Last week, The New York Times Presents released its highly anticipated documentary on the #FreeBritney movement. Framing Britney Spears follows the meteoric rise, stunning fall and confusing aftermath of Britney Spears, charting her life from American sweetheart to tabloid black hole to her current status: legal conundrum. The documentary raises serious questions about the amount of control Spears’ dad Jamie Spears holds over her life, and provides compelling evidence that the enormous online #FreeBritney movement may actually be onto something. But for many people, the Framing Britney Spears‘ most shocking moments came in resurfacing the horrors of the Y2k era’s celebrity gossip coverage for women.
Spears was the pinnacle of the pre-social media apex of celebrity paparazzi, and the documentary has some stunning footage of the claustrophobic amount of attention Spears received whenever she stepped outside the house, her every move and action subject to scrutiny from hundreds of different angles. The coverage got particularly overwhelming in 2007, when her ex-husband Kevin Federline was refusing to let her see her two children. Spears shaved her head and took an umbrella to the door of a paparazzo’s car. The footage and photos provided no shortage of material for late night hosts at the time, who had never been shy about roasting Spears. But social media users resurfaced one clip from Craig Ferguson, then-host of CBS’ The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson, choosing a different route.
“Tonight, no Britney Spears jokes, and here’s why,” Ferguson said. “The kind of weekend she had, she was checking in and out of rehab, she was shaving her head, getting tattoos, that’s what she was doing this weekend. This Sunday, I was 15 years sober. So I looked at her weekend, and I looked at my own weekend, and I thought, ‘You know, I’d rather have my weekend.’ But what she’s going through reminds me of what I was doing. It’s an anniversary, you start to think about it, and it reminds me of where I was 15 years ago, when I was living like that.” Ferguson refrained from diagnosing Spears, but “she clearly needs help.” He also said that he felt “uncomfortable about making fun” of celebrities like Spears and Anna Nicole Smith, who had recently passed away, when we should be “attacking the powerful people, the politicians and the Trumps and the blowhards.”
Here’s a shorter clip.
Never forget when Craig Ferguson refused to make fun of Britney Spears. pic.twitter.com/r8AuiNPW0L
— Britney Fan 🌹 (@BritneyHiatus) February 9, 2021
“She’s a baby,” Ferguson said, seeming shocked himself. “She’s a baby.”
Ferguson’s authenticity and sensitivity here can’t be overstated. From gently reprimanding his audience when they laugh at his mention of the death of Anna Nicole Smith to admitting that he himself had messed up in this area, it was an extraordinarily humble moment from a medium that does not reward such displays. And, while entertainment media has made some small improvements in terms of its own toxicity, Ferguson’s monologue still stands out, even today.
The documentary has clips of a teenage Spears appearing on reputable shows for conversations with ostensibly serious interviewers only to be pelted with nauseating questions about her sex life, her body and her overall value, frequently prompting Spears to blink back tears on live TV. One shocking clip shows Dianne Sawyer asking Spears how she felt about the then-first lady of Maryland Kendel Ehrlich saying ,”If I had an opportunity to shoot Britney Spears, I think I would.” This is all contrasted with how her ex-boyfriend Justin Timberlake was treated, whose narrative of their breakup — in which he cast Spears as a two-faced cheater — was accepted without question. The documentary adds necessary context to the Spears saga, showing the ways her life was shaped not just by celebrity but by the way late-90s/early-00s entertainment coverage considered women to be little more than fuel for its own rise, and the way the industry not only built these women up but eventually sought to destroy them and then feast on the remains.
Framing Britney Spears is streaming on Hulu.