Overprotected: Making Sense of the #FreeBritney Movement

Written by Sumithri Venketasubramanian
Graphic by Abbie Holbrook

Back in March, my social media algorithm prescribed me one of the most curious articles I’d ever seen: “Comrade Britney Spears! Star calls for strike and wealth redistribution”. Britney Spears had shared, on Instagram, an image highlighting the need for connection now more than ever, to “hold each other through the waves of the web”, and – there it is! – to redistribute wealth and strike. The artist behind the original post is US-based writer and activist Mimi Zhu. Of course, a millionaire calling for wealth re-distribution seems a bit Outrageous, and commenters on Britney’s Instagram post made it clear that before she preaches socialism, she’d better lead by example.

But Britney Spears’ millions are not, in fact, hers to redistribute. In 2008, she was put under a court-ordered conservatorship, shortly after being placed under the second of two involuntary psychiatric holds in one month. (One was in early January, and then Oops! They Did It Again.) The conservatorship was initially temporary, and then extended multiple times before being made permanent six months later. At the time, the court hearings that established conservatorship over Britney Spears went largely under the Radar, probably because we were all too blinded by the tabloid coverage of her personal antics.

Conservatorships are legally-mandated arrangements designed to allow a guardian to manage the personal and financial affairs of mentally-incapacitated individuals. Both Britney’s commercial “brand” and her as a person are under conservatorship arrangements. Every life decision she makes – from buying a coffee, to who she makes music with, to who she marries – has to be approved first by her conservator, who in this case is her father. Since being declared unfit to make decisions about her own affairs, Britney Spears has released four studio albums, completed a successful four-year Las Vegas residency, and gone on four tours.

For every Pop Princess under conservatorship, there are many, many non-famous individuals – among whom the elderly and people with disabilities are overrepresented – subject to physical abuse, financial exploitation, and neglect by legal guardians, who are often family members. The guardianship system is deeply flawed, lacking necessary protections, checks-and-balances, and avenues for the people under conservatorship to challenge and negotiate terms for themselves. Conservatees may even have to rely on court-appointed lawyers for legal representation, unable to choose their own representation. Her case represents more than just her situation: it shows how we view mental illness, as reasons enough to strip someone of their autonomy over their lives, particularly among women.

Had she been a man, the response to Britney’s personal life would have taken a different tone; it is possible that she may not have been placed under conservatorship at all. The book Trainwreck by Sady Doyle explores the impossible expectations that famous women have been and continue to be held to, and the way that stepping anywhere out of the razor-thin line is reason to label them “hysterical” (a medical diagnosis reserved only for women) and essentially dismiss their personhood. Historically, women in Western societies have been locked up in mental institutions not unlike today’s prisons – just for crying too much. We can’t be too emotional, but neither can we be too stoic. We should be sexy but are shamed for actually having sexual desires. The role of a woman is defined by her relationship and usefulness to the men around them, and her needs or wants are irrelevant. 

During the …Baby One More Time days, Britney Spears was marketed as a virginal teen oozing sex appeal – as evidenced by the photography and language in her 1999 Rolling Stone magazine article. She’s always been an incredible performer with a likeable personality but it is her physical image as “Miss American Dream since she was 17”, from outfits to dances, that have been the assets marketed by her team most aggressively, arguably more so than her music. In the early 2000s, she was the pinnacle of white beauty standards in the U.S. – all the men wanted her, and all the women wanted to be like her.

In the midst of crafting a perfect public image, Britney had no space to be human. For a woman whose image has been tightly controlled and whose personal and intimate life closely scrutinised since her teenage years, the room for making regrettable decisions or to let her guard down is almost non-existent. Interviewers interrogating her, then 20, about her virginity never asked the same of her partner-at-the-time, Justin Timberlake. Her ability to be a responsible mother was constantly questioned, but the same level of criticism was never applied to the children’s father, Kevin Federline (who was largely absent and unsupportive throughout her pregnancy). Where men whose public challenges earn them the title “troubled” (believing that this leads to “artistic genius”), women are written off as “crazy”.

The most intriguing part about making sense of Britney’s conservatorship is how under wraps everything is. Mysterious “sources” are giving conflicting information to online entertainment news outlets, so fans are attempting to piece together the “truth” from possibly cryptic @britneyspears Instagram posts, or immersing ourselves in fan-made podcasts. How much creative control does she have over her performances and music? Did Britney ever want to go on all the tours she’s gone on since 2008? Was the cancellation of her second concert residency in 2019 her way of protesting against continuing to be overworked, after busting her ass off for two decades?

Some fans stand outside the courts on the days of her hearings with #FreeBritney signs; others call for everyone to Leave Britney Alone, saying that she’s a grown woman who can handle her own affairs. Having spent the better part of her life in crushing stardom, perhaps her fans attempting to influence her conservatorship arrangement are butting into her personal life in a way that may be reminiscent of the paparazzi or invasive interviewers. (The cynic in me fears that the stronger the public push for the conservatorship to be lifted, the more those pulling strings behind the scenes may clamp down on the few freedoms Britney may have.) 

But on the other hand, maybe someone from outside the arrangement, who does not stand to benefit from the financial, legal and personal control of the conservatee, has to speak out against injustice, or the status quo will prevail. Conservatorships, or guardianships, are a very tangible way that the elderly and people with disabilities and/or mental illness are legally allowed to be entirely controlled, exploited and abused by their guardians – which sounds kind of Toxic.

Maybe the #FreeBritney movement is not just about liberating our beloved home-yoga-and-catwalk-doing 38-year-old pop star. It represents an opportunity to bring light to some grave issues within the legal system: not just in the U.S., but in Australia (and other countries). This is something that all of us can learn about and involve ourselves in through advocating for the rights of people who have been silenced. Here is a cause that people can rally behind all over the world, supporting the work that disability activists are already pushing for and calling the legal systems in our own countries to account. (Let’s get to Work, Bitch!)

For now, I’m just going to get back to listening to some of Comrade Britney’s best socialist anthems.

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