Here’s something I can tell you with certainty, before venturing off on a very uncertain journey to try and understand an extremely confusing situation: I have no idea what is “actually” going on in Britney Spears’ life.
Trying to surmise what is “happening” to the iconic pop star—and declaring her reality with any sort of assumed authority—is a dangerous path to tread.
And like most famous women, like most celebrities generally, speculating on what may or may not be really happening in their glamorous lives, pulling back the curtain on their humanness—stars, they’re just like us!—is an entire industry in and of itself. Following celebrities into the darkest reaches (i.e., their lives when unscripted, unrehearsed) was and is not relegated to social media followings: it fuels tabloids, pays paparazzo, churns out explainers on their latest public “slips,” whether of nipples or of supposed “normalcy.”
It is daunting to try to explain her to the unfamiliar, because the concept of being unfamiliar with Britney Spears is a distant one. Whether or not you were a fan, growing up in the age of Britney was defining. She was that popstar. Close your eyes and see if you can recall her red leather “Oops I Did It Again” outfit, her dancing with a giant snake on MTV, her denim on denim outfit worn next to a denim-clad Justin Timberlake, who she was dating at the time. Who doesn’t remember her kissing Madonna on stage? It’s important to note Britney was, and is, important to many queer people, her unashamed femininity and power prominent in so many early contemplations of identity.
Even if you don’t like her music, never even fucked with the whole thing, it’s undeniable that she is a force to be reckoned with, both in the public psyche and in her continued success.
She’d done stage and commercial work before, but her big break was on the Mickey Mouse Club, which she joined in 1992 with other soon-to-be pop stars Christina Aguillera and Justin Timberlake, as well as other “oh my god I forgot they were teen stars” like Ryan Gosling and Keri Russell. And like many child stars (I can’t stop thinking about how well Bojack Horseman handles this topic, by the way) Spears’ parents were very involved, always. But in looking back at reporting from this time (FYI this piece does NOT age well, but nothing does), it seems Britney was (once) at the helm of many of the decisions which defined her career. The idea to wear school girl outfits in the “...One More Time” video? Hers. The desire to be a pop star at all? Hers, one she’d doggedly pursued since childhood.
Look up the hashtag “FreeBritney” on social media and you’ll see tons of posts about her current situation. The best in-depth overview I’ve seen (that Lexie sent my way, Lexie is the true Britney historian here) is here, but if you want to meander slowly through some of the details and social consequences, stay with me.
One post in the tag that struck me was an “X” made out of two blonde braids, the words “Free Britney” scrawled between them. There have been rallies, petitions, twitter threads, big names and “recently pivoted to being a social media activist but make it chic and arbitrary” who are “amplifying” the cause. But like many viral hashtags and movements, the “cause” is relatively separate from people’s understanding of why they’re joining in. Free Britney? Yeah! Sounds good. I don’t want Britney to be trapped. Send tweet.
The hashtag has been around for a while, but found renewed support and attention as Britney heads back to court: the hearing today, August 19th, is to review her dad’s role as conservator and appoint her manager Jodi Montgomery take over. The 12-year long conservatorship is due for extension after the 22nd of this month.
Since Britney’s much publicized “public breakdown” in 2008, she’s been under this conservatorship controlled by her father. In many situations like this, everyone involved—lawyers, caretakers, etc.—are making a bunch of money annually to provide, uh, care that is often paid for by the person in need of their help. That means for 12 years, one of—if not the most—defining pop stars of the 2000s hasn’t had control over her life—not her finances, not her body, her family planning—and has paid her father and lawyers to manage this for her, something mandated by the court. Hence, #FreeBritney.
She has continued to perform and release multiple albums: reading through her Wikipedia is a glimpse into how prolific she is, how much she did and continues to do. She wrote books. She sang chart-toppers, and started writing more of her own music, some of which seems to explicitly reference both the perils of fame and the expectations people projected unto her, and her life under intense supervision from within her own family. Throughout her career, and especially in retrospect, the intense glare of living under the spotlight was top of mind. “Kill The Lights,” “Mannequin,” “I Wanna Go,” and “Circus,” are just some of these, not to mention all the unreleased music she’s made.
