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Lithium How effective will #MeToo-era documentaries be in the long run?

Nov. 1, 2021

CW: Sexual assault, violence, PTSD.

Since the Harvey Weinstein scandal catalyzed the #MeToo movement in 2017, a crushing surge of people in and outside of Hollywood have come forward with their own stories of sexual violence, harassment, and PTSD at the hands of powerful figures. With these brave (and still ongoing) confessions came a steady rise in timely documentaries focused on survivors revisiting their horrid mistreatment from renowned celebrities, the culture at large, or both. Back in February, The New York Times released Framing Britney Spears, which explores the nasty public perception that haunted the famed pop singer from her rise as a teen superstar to her descent into tabloid victimhood. More recently, HBO presented Allen v. Farrow, a four-part docuseries that reassesses Woody Allen’s sexual abuse allegations against his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow. Earlier this month, Demi Levato put out Dancing with the Devil, another four-part series in which she describes in raw, uncompromising detail her harrowing 2018 drug overdose and reveals a series of sexual assaults she experienced in her past.

This growing trend of #MeToo documentaries—ones that intend to illustrate, dissect, and validate their subjects’ sexual, physical, and psychological trauma—walk a tricky tightrope between tactfulness and sensationalism. On the one hand, they foreground an emotionally devastating experience in order to reshape public narratives. Simultaneously, their subjects are encouraged to graphically recall and recount their degradation, which is then packaged with the goal of satiating our voracious appetite for intimate knowledge. This balancing act engenders several morally thorny questions: how do these projects’ filmmakers draw the line between exploiting their subjects and granting them agency to speak their truth? What are the ethics of retelling and commodifying people’s suffering? And most importantly, how effective will this model of storytelling really be in establishing some form of justice, if at all?  

Let’s first examine Framing Britney Spears. The documentary covers a substantial amount of Spears’ career, starting from her humble beginnings as a mall performer in Mississippi and a member of The Mickey Mouse Club. From there, the film nimbly sifts through major inflection points that made Spears both a pop icon and a social pariah—namely, the hateful nitpicking around her sexual maturity in the music video for “…Baby One More Time” and the multitude of interviewers who bombarded her with distressing, sexist questions at such a young age. The horrendous editorial coverage of Spears’ intense personal struggles is also brought to light to reflect the public’s terrible, vindictive attitude toward her. We learn more about her strained relationship with her morally dubious father Jamie, her tumultuous romantic fallout with Justin Timberlake, and the vicious storm of paparazzi that hounded her during the early-to-mid aughts and, according to the documentary, precipitated her heavily circulated meltdown in 2007. All of this leads to the current issue of Spears’ conservatorship, which has been in effect since 2008, and the subsequent formation of the #FreeBritney movement, a loose organization of fervent Spears fans whose sole mission is to end her conservatorship.

While most of the information that director Samantha Stark presents is nothing new, Framing Britney Spears is nevertheless deftly contextualized and deceptively riveting. Stark and her production team couch Spears’ moments in the limelight with rigorous cultural analysis, persuasively underlining the toxicity of the tabloid era and its debilitating impact on Spears’ mental health. Together, the content and the rich commentary complementing it convincingly maintain that Spears’ pain was resultant of an industry that both exploited and idolized her image, a litany of men who deprived her of control, and a misogynistic media circuit that thrived on mocking her misery. 

Despite giving Spears a well-deserved, long-delayed redemption, Framing Britney Spears contains a few significant gaps in its reevaluation of the pop singer. There is a curious lack of discussion around Spears’ discography that directly points to the immense scrutiny she faced as a performer and public persona (“Lucky,” “Everytime,” “Piece of Me”). At a brief 74 minutes, the doc is caught between focusing on Spears’ life and detailing the latest developments in her conservatorship. This leaves out the possibility for a longer, more holistic study of Spears’ fame, youth, and relationships that could’ve further grounded her story into a cohesive whole like O.J.: Made in America. Perhaps most egregiously, there’s a failure to critique the #FreeBritney movement’s vaguely nefarious preoccupation with Spears’ mental state. 

One of the most intriguing and frustrating interviews from the documentary is with Tess Barker and Barbara Gray, a comedy duo whose podcast Britney’s Gram investigates the pop star’s enigmatic Instagram account and whose popularity helped facilitate the #FreeBritney movement. Although the hosts and the superfans they galvanized ostensibly have good intentions, their commitment to unearthing clues and demanding answers from Spears’ private life could become yet another repeat of the reckless, intrusive surveillance that cemented Spears’ loss of autonomy in the first place. In its pursuit to rationalize her emancipation, Framing Britney Spears neglects to account for the potential harm in platforming the very type of voyeurism it’s trying to denounce. Essentially, no one is leaving Spears alone.

