Britney Spears is finally freed of her conservatorship, but observers and fans worry that society will fall back into the same behavior that helped put her there more than 13 years ago.
Spears’ conservatorship has been the subject of numerous documentaries, headlines and even a congressional hearing over the past year after her fans called attention to her situation through the #FreeBritney movement. The New York Times examined the social media campaign and Spears’ struggles under media scrutiny in a documentary this year, “Framing Britney Spears.”
But it remains to be seen whether the media and society have truly changed now that Spears, 39, has finally regained her freedom.
While strides have been made to offer Spears empathy in the public eye, Tess Barker and Barbara Gray, the women behind the popular Britney’s Gram podcast, are skeptical that she can return to being the subject of scrutiny. Some people have already argued that Spears’ more eccentric social media posts are grounds to keep her in the confining arrangement.
“That’s certainly never any sort of grounds for anyone to be in something like a conservatorship, but you will see comments on her Instagram like ‘Oh, maybe she should be in a conservatorship’ and like ‘Are we sure if she’s OK?’” Barber said. “That’s not how the system is supposed to work. And it feels very ableist ... really poking fun at her, infantilizing her and maybe not really understanding the gravity of the situation that she’s been in.”
Spears’ preferred outlet to communicate with her fans is her Instagram account, where she has more than 39 million followers. Her fans have analyzed her account for years, partly inspiring the Britney’s Gram podcast.
In a candid post last month, Spears said that she was afraid to do simple tasks, such as drive her car, and that paparazzi would jump out at her “like they want me to do something crazy.”
“I’ll just be honest and say I’ve waited so long to be free from the situation I’m in … and now that it’s here I’m scared to do anything because I’m afraid I’ll make a mistake !!!” she wrote. “For so many years I was always told if I succeeded at things, it could end … and it never did.”
Gray said that the number of paparazzi is “scary” but that taking the pictures is how many make their income. There have been fan movements to stop the use of paparazzi photos, with the hope that it would cut the demand, she said.
“I doubt that they’re going to stop out of some kind of moral higher ground, but you’d hoped that people would learn their lessons and, and just kind of let her live her life,” Gray said. “And that’s what I hope for the most is that she can walk down the street and not have to worry about those kinds of things.”
Celebrities have also spoken out about the paparazzi’s treatment of Spears, immediately expressing hope that they would, in the immortal words of Chris Crocker, “leave Britney alone.” Actor Jameela Jamil tweeted to fans that “you guys freed Britney.”
“But NOW we have to protect her from the paparazzi and tabloid media who are determined to drive her back into this same mess, by harassing and stalking her,” Jamil wrote. “We have to now PROTECT BRITNEY.”
The first thought that crossed culture critic and author Gerrick Kennedy’s mind when he realized Spears’ conservatorship could end was “oh, we’re going to do it all again,” he said. His essay last month, “We May Destroy Britney Again,” was inspired by the worries that Spears is once more the subject of public obsession.
“I think people also still forget this other fact, too: Britney is probably one of maybe perhaps five to 10 celebrities that is still actively stalked by the paparazzi despite the laws that are in California,” Kennedy said. “Laws which have been put in place because of things that she’s gone through and things that, you know, Lindsay [Lohan] has gone through and Hillary Duff has gone through, you know, all of these other young women.”
Kennedy, previously a music reporter, reflected on his experiences covering Spears and what he learned. During a backstage tour of her Las Vegas residency, Kennedy recalled a crowd’s being told that Spears reflects other people’s emotions, so if they’re nervous or excited, she will be, too.
He said he wonders how Spears will react now that she has control over her own life again, with not only headlines to worry about but also social media commentary.
“I do wonder what it’s like when she then is seeing these comments ... and we already have a reflection that that is too much,” Kennedy said. “She took that break very quickly. Yes, she was only gone for a couple of days. But even those couple of days, she took that right after she was excited to be engaged, and now you have Octavia Spencer being, like, 'Well, make sure you get a prenup.' Why are you commenting?”
What happens next depends on how society shows up for Spears, Kennedy said, whether those on the outside choose to let her make her own choices, even when they’re not happy about it, or whether they continue to pass judgment over her for not conforming the way they want her to.
If she chooses never to make music again, if she chooses to make different kinds of music, whatever she does, it remains to be seen whether Spears will be offered empathy after 13 years of being under control.
“Well, did we learn anything? Because we like to, we like to say and we like to pretend that we’ve learned,” Kennedy said. “So this is a moment for us to show that we have. Whether or not we show up, you know, and meet that moment is yet to be seen. But right now, it doesn’t give me the impression of people who have learned.”