She’s continued to make appearances on TV shows, and at one point was a host on the “X Factor.” She had a huge Las Vegas residency, which this piece by Taffy Brodesser-Akner explored in detail in 2014.
Here’s a block of text from this piece in Business Insider that gets at some of the main concerns of Free Britney: “The legal oversight is highly unusual. Conservatorships are designed to protect people who cannot take care of themselves, but Spears, now 37, has worked nonstop over the course of her own, producing four albums and going on as many world tours. Despite Spears’ insistence on social media that she is fine and in control of her life, the #FreeBritney machine has developed in ways neither the superstar nor her team can control. It’s become a tabloid staple, a social media obsession. With fans often interpreting celebrities’ actions through a personal lens, Spears has become a vessel for discussing the place of women in entertainment, mental illness and father-daughter relationships.”
I think these paragraphs get at the crux of why this situation is so complicated. The conservatorship itself seems unusual and bizarre for someone so young and productive, according to this logic. But conservatorships in general are a concept in desperate need of critical evaluation, and have been long pushed back on by disability advocates specifically.
We’ll come back to this—what it means that the court can decide if you are capable of making your own decisions or not—but I want to look at how much her productivity is stressed as a panacea to her being unwell. Oh she had that public breakdown and she doesn’t control her finances or life and has to have her dad with her on visits with her own children, but wow she still toured in Las Vegas so she must be sort of okay, right? In conflating work with a metric of well-being, we ignore how many people work when unwell, how many are forced to do so. We rest on capitalist logic to define health, which denies Britney and the way-too-many others in similar situations autonomy to decide how they want to live their lives. Plus, at this point in her career, it doesn’t seem likely that Britney needs to work. Does she want to? Is she being made to?
Like many hashtags, #FreeBritney is feasibly in service of raising awareness, but becomes crowded and confused with speculation, some so obviously borne from genuine love and compassion for Britney, others slick with the same gossipy voyeurism that coats discourse around the lives of many public women.
The extent to which Britney has had control over her career before and during the conservatorship has always been contested, and it’s undeniable that much of her public image is shaped by those profiting from her photographable distress. In a 2008 Atlantic piece about the industry of taking and selling photos of the star “Shooting Britney,” the details of her surveillance are made shockingly clear, but more, speaks to the vast market for her observable trauma, specifically.
“The potential upside of waiting 12 or 14 hours a day, six or seven days a week, is the chance that one day Britney will roll her car into a ditch, or be taken away again strapped to a gurney.”
“Is that money in your pocket? Or you happy to see me?” she sings in Kill the Lights, the video for which is notably animated.
“It is hard to overstate the impact of these photos on the Britney story,” the same Atlantic piece reads. “With their worldwide publication, Britney Spears departed the planet of normal bubblegum celebrity story lines and entered the heavenly realm of pop myth. America’s sweetheart had dramatically and publicly un-edited herself, removing the customary trappings and protections of celebrity to reveal the damaged psyche of a fractured person who was no longer able or willing to regulate her public behavior.”
In so much reporting on her, see above, there is—in addition to a general misunderstanding of how people work—there is this mythic, biblical, Fall From Grace shadow cast over the star. The icon who sinned by being too-human for our tolerances. For being too much. Her reality is never just her reality, it’s reality as compared to what she was, which was never really her, but a figment of our imagination possible only in the 2000s.
In retrospect, I think most of us can agree she was treated terribly by the public and even fans cheering her on, with little empathy or understanding. Her “breakdown” happened when she was 26 years old—my age now, for context—but she’d been superstar famous since at least 17. I can’t stress enough how young she was when this was all happening. Like many child stars who are in the public eye for a lot of their life, they sort of leave the temporal plane altogether—we fluctuate between projecting adulthood and innocence on them when they are very young, depending on how they are captured acting in public, mostly, apparent glimpses into truth outside of their stage performances. And perhaps one weird byproduct is that when they reach young adulthood, we’ve already been watching them for so long that we expect some heroic level of grace, of non-humanness, of eternal superficiality ready for easy consumption.
ID: a screenshot from the Britney Spears music video “Lucky.” In it, we see a very artsy shot of a handheld mirror, in which her face is reflected. Behind that, another mirror shows the star looking in the handheld mirror. Yeah!
