In late-pandemic America, Britney Spears’ conservatorship has become the lens through which we can see so many of our society's failings — or, at least, we're supposed to. We’re supposed to see that the way we viewed and treated women sucked, that the media sucked for participating in the patriarchy, Justin Timberlake sucked for profiting from it and that we sucked for salivating over every morsel of it. (We definitely "knew" Spears' ex-husband, Kevin Federline, sucked at the time, but in retrospect maybe we shouldn’t have judged him so harshly either.)
But all of this navel-gazing has been packaged for our consumption almost as neatly as her schoolgirl sex appeal was for the cover of "Rolling Stone" — and equally without her participation.
Wednesday's court hearing, though, one of the most famous voices in the world began to wrest her own narrative back from everyone else: first, by demanding the hearing and then by insisting that it stay open so that everyone could hear what she had to say.
Perhaps for some people it’s hard to reconcile how she became silenced even as she stayed famous, but after The New York Times documentary, "Framing Britney Spears," was released in February, many more people understood not only that she'd dealt with mental health issues in the mid-aughts, but that they'd been used to render her an incapacitated adult child in the eyes of the state and establish her then-estranged father as her legal guardian and given him total control of her person and property.
Everywhere Britney Spears turned in 2007 there was a massive obstacle to her receiving quality, nonjudgmental care and avoiding abuse.
Britney Spears fans like me, though, knew the score: we circled June 23, 2021, in our calendars and turned to her ample discography for emotional support. Our "Conservatorship Court Date Playlists" inevitably included her hits “Toxic,” “Stronger” from 2000s "Oops I Did It Again," and "Overprotected," from her 2001 self-titled release. That's the one I had on repeat while millions of us listened or followed along in horror Wednesday as Spears finally detailed the outrageous abuses she alleges she has endured over the last 13 years of her seemingly unnecessary conservatorship.
In that song, Spears' synthy soubrette vocals narrate the following introduction: “I need time, love, joy. I need space, love. I need … me!”
Unfortunately, no one was really listening to that message 20 years ago.
“I don’t think I was heard on any level,” Spears said at the top of her statement Wednesday, referring to her last court appearance. She then detailed a range of allegations against her conservators and guardians, including that she is forced to continue using an IUD against her will because her conservators won't agree to allow her to have another child or marry, that she was forced into residential psychiatric treatment in 2018 and to take lithium against her will over a dispute with her managers over choreography she did not wish to perform, and that she has been forced to issue public statements that aren't reflective of her actual feelings while being barred from speaking to the public or the media on her own terms.
She later continued, “I feel ganged up on and I feel bullied and I feel left out and alone.”
There’s a broader reason that so many people right now identify with what Britney Spears is going through, despite her vast wealth and privilege.
Her fate as an independent adult now hangs in the balance as she awaits Judge Brenda Penny’s formal response to yesterday’s hearing; the judge, however, had indicated that she requires a formal petition to end the conservatorship from Spears' legal team in order to consider that route, and has strongly suggested to Spears' personal conservator that her wishes regarding her ongoing care need to be taken into account going forward.
Still, one has to wonder why a young woman who knew what she needed and sang with such conviction about self-determination needed to be subjected by the courts and her only family to such a sweeping elimination of her personal and civil rights for more than a decade while lots of other (mostly male) celebrities have done far worse than taking an umbrella to a paparazzo's car.
That's not to say that Spears — at that time and, as she acknowledged in court on Wednesday — didn't and doesn't need mental health care. But as many people with mental health challenges can attest, the normative response to acknowledging mental health issues (let alone acting out in public because of them) is often abuse from authority figures, followed by gaslighting directed at anyone speaking out about that abuse. You are often deemed incapable of distinguishing between helpful care and abuse because of your challenges, which enables abusers.
Everywhere Britney Spears turned in 2007 there was a massive obstacle to her receiving quality, nonjudgmental care and avoiding abuse, and she has lived under the exacting control of her own father and her own employees for 13 years as a result. She was afraid to tell the truth about her situation or attempt to end it because she thought no one would believe it.
Now that the world has heard her speak, we’re disgusted — and we should be. Her father's lawyers and her other conservators didn't even challenge her statements in court (despite her father's legal team reportedly paying for a public relations strategist to shore up his public image). It’s also clear that, as Spears herself said, there are other people are ensnared in similarly all-encompassing, debilitating situations; many people with mental health issues or disabilities are also in conservatorships that unnecessarily limit their capacity and are extremely difficult to amend or dissolve.
Conservatorships aren’t the only repressive way of exerting control over people’s healthy sense of sovereignty.
Still, there’s a broader reason that so many people right now identify with what Britney Spears is going through, despite her vast wealth and privilege and the frivolity the average person ascribes to celebrity. In this instance, the personal is political, and many people were in some way broken by the events and circumstances of 2020. Bound together by the after-effects of a long quarantine, the failed coup and a fear of the future, we can finally recognize that mental health is not just a neurochemical imbalance but something that can be caused and/or exacerbated by the conditions to which we are subjected.
Recognizing the causal relationship between unhealthy systems in which we exist and our quality of life is a critical step in advancing our collective understanding of mental health — and whom we perceive as in need of care and how much of it.
Conservatorships aren’t the only repressive way of exerting control over people’s healthy sense of sovereignty; that impulse is endemic to many of our nation’s laws and affirmed by our interpersonal and public narratives around those who seek social justice. People of color are regularly tormented by news of police killings, undervalued at work, managing constant microaggressions, exhausted from the political organizing necessary to advocate for themselves and carrying intergenerational trauma.
The internet rightly exploded when Spears testified that she has an IUD she is not allowed to remove, yet everyone’s reproductive rights are subjected to state intervention. (Missouri, in fact, is considering a law to prevent women reliant on Medicaid from getting IUDs at all by falsely classifying them as "abortifacients.") The list of ways we attempt to exert these controls goes on and on.
Millions are rallying behind one very famous person — but if you, too, are compelled by the #FreeBritney movement, then you are called to reckon with the broader reality that, what she's going through is a microcosm of what is happening to many people.