Since the premiere of Framing Britney Spears, reactions have been mixed. Celebrities and fans alike have expressed support for Spears online. Like me, other critics have taken issue with some of the questionable arguments the documentary posits. Justin Timberlake delivered a bare-minimum, too-late apology to both Spears and Janet Jackson, another musician whose reputation he distorted in the public eye. Spears herself stated that she was embarrassed by the way the documentary portrayed her, though it’s unclear if this message was genuinely hers since her conservatorship limits her decision-making. 

But whether or not Spears’ response was authentic or manufactured by the team of people who are legally at the helm of her choices, Framing Britney Spears is arguably potent enough to reorient our biases toward Spears and other public figures who are constantly put in a vulnerable position. Even if the means to get there aren’t precisely the most virtuous and the outcome isn’t as satisfying as it should be, the discourse surrounding Framing Britney Spears has inspired a stronger collective empathy and stimulated a greater urgency to rectify the mistakes of our cultural past. That the conservatorship has been further brought to light is at least a small if notable step in the right direction, but my hope is that when Spears is eventually free from it, she’s able to determine the narrative of her life on her own terms. 

With that in mind, when artists with a traumatic personal history are involved in rehabilitating their public image, like Demi Lovato with Dancing with the Devil, there’s still a risk of siphoning those struggles through a calculated construction. Totaling to 100 minutes across four episodes, the documentary chronicles Lovato’s near-fatal 2018 overdose as well as her longtime drug and alcohol addiction, bipolar misdiagnosis, eating disorder, and previously undisclosed sexual traumas. In addition to Lovato, her family, former assistant, and head of security each share anecdotes about their relationships with the pop star and address concerns about the demons that have plagued her throughout her life.

It goes without saying that Lovato’s eager candor is impressively, refreshingly bold. Rather than sanitizing her experiences, she pulls no punches in externalizing her inner turmoil to the camera and makes no promises that she will keep to her sobriety. In contrast to Framing Britney Spears’ unmet efforts to contact Spears to tell her side of the story, Dancing with the Devil benefits from granting Lovato the ability to mend her somewhat tainted reputation and speak transparently about the reality of relapse and substance dependency. 

Unfortunately, the surface-level packaging of Dancing with the Devil has a hollow, invasive ring to it that not only does Lovato a disservice, but potentially alienates other trauma survivors and addicts who could gain insight from her story. This is not necessarily any fault of hers, but rather the incompetence of director Michael D. Ratner and the producers behind this project, whose sordid, provocative portrayal of Lovato’s various hardships reeks of exploitation. Intimate photos of Lovato smoking heroin and her hospital room are displayed in full, along with a crudely drawn animated dramatization of Lovato’s overdose and its aftermath. There are inconsistencies in Lovato’s apparent honesty and the testimonies from her loved ones who say that Lovato has been known for obscuring the truth. And though it is briefly mentioned by Lovato and her case manager Charles Cook, Dancing with the Devil resists further analyzing how Lovato’s popularity and wealth privilege her in being able to afford the necessary treatments and keep a supportive team by her side. 

One could argue that bluntly illustrating the ugliness of addiction and fame reinforces just how horrifying they can be, but there are subtler and more thoughtful avenues for conveying such themes, especially when some distance is applied between the subject and the people taping them. Two examples that come to mind are This is Paris and TINA, imperfect but much more delicate celeb-focused documentaries that examine the storied traumatic histories of Paris Hilton and Tina Turner, respectively, but are filmed by documentarians outside of their inner circles. Although there is a certain security in having people close to you document your experiences, there is also a responsibility in being able to properly guide that narrative without letting it become polished PR fodder. Lovato’s manager Scooter Braun, for instance, is valorized in Dancing with the Devil as a key player in sustaining her recovery, even though he notoriously dispossessed another female pop star of her autonomy. The fact that Braun is also one of the documentary’s executive producers and helped roll out Lovato’s companion album of the same name exemplifies this contention. 

Though fans praised Dancing with the Devil for its unabashed look at their idol’s lowest moments, critics haven’t been as warm. Lovato herself reportedly had an intense physical reaction watching the documentary about her life, struggling to get through even the first few seconds. Her emotional response brings up an interesting paradox that Dancing with the Devil and documentaries like it often encounter: it can be deeply therapeutic for someone to record a dissemination of their own trauma as a way of detaching themselves from it, but it also possesses a danger in further prolonging their grief now that it’s out there for everyone to see. How does one reconcile this contradiction?

Where Framing Britney Spears and Dancing with the Devil traversed thematically treacherous terrain with conflicting results, Allen v. Farrow takes a more cautious approach that reaps much greater emotional rewards. Following Leaving Neverland and Surviving R. KellyAllen v. Farrow is another lengthy and exhaustive documentary dedicated to corroborating alleged abusive behavior from a beloved pop culture figure. As one of the most influential American filmmakers in history, Woody Allen has managed to maintain a prolific career after dodging years of speculation for purportedly molesting his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow and criticism for marrying his other adopted daughter Soon-Yi. However, since the onset of #MeToo-enforced pushback, Allen’s star has gradually been dyingAllen v. Farrow, a staggering and illuminating work that deconstructs the accusations Allen swindled his way out of for decades, has seemingly hammered the nail on his culpability. 