Part of that is the ever-impossible standard of manufactured, saccharine youth that Britney is, perhaps unconsciously, held to. Think about (or listen below to) the song Lucky:
"Isn't she lovely, this Hollywood girl?"
And they say.
She's so lucky, she's a star
But she cry, cry, cries in her lonely heart, thinking
If there's nothing missing in my life
Then why do these tears come at night
#FreeBritney is a movement to, yeah, free Britney from the conservatorship controlled by her father, the person who calls it a conspiracy theory. But there’s plenty to suggest things are awry, far beyond the admittedly out there theories around what secret messages Britney may be sending fans via social media: her choice of t-shirt, her dance moves, the amount of people she’s following as a coded cry for help. (Given that she can’t communicate anything to the outside world without her father’s permission, it’s reasonable to suspect her trying to connect with people in other ways, but speculation on this is extremely messy.)
Within the chaotic space of figuring out what’s “actually” happening are central concerns that are real and urgent, regardless of how much we can ever actually know about the details of this situation. In trying to balance the two, I suggest we treat this uncertainty, and most importantly Britney herself, as a person—not a product. So, that all said, a suggested pathway to think about this: Britney’s situation is a disability justice and psychiatric incarceration issue as much as it is an interrogation of what alternatives to state-mandated care could look like. It’s a searing reminder of how women’s trauma is fodder for tabloids, very expensive fodder at that. But those are complicated, dense topics. They don’t make for great viral posts.
Many think-pieces constructed this dualism of Britney’s fans versus the world, implying a coordination and vision for “freeing” the star. There is an obvious condescension in how many of these theories are written about, as though fans plucked the notion of her being trapped from nowhere, and now lean conspiratorially into their imagined chaos, even more hectic as we’re trapped at home, waiting eagerly to see what new things will be made to entertain us, making live entertainment out of whatever closest drama we can muster.
Privacy is a double edged sword for the singer, wherein the best case scenario is that she’s being taken care of by those who love her. Worst case is what her fans raise: fans who love her too, and sense that she is being taken advantage of by her family. It’s important to note that conservator abuse disproportionately impacts old people and people deemed “unfit” —i.e. usually disabled. At the center of the court being able to decide what is best for you is the idea that some people are less worthy than others, that some people just take too much work to help, and so rather than provide more human-centered support, it’s easier (and more profitable) to assign someone else this role.
Conservatorship is at its core a disability issue, as this thread by disabled writer and thinker Sara Luterman outlines brilliantly.
Guardianships and conservatorships are designed so that people who are unable to make their own decisions about finances, medical care, relationships, etc., can be aided by a court-mandated person, sometimes a family member, sometimes a stranger hired for this purpose. In some situations (and depending on your experience) this might make a certain sense: your grandma gets dementia and needs someone to help make decisions about her life. Ok, seems fine. But why are the courts involved? Why does it have to be in this way? Britney also asks us to be real about where abuse potentially comes from: inside the family, from the very organizations and institutions designed to support and help those in need. Yes, she is rich and famous. However a rich and famous person who is not in control of their money may not actually be rich, and fame seems irrelevant for someone whose guardianship could restrict their right to vote, marry, see their children, choose where to live, what to eat, when to work, where to work, to drive, to take medicine, to not take medicine, even be allowed access to share this very information. Though continuing to work and be very present in the public eye, Britney is 38-years-old and has the rights of someone who is incarcerated.
A good primer on guardianship from this perspective can be found at Autistic Advocacy, linked here, as suggested by Sara Luterman in the thread above. Here are some important facts I pulled from the guide:
Sometimes, people under guardianship are not allowed to vote, get married, or take care of their children. People under guardianship cannot always protect themselves from what the guardian might do.
Even if the guardian knows the person very well, that guardian still has the power to do anything they want with that person’s life without talking to the person at all.
Many countries’ guardianship laws break the CRPD, because they allow the court to take away the rights of people who could make their own decisions if they had the right supports.
