grew up believing as tweens and teens. And she was grossly taken advantage of and disrespected by tabloid media and eventually her father.
But then, a couple of weeks later, I started worrying I had been manipulated.
And as I tried to disentangle the factors that went into how quickly my opinion formed, I came across three pieces that offered some perspective.
1. Falling under a spell
It began with me listening to a profile of Tavi Gevinson in Vanity Fair on the subway, which refers to an essay she wrote about the documentary for The Cut, titled Britney Spears was never in control.
Gevinson is young (25), but a wise, extremely media literate writer who got famous at 12 as a fashion blogger and later founded and edited Rookie Magazine. She was hesitant to write the essay because it deals with the darker parts of her own experience with celebrity and being taken advantage of, but she wrote it anyway.
And I’m glad she did.
When she saw the documentary, Gevinson wrote, she too felt “devastated on Spears’s behalf and amazed by the literalism of her being denied control over her own health and finances by her father and the legal system.”
But then her friend pointed something out:
Sad and high on feminist ire, I didn’t think the doc was lacking any perspective until I texted with my friend Laia.
Laia was a teenager in the “Baby One More Time” era and said she didn’t understand why the doc was rewriting Spears as a feminist icon. “She was the Establishment! She was what we were supposed to be: sexy and young. Not a paragon of independence.” Laia also pointed out the faulty argument Kaiman tries to make, that only boy bands were popular at the time, in order to cast young Spears as a gender warrior. “She was a response to Alanis and the rise of the ‘angry woman.’” Not only angry women, but women across the genres of pop, rock, rap, and hip-hop who were singing more openly about sex than Spears was — sexual feelings, sexual experiences.
The first thing that came to my mind was, Wait, this is true, as Britney Spears’ empire was growing, I was discovering Ani DiFranco and other anti-establishment singers, because once the gratification of owning something popular wore off, I didn’t actually hear anything I could relate to in her music and she represented everything that irked me about the expectations of mainstream teendom.
And yet, I had easily replaced this memory with the narrative in the film.
The New York Times’s Framing Britney Spears documentary casts a spell. I am thinking specifically of the stretch that chronicles Spears’s rise as a teen idol, starting with the “Baby One More Time” video. I had not seen it since elementary school and was unsettled, as an adult, to watch a 16-year-old embody a schoolgirl fantasy. To make sense of the video’s popularity, the Times’s Wesley Morris suggests that to the 12- and 13-year-olds watching the video when it came out, “it isn’t the sex part that seems cool. It’s the control and command over herself and her space that seems cool.” I felt unsure that younger-me could distinguish the control from the sexiness. But before I could think too hard about it, Framing Britney Spears was making a compelling argument: Spears’s teen image was an expression of her sexuality, and questioning the kind of agency she had in it is misogynistic.
The filmmakers achieve this by alternating between footage of Spears and her collaborators asserting that she made her own decisions and sexist news coverage that shows how much the world hates women who make their own decisions. If “Baby One More Time” made me feel queasy, I was soon reminded that America is sexist and sexually repressed. If I wondered what kind of say Spears had in the “sexy” Rolling Stone photos taken in her childhood bedroom, I was soon reassured that she was never just some puppet.
Now there’s a lot to unpack in the piece that I won’t do here, but Gevinson argues that the point of this narrative was to garner more sympathy for Britney’s victimhood (which is undeniable).
With the essay as a starting point, I started to see a fascinating little media literacy discussion developing.
2. The heroes we create (and destroy)
On the heels of Simon Biles’ withdrawal from a number of Olympic events, Jeremy Littau, an associate professor of journalism and communication at Lehigh University wrote a piece titled The heroes we create (and destroy). In it, he discusses public reaction to Biles’ withdrawal from the lens of Daniel Boorstin’s “The Image,” a seminal work of media sociology from 1962 that essentially predicted the cult of celebrity.
Boorstin’s key thesis was that the expansion of media channels and choices created the need for more variety in news and entertainment by virtue of having more time and space to fill. More content, but more importantly it has to be different than what we already have. In Boorstin’s view, there wasn’t enough real legitimate news to cover with all of that time and space, and so in the long run the media industry would be forced to create (“reimagine” if we are being charitable) new forms of news so it’d have something to publish or put on the air.
A product of this was a public forming a lot of opinions on things that were inconsequential to their lives.
(Regarding Biles specifically, I actually think her example has tremendous relevance to many of us, but the point is still well-taken, especially in light of her critics.)
And then it clicked.
Thinking back to my friend asking “What do you think of this whole Britney thing?” I realize that I too am a product of “let’s have an opinion on everything culture,” and I therefore consume information in a way that allows me to be able to participate in such conversations, be they at the water cooler, over lunch or on social media.
Because the demand exists for opinion, the supply is supercharged with the content that helps me form one.
Which brings me to my third piece of content for this imaginary media literacy lesson.
3. Television is making more documentaries than ever—but skipping the journalism
In October 2020, I bookmarked Danny Funt’s piece in the Columbia Journalism Review, Television is making more documentaries than ever—but skipping the journalism because I was afraid it was true but didn’t want to deal with it at the time.
Centered on the production behind Hillary, he uses the documentary as a launching point to argue that the golden age of documentaries we are currently streaming our way through is seriously lacking transparency on who is behind the camera.
Buzzed-about productions like Hillary arrive on streaming platforms practically every month, thanks to aggressive investments from Netflix and its competitors. Filmmakers used to avoid the label “documentary”; audiences considered them about as exciting as homework. But today there are more than a thousand documentary films available on Netflix and Amazon Prime; in March, Netflix announced that 147 million households worldwide had watched at least one of its documentaries during the previous year. Docs like The Last Dance and HBO’s Leaving Neverland are massive cultural events.
And yet he finds that apathy about editorial independence in documentaries is rampant.
Funnily, even if editorial independence is in place, or a news organization produces the film (as in the case of Framing Britney), narrative is narrative. And we are eating up narratives that are far removed from our lives at a pace far faster than we can process.
For this reason, grappling with what we allow these stories to do to us feels like time better spent than how they are made (though of course I’m all for transparency).
As an aside, remember Plandemic? Editorial transparency could have done nothing to stop its spread, because from it, people were gaining fodder to have a conversation they already wanted to have, and its creators knew that.
I wonder how many of my own memories and observations are being erased by riveting narratives.
Is social media culture and a desire to opine setting us up to take all narrative at face value?
P.S. To those who emailed me in the past week, thank you! I will reply soon.