The new Britney Spears documentary is making people completely re-think the pop star's life

I never thought I'd voluntarily watch a documentary about Britney Spears, much less recommend one. While her music is fine, celebrity culture does nothing for me and the news surrounding her always felt too tabloidy for my taste. Over the years, I've brushed off Spears' personal saga as clickbaity fame drama not worth my time and energy—a dismissal I now regret.

After seeing multiple people I admire and respect share how the New York Times' Britney Spears documentary impacted them, I decided to check it out. And all I can say is—holy crap. There's so much to her story that we should all be aware of, because so much of it involves all of us.

This post will contain spoilers, so if you'd rather just watch the documentary yourself, search for "The New York Times Presents: Framing Britney Spears" on Hulu. (You can sign up for a 7-day free trial if you don't have a subscription.)

The focus of "Framing Britney Spears" is the growing #FreeBritney movement—the push from Spears' fans to let her have control over her life. For the past 12 years, Spears' has had a court-appointed conservator of her person and her estate, meaning that she doesn't have agency over decisions about her life or her money. For nearly all of that time, her father Jamie has served that conservator—a fact that is strange in and of itself, since he hadn't played an active role in her life prior to her public breakdown.


Every documentary has a purpose, and this one clearly leads us in the direction of the #FreeBritney message. We're shown how capable she had been even when she was young and how she had always held the reins of her own career. We see how she's continued to be able to perform and work at a high level, despite the fact that she supposedly doesn't have the mental capacity to handle her own affairs.

There are plenty of revelations that point to people in her life manipulating the situation for their own gain. You have to wade through some kind of cringey connect-the-dots conspiracy thinking from obsessed fans in the documentary, but there are legitimate questions about why the conservatorship remains in place for someone who appears to have her wits about her. We don't have access to her medical records, but there are millions of people who live with mental health issues—even severe ones—and don't have the right to make decisions about their life taken away from them like this.

That's one element that should concern us all.

Another huge piece of the Britney story that I wasn't aware of was how absolutely relentless the paparazzi was with her from the get-go. Celebrities get followed and photographed all the time, of course, but with Britneys Spears it was literally all the time, up in her face, surrounding her car, swarming her every step she took.

And she was so young when this all started. While she clearly had the ambition to become a singer, she was a sweet, approachable young woman who didn't seem equipped to tell these grown men surrounding her with cameras and questions to back the eff off. At first, she seemed to enjoy the attention, but that luster only lasts so long. And these grown men with their cameras were so predatory, even while they talked nicey to her. Super icky.

Watching the constant flashing of cameras and bombardment of questions she endured nearly gave me a panic attack, and I'm a middle-aged adult. But because of society's insatiable appetite for the "sexy schoogirl," paparazzi could make up to $1 million per photo. So they hounded and hounded her, and the more drama in her life began to unfold, the worse it got.

Combine the paparazzi with the way the media treated her and, like I said, holy crap. The questions journalists and show hosts thought they could ask this young woman, the details of her private life they thought they were entitled to, and the cruelty they purposefully subjected her to is shocking. So many of the questions she was expected to answer wouldn't even be asked today, much less answered. (Can you imagine someone in today's media straight-up asking a teen girl if she was still a virgin? Or asking about her breast size?)

One of the things pointed out in the documentary is that there's a misogynistic infrastructure and apparatus ready and waiting to come for a woman if that's what our vulturous society decides to do. The media clearly plays a huge role in that, and they came for Britney in full force.

When Spears and Justin Timberlake broke up, Timberlake ended up controlling the media narrative, which basically made her seem like a slut. He even made a revenge music video with a look-alike of her—yuck.

Diane Sawyer said in a segment that Britney had disappointed mothers all over the country and pointed out that the wife of the governor of Maryland said she would shoot Britney Spears if she had the opportunity. She asked Britney what she thought about that, indicating that she had legitimate concerns as a mother.

Seriously? Saying she wanted to shoot her is just an expression of motherly concern?

After Britney married Kevin Federline and had her first baby, she was almost immediately painted as an unfit mother. And the paparazzi still wouldn't let up.

Matt Lauer asked her what she could do about the paparazzi, and she said, "I don't know. I don't know." Then she broke down crying. He asked her if getting them to stop hounding her was her biggest wish, and she said it was. At that point, she was 23 or 24 and had been dealing with this stuff for years.

By the time the documentary gets to Britney's infamous head-shaving (Britney asked a hairdresser to shave her head, and when they refused, she took the shears and did it herself) and her beating the side of a paparazzi's truck with an umbrella, those behaviors seemed less like a cry for help and more like a justified "eff y'all."

Of course, there are details about her mental health history that we are not privy to. She has had issues with substance abuse according to court documents, and there have been numerous reports of truly erratic behavior from various reputable outlets. It seems quite clear that she's in need of some kind of mental health treatment, but does that justify someone taking total control over her life and finances?

From this documentary, it appears many in Britney's life may not have her best interest at heart, or whose "best interest" shifted with the tens of millions of dollars she rakes in as a working pop star. And so many questions remain. Why does the conservatorship remain if she's as functional as she appears to be? Is she on board with the idea of a conservatorship in general, or did she just not want her dad to serve in that capacity?

Jamie no longer has total control—his own health issues in 2019 caused him to step down from being conservator of her person, and a court case in November made a bank representative co-conservator of her estate along with Jamie. But is all of that really still necessary?

And what about the media's complicity in all of this? Glamour Magazine has issued an apology to Britney Spears, writing on Instagram, "We are all to blame for what happened to Britney Spears—we may not have caused her downfall, but we funded it. And we can try to make up for that."

Spears' boyfriend of four years, Sam Asghari, doesn't appear in the documentary, but he made a rare statement criticizing Britney's father on Instagram after it came out, saying he has "zero respect" for Jamie and calling him "a dick." But this documentary also leaves one with a feeling of distrust for pretty much everyone close to Britney. There's just so much money at stake, too many people who have taken advantage, and too many unknowns to feel 100% good about anyone in her life at this point.

I walked away from this documentary with concerns about civil rights for people with mental illness, concerns about misogyny in the media, concerns about how our obsession with fame can literally destroy lives, and concerns about this individual woman's well-being.

It's worth watching, even if you're not a celebrity documentary watcher. Underneath the over-the-top fandom is an important story that needs to be told.

The New York Times Presents | Framing Britney Spears - Season 1 Ep. 6 Highlight | FX www.youtube.com

And according to Page Six, we may be getting more of Britney's story from her own perspective, as she's reportedly working on a documentary about her life. That's one we'll all be on the lookout for.

via KTLA 5 / YouTube

A little after 7:30 on Tuesday night, Los Angeles County Sheriffs received multiple reports about a herd of cows running through the streets of Pico Rivera, a city 11 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

This Twitter video does a perfect job of encapsulating the surprise residents felt when they saw 40 cows running through their quiet suburban neighborhood.

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via KTLA 5 / YouTube

A little after 7:30 on Tuesday night, Los Angeles County Sheriffs received multiple reports about a herd of cows running through the streets of Pico Rivera, a city 11 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

This Twitter video does a perfect job of encapsulating the surprise residents felt when they saw 40 cows running through their quiet suburban neighborhood.

Keep Reading Show less
True

Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."