The CRPD is the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. You can click there and see if where you live has signed or signed/ratified the document. A general overview: The Convention follows decades of work by the United Nations to change attitudes and approaches to persons with disabilities. It takes to a new height the movement from viewing persons with disabilities as “objects” of charity, medical treatment and social protection towards viewing persons with disabilities as “subjects” with rights, who are capable of claiming those rights and making decisions for their lives based on their free and informed consent as well as being active members of society. The Convention is intended as a human rights instrument with an explicit, social development dimension. It adopts a broad categorization of persons with disabilities and reaffirms that all persons with all types of disabilities must enjoy all human rights and fundamental freedoms. It clarifies and qualifies how all categories of rights apply to persons with disabilities and identifies areas where adaptations have to be made for persons with disabilities to effectively exercise their rights and areas where their rights have been violated, and where protection of rights must be reinforced.”
Countries that have signed and ratified the CRPD can be held accountable in a court of law. Meaning to sign and ratify this = good. But—to sign and not ratify is an extremely good boy move.It literally means you sign your name and say “yup, looks legit!” but refuse to ratify, meaning you can’t actually be held to what it outlines.
Guess what the U.S. did? You bet! (Just a sign). To make it even more confusing, in the U.S. each state has different laws about guardianship, which can make care for someone dramatically different if they moved, or lead to different outcomes if they had just been born in a state over. Each state uses different means to decide how people get a guardian, and who needs one. In many articles I’ve found, guardianship should, in theory, be treated as an absolute last option. There are many other ways to aid someone and be on the record of having done so (in case of medical or financial concerns) that don’t require complete guardianship. “Guardianship takes away rights guaranteed by both the Constitution and the Americans With Disabilities Act. The Constitution says that freedom is a right. Guardianship takes away freedom,” the AA guide outlines. It’s also good to note the concept of dignity of risk, which is also outlined in the CRPD. I pulled this from Wikipedia: “Dignity of risk is the idea that self-determination and the right to take reasonable risks are essential for dignity and self esteem and so should not be impeded by excessively-cautious caregivers, concerned about their duty of care.”
One alternative is called supported decision-making. It probably seems obvious to a lot of us, but the gist is that you can have someone officially helping you, but they can’t make any decisions for you. Instead of having a court-appointed watchdog to track how you spent your money and where you went, you’d get help to decide where to spend your money, etc. The very structure of guardianship is rife for abuse, and this is a rampant problem. Supported decision-making is a framework that centers the autonomy of the person and lets them make their own decisions, just with the right support. With the right support and community care, disabled people can do anything. Really!
The Autistic Advocacy doc puts it super well: “If you are using supported decision making instead of guardianship, you could simply call up your sister and have her help you through the process. If you have a guardian, you could not get an apartment without your guardian’s consent and assistance, even if you would rather have someone else help you instead of your guardian.”
People who may be vulnerable to being taken advantage of, like the very young, very old, and/or disabled people, are at increased risk in situations of guardianship. The National Association to Stop Guardian Abuse looks primarily at elder abuse, but is a good framework to think about how common abuse is in these situations, and how the court is not a good metric for whether someone is “incapacitated” or not. With ulterior motives, especially when money is involved, it’s important to be extra critical of people who claim to want someone’s “well-being” only. Because if they really did, wouldn’t they consider alternative means of supporting them, without needing to have absolute control? Many elders become wards of the state, meaning that their estate and medical decisions belong to someone else, and further, if they want to challenge this they’ll end up paying for everything. “Wards in these circumstances, are victimized under the deception of protection. Strangers are often given total and absolute control of life, liberty, and property of their wards, including being left defenseless and subject to neglect, abuse and/or exploitation by the very people chosen to protect them; they become invisible and voiceless,” the website says.
What do we do when the subject—supposedly “invisible and voiceless”—was the defining voice of many of our childhoods, and more, remains hyper-visible? The eerie dichotomy of Britney’s situation lies in how succinctly it exposes hypocrites of all types. Court-mandated care is not guaranteed to provide good or even adequate care, family does not equal community support, fame does not equal freedom. She’s invisible and yet ever-present, she’s one of the most recognizable voices of our time and yet cannot speak to the public without getting approval. In being “cared for” by her father but seemingly trotted out to cash in on world tours while being denied her dignity, we are forced to contemplate the very upsetting reality that, yeah, those closest to us often don’t have our best interests at heart, that many of us choose our own families instead.
