Last week, when Britney Spears addressed the court regarding her conservatorship for the first time in years, she said something striking: “I didn’t want to say any of this to anybody, to the public, because I thought people would make fun of me or laugh at me and say, ‘She’s lying, she’s got everything, she’s Britney Spears.’”
As it turns out, despite being worth USD$60-million, Spears doesn’t have “everything.” Based on what she told Los Angeles probate judge Brenda Penny, she has experienced serious abuse under her conservatorship, including being barred from seeing friends, not being in control of her own money, being forced to work when she was seriously ill, ordered to take lithium against her will and, perhaps most horrifyingly, being told she doesn’t have permission to remove her IUD despite wanting to get married and have another child – a serious breach of her reproductive freedom. But in other ways, she was right: Until very recently, many members of the media and the general public were more likely to mock the pop star than believe her if she asked for help.
Conservatorships are legal arrangements where a judge grants a person or organization the responsibility to care for an adult who is deemed incapable of caring for themselves. They can apply to a person’s day-to-day life, including their housing and medical care or their finances, or both. Spears has been subject to a conservatorship since 2008, when her father, Jamie Spears, asked the courts to temporarily put him in charge of both her person and estate.
The details of that time have long been pop-culture lore: In 2006, Spears was photographed driving with her infant son, Sean Preston, on her lap, and received plenty of media attention for partying with Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan. In 2007, she famously shaved her head, hit a paparazzo’s SUV with an umbrella, publicly struggled with addiction and lost custody of her children to her ex-husband, Kevin Federline. In January, 2008, she was twice placed under an involuntary 72-hour psychiatric hold, once after a custody standoff that involved police. That’s when her father stepped in to ask for the temporary conservatorship; by October of that year, it had become permanent.
Despite the flurry of attention Spears attracted for her entire career, the first concerns about her conservatorship didn’t come from journalists, or even from activists or legal experts. The first questions came from fans. According to The New York Times, fan site BreatheHeavy.com started a “Free Britney” campaign in 2009. How, fans wondered, could she be incapable of making major decisions about her life or career, but also capable of releasing an album (the chart-topping, Grammy-nominated Circus), touring and guest-starring on sitcoms?
But beyond those fans, the public didn’t take notice until 2019. In January of that year, Spears announced that her soon-to-start second residency in Las Vegas was on hold indefinitely because of her father’s health (he had a ruptured colon). Her Instagram, where she’d been regularly posting inspirational memes and videos of herself dancing, painting or working out, went dark. More worryingly, she seemed to disappear in real life, too.
When people began speculating about her whereabouts, a post suddenly appeared on Spears’s Instagram account, but fans doubted whether it was really her. Hours later, TMZ broke the news that Spears had checked into a mental-health facility to undergo treatment, which many media outlets and fellow celebrities praised her for. But a few weeks later, the podcast Britney’s Gram shared audio of someone claiming to be a paralegal familiar with the conservatorship case; he said Spears had been forced into treatment. Her fans rallied, and the modern #FreeBritney movement was born.
At first, news coverage centred on the movement itself – and I’d argue that, in many cases, the tone was more gawking and doubtful than genuinely interested in what fans were saying. But soon it evolved to focus on Spears’s case itself: What restrictions govern her life? How did she actually feel about the conservatorship? Is she … okay? Women’s magazines published explainers about conservatorships and news organizations – including The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times – began covering the case extensively, the latter even producing the wildly successful documentary Framing Britney Spears.
To be fair, that’s not the only reason Spears became newsworthy again. We’re also in a cultural moment where outlets are reflecting on the ways they used to talk about young women, particularly Spears, in the 1990s and early 2000s. It’s easy to see that at least some of the blame for Spears’s mental state belonged to media, both mainstream and tabloid, which first obsessed over her body and virginity, later blamed her for breaking Justin Timberlake’s heart, and then gleefully watched as she spiralled.
In 2008, weeks after Spears was hospitalized, clearly in crisis, Rolling Stone published a feature by Vanessa Grigoriadis that referred to the singer as “an inbred swamp thing.” Us Weekly, which recently tweeted “Free Britney,” published cover lines calling Spears “sick,” (November, 2007) “out of control” (January, 2008) and a “time bomb” (January, 2008). She was also a perennial source of inspiration for late-night TV hosts, whose cruel jokes were reliably picked up by entertainment outlets the next morning.
The fan-driven discourse isn’t perfect – those without disabilities tend to argue Spears deserves freedom because she’s not disabled enough to need a conservatorship, instead of understanding the wider criticism of conservatorships, which deem people incapacitated based on ableist criteria. But without the surge of interest from her fandom, I’m not sure as many media organizations would be paying attention to the case or to conservatorships themselves.
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