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Britney Spears' conservatorship fight reflects one of society's most sacred desires

In Spears’ hyper-visible legal saga, we see our own lifelong battle to be free within a society that restricts us in different and compounding ways.
Image: Britney Spears on a background of purple silk.
Spears is seeking the freedom to control her life — literally, to have the power to make decisions about her body and her finances.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; Getty Images

Britney Spears’ ongoing battle for control of her life has moved from the domain of hardcore fans to the broader public’s attention. We are riveted, not because we are entertained, but because what she is going through speaks directly to the universal human desire for freedom. More specifically, her battle represents the battle of the many marginalized people whose freedoms are denied daily, their human dignity ignored or, worse, deemed valueless by the legal system that promises them justice.

We are riveted, not because we are entertained, but because what she is going through speaks directly to the universal human desire for freedom.

On Thursday, the Los Angeles Superior Court’s ruling maintained the conservatorship’s balance of power between the pop icon’s father, Jamie Spears, and the court-appointed fiduciary Bessemer Trust. (In other words, Spears lost his bid to have sole control over aspects of her financial conservatorship, namely her investments. He stepped down as her personal conservator recently, citing health issues, but a temporary personal conservator remains.) But Judge Brenda Penny punted on the questions of why the broader conservatorship continues and why, despite the singer's repeated requests, her father has not been fully removed from his position of power over her.

Thus, Spears continues to be stuck in the web of her conservatorship. It's a web not of her own design, yet one she pays for — literally, paying for all parties, all legal and court costs, on both sides.

The call to #FreeBritney, a campaign launched in 2009 on the fan website, has transformed into a global movement comprising a vast coalition of people. Communities that have historically been denied their freedoms — women, queer and trans people and people with disabilities, in particular — have rallied around the effort toliberate Spears from her nearly 13-year conservatorship, which has (totally legally) stripped her of her constitutional and civil rights.

While no one has absolute freedom over their life — we are, in fact, mortal — we are each afforded conditional freedom based on the historical and material conditions of our lives. In Spears’ hyper-visible case, we see our own lifelong battle to be free within a society that restricts us in different, and sometimes compounding, ways. Spears is seeking the freedom to control her life — literally, to have the power to make decisions about her body, her mental and reproductive health, her finances and how she spends her time — which demands she be free from the conservatorship and, important to note, people who seem to regard her as a commodity that they can exploit for their financial gain.

Each of us wrestles with this tension between the freedom to control our lives and the freedom from being controlled by others. When we see her struggle — listen to her repeatedly, in both The New York Times' new documentary “Framing Britney Spears” as well as the 2008 TV documentary “Britney: For the Record,” express her desire to be “free” and “liberated” — we feel it within ourselves. This sympathy, this shared feeling is why the #FreeBritney movement is so powerful.

“If I wasn’t under the restraints I’m under, I’d feel so liberated,” she said back in 2008. In the first documentary, Spears claims that the last time she felt free was the last time she drove a car: “There's something about being able to drive your car that allows freedom, and I haven’t been able to drive my car,” she explains, a consequence of the conservatorship.

Throughout the years, her use of liberation imagery — the chains on her album cover for “Glory”; reports of her video direction to David LaChapelle to film her singing in a cage for the never-released 2016 video for “Make Me” — reinforce this desire through her art. According to Page Six, a source close to the singer said Spears "hopes that, because of this, she will be finally freed from the vice-like grip of her father."

Women’s freedom, historically, has been limited in three primary ways: through choice (sometimes referred to as “free will,” or autonomy); through self-determination (or control of their own bodies); and through movement. The conservatorship has stripped Spears of all these freedoms.

Conservatorships are complicated and not well understood — even, it seems, by the people involved with them. The public outcry about Spears’ conservatorship not only pertains to her individual powerlessness and loss of agency, but also to the dubious legal mechanisms that established the conservatorship and, perhaps more importantly, maintain it over a decade later.

Men like Jamie Spears throughout history have controlled women by controlling the flow of information as well as the flow of cash. In Spears’ case, we know she has struggled with mental illness. But so do millions of Americans; that itself is not a sufficient reason to take away one's freedom. Other evidence remains sealed, like the alleged medical report claiming the then-26-year-old was mentally incapable of retaining her own lawyers — and therefore possibly unable to fully defend herself. The star, meanwhile, has requested that the entire case be made open to the public. Page Six, citing an anonymous source (so take that as you will) reported that Spears’ father even grounded her for three weeks for meeting up with a friend last summer.

The last form of control has arguably been the most psychologically destabilizing for women historically. Once women have been called “mentally unfit” or “crazy” or “hysterical” by men, it is very hard for them to prove otherwise. Because if authority figures believe Spears to be mentally unfit or incapable, this belief can be used to undermine any future expression of her autonomy.

Resistance is key, however, to liberation. The fight, and the hope, lie in finding moments to make resistance happen — to edge the knife in and widen the gap, so to speak. One voice can become many through acts of resistance that create openings and make more space for people to speak up and speak out. #FreeBritney, the movement, knows this. And with Page Six's report that Spears is now making her own documentary with a female filmmaker, it seems that she knows this, too.