Britney’s situation—the combination of fame and the fact that her family is entrusted with her care—makes it hard to know what to do as fans, or simply as outside observers. Is it a family issue, one we should butt out of? But what if the family does’t have her best interests at heart? How do we intervene? When they are this famous, when they are someone we look up to, how do we reach them? And what does it mean to participate in this, to seek some sort of resolution, while still unavoidably being a consumer of her life—i.e. a fan?
While it’s slightly different, I ended up watching an episode of Dirty Money about guardianship abuse and heard a quote from New Yorker journalist Rachel Aviv that deeply resonated. “I found it ironic because the concept of guardianship is based on this idea of benevolent paternalism,” she said, detailing the horrors of abuse she found in her reporting. “And yet in practice it often seemed to created this kind of capitalist dystopia.”
Capitalist dystopia under the guise of benevolent paternalism seems, quite literally, a potentially too-apt explanation of Britney’s specific situation and the larger questions it raises. We want Britney to be in good hands. We want her to be taken care of, and given that her father is her appointed conservator, many perhaps believe she’s fine. But we should know, sadly, that being mistreated is not something relegated to strangers—quite the opposite. Most abuse happens from people we know, from people we live with. When the court has permission to do that, and call it protection, it becomes endlessly more sinister and complicated.
But more so, as my partner pointed out, there are endless examples of “benevolent paternalistic relationships” that are woven into the fabric of our lives. Relationships that we want to be loving, that we want to be fair, that we want to be—by their very nature—conducive to trust are so often exploited. And in very goodboyian fashion, the “good” models of love, of care, often resist scrutiny based on the premise that in theory they should function in the general direction of goodness. Non-profits, doctor-patient, priest-parishioner, parents-children. In so many dynamics we implicitly trust as caring, there is the undeniable creep of “capitalist dystopia” that unavoidably warps and changes how we relate to each other.
The point is, yes guardianship is really fucked, and is a specific legal nightmare that needs radical intervention. But fixing that doesn’t “fix” the fact that relationships in general are structures where abuse can, and does, happen.
Of course, while Free Britney raises important questions, it still centers it around a person. The most famous pop star in the world, for a time. But like most situations that need an individual to raise the tide of awareness, perhaps this pretty grim situation can be extended into conversations you’re already having right now around incarceration, state-interventions in care, alternatives to institutionalized support.
I don’t have the answers for any of the questions raised here, I hope that’s obvious. But I do hope I’ve provided a helpful corrective and pathway to both think about these larger issues, and to be critical with ourselves about how we talk about super famous people. I certainly was active in chiming in during her 2008 “meltdown,” fully unaware of how this perpetuated the harm caused to her, normalized an industry that waited for her to be the right amount injured before snapping a photo and selling it. If we want her to be the pop-star of our youths, the one we put on a pedestal and worship, we have to be able to recognize that platform is constructed, that her “fall” is not a fall from grace but her simply living her life as she is. We have to allow all versions of her, for she is after all a three-dimensional human, multifaceted and flawed, gorgeous and talented—utterly, absolutely, iconic.
If you’re interested in learning more about Britney and this case, woah boy do I have some sources for you. Plus, here are some good Instagrams to follow for current updates, as her court case is today!
This newsletter was edited by Lexie Bean, like almost all my newsletters are. Lexie is a veritable Britney expert and they provided essential information here in both framing the facts and navigating some really challenging topics. They are really good at making challenging topics super accessible, and recently published a middle-grade reader novel about queer and trans youth, incarceration, and familial abuse. Definitely check it out: The Ship We Built.
Here are some things I’m reading and places I’m giving to this week (there are a lot more reads but the newsletter is real long today, so hope you learned Britney things) .
And hey! I’ll be off Instagram for the most part for a good long while, so if you like my work or think you know someone who would, do a share! Send my newsletter around! It really helps, and it rules to know the people who consume my work are not doing so passively. :D
Of course, a photo of my dog.
ID: a photo of Clementine being very, almost impossibly, long. She’s in the dirt, trying to both scratch her back and recede deeper into the hole she has made. Please do not tell anyone she is the one who made the hole. Thank you.
Shelby and Clem