Known for their similarly themed films The Invisible WarThe Hunting Ground, and last year’s On the Record, documentarians Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick crafted Allen v. Farrow with sensitivity and meticulous attention to detail, elaborating on the distressing gravity of Allen’s actions in conjunction with his revered, mythologized status while centering and uplifting Farrow’s experience. Based on the tantamount evidence the two gathered—thorough court transcripts, compelling elucidations from cultural critics, and consistent testimonies from Farrow and other significant key members—it is more than plausible that Woody Allen is an abuser. His psychosexual fixations on underage women are catalogued both by his destructive, incestuous predation toward his adopted daughters as well as the age-inappropriate relationships that populate much of his filmography and primed audiences into accepting it as a personality quirk.

All four hour-long episodes are deeply upsetting but striking and moving nonetheless. During one crucial moment in its final chapter, the Connecticut state prosecutor who presided over Allen’s 1992 sexual abuse case disclosed that he dropped the charges out of worry that putting a then-seven-year-old Farrow on the stand would further traumatize her. That moral quandary acts as a stark reminder that even when there is a strong certainty of guilt, implicating the perpetrator could permanently impair the perpetrated. It makes one wonder if creating a documentary out of that experience could unintentionally provoke the same effect.

Despite its honorable championing of Farrow’s perspective, it is rather puzzling that Allen v. Farrow refuses to consider the possibility of her mother Mia’s reported abuse. The documentary paints her with an almost glorified reverence as a loving mother to all of her kids, though reports from her adopted children Moses and Soon-Yi about her alleged mistreatment of them suggest otherwise. These accusations are mentioned in the film but are dismissed as inconclusive afterthoughts, ostensibly meant to smear Mia’s blamelessness. It’s likely that focusing on any negative aspect of Farrow would have undermined the valid arguments Allen v. Farrow poses when it comes to her pivotal role in believing Farrow. But had Ziering and Dick probed into this issue instead of discrediting it for the sake of consistency, it would have made for a more multifaceted and emotionally complex analysis of this intricate study on manipulation, showing that it’s more than just a simple black-and-white situation as the title seems to indicate. 

With that said, Allen v. Farrow likely won’t have as much of a dramatic impact in regards to accountability. After its release, the HBO docuseries was met with a positive critical reception but little fanfare. Public opinion on Allen has been predominantly negative for a while now and the documentary only seems to affirm that enmity. Allen still appears to have a few devout advocates, though, including the European film studios who are continuing to finance and distribute his projects. This particular monetary and creative backing of Allen’s work epitomizes why Allen v. Farrow might not be enough to stop his career from flourishing. As Eric Kohn of IndieWire astutely remarked, the absence of a conviction in a court of law has allowed Allen’s supporters to maintain their defense. While Allen v. Farrow is successful in handing Dylan Farrow control of the narrative regarding what happened to her, it stops short of giving Allen a strong enough reckoning to totally ostracize him. Even in our age of dissent, there will almost always be allies of the accused quietly lurking in the shadows.  

Therein lies the central tension underlining a lot of these documentaries: the “justice” they provide is often more poetic and karmic than restorative. They satisfy the subject’s and consumer’s desire for closure and catharsis, but they can easily just become another distraction, a flashy piece of visual media that confirms our own moral views and leaves us enlightened but passive interpreters of the truth. These are narratives, after all—carefully curated spectacles marketed as an emotional appeal to an audience. In the same way true-crime documentaries like Making a Murderer and Tiger King developed a lucrative business out of arousing our primal fascination with the darker side of humanity, so too do these #MeToo documentaries have the potential to reduce what was once a mobilized indictment against abuse and harassment into a seductive subgenre of entertainment. 

There is also still more we don’t know about Spears and Lovato and Farrow and probably never will because the truth, in all of its emotional and temporal enormity, cannot be fully expressed, let alone on camera. And that’s fine. Not everyone needs to know every single bit of information. Trauma survivors are entitled to their privacy, to refrain from further dwelling on their anguish so as not to re-enter a destructive spiral. What remains to be seen, however, is if these documentaries will encourage any genuine introspection beyond well-meaning but ultimately hollow gestures of solidarity, especially from those who have the power to implement actual systemic change. 

Regardless of whether or not they will elicit the expected consequences, #MeToo documentaries can still be incredibly empowering, profoundly healing, and even vital in speaking truth to power. They center survivors’ voices, clarify deep-seated misunderstandings, disentangle the thick and thorny web of abuse, and acknowledge its lingering lifetime repercussions. The problem is they shouldn’t have to be the only way to convince the public to reconsider how we treat other people. Survivors deserve opportunities to tell their stories, especially if they have the access and resources to do so. But how many more documentaries need to be made until the rapacious systems that enable never-ending patterns of cruelty are uprooted and left in the past where they belong? How many famous folk and complicit industries must be held accountable publicly for their actions, and how many people must relive their trauma in order for that accountability to be justified?