Living while female is a hazardous affair. Just ask Britney Spears, the latest woman to discover that your basic humanity can be threatened at any time — even if you’re rich and famous. Even if you’re talented and work hard. Even if you’re taut and toned to Hollywood perfection.
Trapped in a now 13-year conservatorship that has given her father, Jamie Spears, sweeping control of her life, the music icon finally made her first public comments two weeks ago: a shocking court statement on her misery and the “abusive” conditions she says has been forced to accept. Then, on Wednesday, that same court denied the former child star’s earlier request to remove her father as conservator of her roughly $60 million estate.
American women are still at risk of being pathologized, criminalized, infantilized and held blameworthy for being female.
(Jamie Spears and his team have always denied any accusations of abuse, repeatedly stating that he only has his daughter’s best interests at heart. “Britney being safe and not being taken advantage of is his No. 1 priority,” Vivian Thoreen, attorney for Jamie Spears, told NBC News in March.)
Nevertheless, Spears’ case illustrates that despite the women’s liberation movement, despite #MeToo, American women still appear at risk of being pathologized, criminalized, infantilized and held blameworthy for being female. The most ordinary processes of their lives can be viewed through a lens of poisonous bias. From menstruation to motherhood to menopause, too many women have been labeled crazy, abnormal and inadequate. Anything they suffer can and will be held against them.
Spears described herself as “traumatized” by the legal arrangement put in place after her mental health crisis in 2007. The pop legend has alleged horrors that seemed out of another era — a time when toiling for others, suffering and obeying without complaint were seen as the essence of femininity.
She spoke of: involuntary labor; forced medical treatment and contraception; and restrictions on every aspect of her life, down to the color of her kitchen cabinets (re-staining was deemed too expensive!). She described how the things that she treasures as a woman — her kids and upbeat public image — have been regularly used against her to keep her in line.
“I'm so angry, it's insane,” Spears said. “And I'm depressed. I cry every day.”
Women have every reason to be worried about how cases like Spears’ pan out, because the gloves seem to be off in keeping women powerless and afraid. In places like Texas, for example, women are being forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term — even if they have been raped. If they have a substance abuse problem, they can be thrown in jail for using while pregnant. When they seek help for postpartum depression, they’d better hope the nurse doesn’t call the police.
When women speak out about crimes committed against them, they face disbelief, dismissal and grave injustice by the legal system. This point was again driven home to the roughly 60 accusers of Bill Cosby.
Women seeking health care often find their pain compounded. America’s approach to mental well-being seems designed to produce distress for them rather than support. The particularities of their hormonal and neurological systems are ignored. They are far more likely than men to be the victims of sexual violence, but traumatized and abused women are too often still given stigmatizing labels like borderline personality disorder — which sounds like a character flaw and absolves society of blame. They can be overmedicated and experience more side effects from drugs because clinical trials are conducted more regularly on men.
Rattled by Spears’ story, women are asking themselves, could something like this happen to me? The singer’s case illustrates that as long as biases against women are woven tightly into the health care system, the law and the media, the answer is not a comforting one.
Rattled by Spears’ story, women are asking themselves, could something like this happen to me?
Though deemed incompetent to manage trivial decisions, Spears said she was expected to put in 10-hour days and seven-day weeks as a top-level performer, earning millions as she produced new albums and tours and wowed audiences in a Las Vegas residency. If she balked at the punishing schedule, Spears alleged, threats would follow. She claimed that even voicing objection to a dance move resulted in a forced stay at a psychiatric facility and the administration, against her will, of lithium, a powerful drug that made her feel “drunk.”
Her story echoes those of female performers who came before her, like actor Frances Farmer. The beautiful and gifted movie star was placed into guardianship following erratic public behavior in the 1940s and committed to psychiatric facilities under conditions she later described as gruesome, all the while hounded by a tabloid press.
In Spears’ case, keeping her powerless reportedly profits others immensely. Her conservatorship bankrolls a large cadre of people: lawyers, medical personnel, trainers, chefs and family members — most notably her dad, who receives a $16,000 monthly salary, plus office space and a percentage of all the money his daughter earns in her sold-out performances and merchandizing. Ronan Farrow and Jia Tolentino report in The New Yorker that Sam Ingham, appointed by the court as Spears’ advocate (and whose representation of his client and closeness to her father are questioned in the article), receives an annual salary of over $500,000, paid by Spears. Her own living expenses in 2019, the reporters added, were less than what she paid him: $438,360.
In a perverse twist, Spears is on the hook to pay for not only for her own lawyers in her struggle to regain control of her life but to enrich those determined to act against her wishes. She is funding a campaign to silence her, including an $890,000 fee from her father’s lawyers that covered media strategy to defend her conservatorship.
For years, Spears has complained the conservatorship was too restrictive and expressed concern about her father’s obsessive control and drinking. (Farrow and Tolentino reported multiple allegations of abusive and controlling behavior by Jamie Spears. Farrow and Tolentino spoke with several members of Spears' team who repeatedly refuted wrongdoing by conservators.)
For years, Britney wanted out. But making her views known to those around her didn’t release her from an arrangement typically reserved for people who are older and extremely infirm. So far, telling the court and the public hasn’t done so either. It’s an old misogynistic trope that women can’t be trusted — even when they are talking about their own lives.
In a perverse twist, Spears is on the hook to pay for not only for her own lawyers in her struggle to regain control of her life.
The Los Angeles judge’s ruling last week was a response to a 2020 motion filed by her attorney, not to the hearing at which Spears recently spoke. The singer can still formally petition the court to end her conservatorship, something she says she didn’t know — which raises questions about what kind of legal advice she has been receiving.
In February, the judge did agree to let a well-known wealth management company, Bessemer Trust, act as co-conservator on financial matters with her father. The firm, however, has now requested to end its role after hearing Spears declare that the conservatorship is harming her. Meanwhile, Jamie Spears and conservator Jodi Montgomery, who has been in charge of the singer’s personal day-to-day care for the last two years, are heatedly pinning the blame on each other.
Spears, whose diagnosis has not been made public, said she has been forced to undergo treatment that not only doesn’t help her but makes her feel abused, sick and humiliated.
“It’s embarrassing and demoralizing, what I’ve been through. And that’s the main reason I’ve never said it openly,” she said. “I honestly don’t think anyone would believe me.”
That seems to be held against her, too. When women finally can’t hide it anymore and show their distress, people say, “Look at her, she’s a mess!” It’s a Catch-22. React to mistreatment and it’s confirmed there’s something wrong with you.
“You're toxic, I'm slippin' under,” Spears sings in one of her smash hits, “Toxic.” Now she’s squaring off against a society poisoned with misogyny. Let’s hope she — and we — find the strength to keep on fighting.