On February 11, the first victory in the #FreeBritney movement was made. The judge ruled against Jamie Spears’ objections against a third party being instated as co-conservator over Britney. However, Britney is still fighting to have her father removed completely from his position as conservator. This comes after 12 years of Spears living under the conservatorship. The transparency of the court case sparked the #FreeBritney movement, where fans have called for the conservatorship to be terminated and for Britney to regain control over her estate and her person.
But what is a conservatorship, and why did the singer get placed in such a position? According to BBC news, a conservatorship is “granted by a court for individuals who are unable to make their own decisions, like those with dementia or other mental illnesses.” It is typically for elderly or the severely cognitively impared. Not for a grown woman who has struggles with mental health, just like millions of other adults in America. In the period leading up to her conservatorship, Spears was going through a very public custody battle over her two children, while facing media libel, constant paparazzi attacks, and nonstop sexist insults thrown her way. This was what led to Spears’ 2008 ‘mental break.’ Spears was deemed unable to make her own decisions after being hospitalized. Everyone knows the image of Britney’s shaved head and her angry face as she wields an umbrella and beats the van of a paparazzi photographer. This moment has long been hailed as a pop culture historical moment, but it is also a snapshot of Britney’s final moments as a free woman. Her last moments before having her autonomy stripped away was the moment she was deemed ‘hysterical’ and ‘crazy.’ Jamie Spears, Britney’s father, was named as sole conservator of Britney’s estate, meaning he controls her finances, and her person, so he has sole say in her medical decisions, living situation, and autonomy. Essentially, he controls what she can and cannot do or say.
In the 18th century, the notion of ‘female hysteria’ began to emerge as a legitimate medical condition by male physicians. The symptoms were: mood changes, modern symptoms of depression, anxiety, or PTSD, tears, laughter (yes, you read that right), enjoying writing, or believing oneself to have physical ailments (AKA pain). Over hundreds of years, women were misdiagnosed with ‘hysteria,’ when they actually suffered from a myriad of very real mental and physical illnesses. The treatments for this ‘disease’ were either shutting up women in an insane asylum or giving them a ‘rest cure’ which was essentially being shut up in their room without interaction with the outside world. There is a notable case of one woman who was diagnosed with hysteria, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who wrote a short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” based on her experience being forced by her husband (who was also a doctor) to sit in her room and avoid reading, writing, or thinking. Gilman was suffering from postpartum depression and being cut off from her child and from reality was extremely traumatic. Let me repeat that. She was deemed ‘crazy’ and ‘hysterical’ because she was suffering from mental illness, and as a result she was forced away into her room by her husband (and her brother) under the guise of ‘protecting’ and ‘caring for’ her.
Of course, Britney isn’t forced into a room and told not to think, but the access to her money, the creative control she used to have over her music and her performances (her entire career) and her every move on social media is surveillanced. In the documentary “Framing Britney Spears,” which brought the #FreeBritney movement back into the spotlight, her father is seen attempting to take her cell phone away. Her brother, Brian Spears, when asked in an interview why he thought the conservatorship was necessary, openly claimed that the women in his family are very outspoken and like to have things their way. Jamie Spears has said that he placed his daughter under the conservatorship in order for her to ‘thrive’ and be ‘protected.’
Britney Spears’ conservatorship is a modern example of the myth of ‘Female Hysteria.’
Not only is Britney’s autonomy stripped away completely, but it happened so quickly and seemed to go under the radar, with the conservatorship not gaining media attention until recently. But what actually gained media attention? The fetishization of Britney’s struggles, the ‘money shots’ of her driving with her baby in her lap, labeling her as a terrible and irresponsible mother, or the constant hounding from paparazzi which pushed her to fight back and attack the photographer’s van in the first place. Her anger, her refusal to sit and smile for the cameras, and her final reaction to the mental distress and years in the spotlight from a young age made the world call her crazy, and it made her lose the ability to make decisions for herself. She became a little girl put in a time-out, permanently.
I want to point out that the control that Britney had over her career prior to the conservatorship was limited in its own way. The “Baby One More Time” video where Britney is a 16 year old fulfilling a sexy school girl fantasy or male photographers who asked her to unbutton her shirt for the pictures aren’t necessarily examples of her empowerment or her freedom. She was a commodity to be consumed by the male gaze and by young girls who think sexy = cool, no matter the age of the person or the context of outside influence of adults and powerful men. To frame Britney’s pre-conservatorship life as the paragon of female empowerment would be, as Tavi Gevinson writes, “absurd…as though there was not an apparatus behind it, as though she existed in a vacuum where she was figuring out her sexuality on her own terms, rather than in an economy where young women’s sexuality is rapidly commodified until they are old enough to be discarded.”
Britney’s conservatorship infantilized her after she was blamed and held responsible for every young girl in America getting the ‘wrong ideas.’ She was oversexualized by the media and then blamed for being too sexual. She was put under lock and key after having ‘too much freedom’ in wanting to cut her hair, keep custody over her kids, or choose not to be photographed at every turn. In other words, she bore the burden or became the burden, depending on when it was more convenient and sensationalist in society.
Recently, Britney has been labelled as a ‘high functioning conservatee,’ due to the progress she has made with her mental health. The whole point of a conservatorship is to help someone who can’t ‘highly function’ in the first place. This kind of jargon is a lackluster attempt at making this whole situation seem normal and necessary. Who is Jamie Spears protecting, really? ‘Protection’ and ‘control’ are not too far apart when it comes to women’s history as exemplified by the myth of female hysteria, not to mention the fact that women were considered the “property” of their husbands and fathers up until just about a hundred years ago (if we’re being generous).
Imagine for a moment that a male pop star of the same fame and influence had a highly publicized ‘mental breakdown.’ Someone like Justin Timberlake for example. Would he have been placed under a strict lockdown by his dad? The thought is laughable. And if his parents did decide to attempt a conservatorship over him, think of the backlash. No one would accept a grown man being placed under a time-out. But a young woman who has built a career off amassing a fandom of teenage girls, making music for teenage girls (and having started a career as a teen girl herself)? People accepted that as if it was sound logic. And that’s the problem.
Lindsay Lohan, Amanda Bynes, and Demi Lovato are three other young women who struggled with addiction and/or mental health issues in the public light, and were ridiculed and mocked for it. Like Britney, the media belittled them, fetishized their struggles, and wanted to know every gory detail about their recovery or relapses, as if their experiences were something to mock and laugh at. A prime example of the casual misogyny that fuels the stigma around women’s mental health is when David Letterman interviewed Lindsay Lohan in 2013. He repeatedly hounded her about her addiction struggles and asked, “Do you drink too much?” and demanded to know how long she would be in rehab. Lohan was visibly upset during the interview, and eventually said, “We’re here for a movie.”
The #FreeBritney movement and Britney’s situation with the conservatorship is unique because now, the public is watching the media more closely. People are not willing to accept the tabloid culture of mocking and beating down women who simply want privacy, or in Britney’s case, want their autonomy back. The idea that people in the spotlight signed up for whatever public harassment they get simply by entering the entertainment industry ignores the fact that the reason why so many stars have such public ‘breakdowns’ is due to the pressure they face from the demands of their careers and the demands of those around them. Mara Wilson is an actress who has been in the spotlight from a very young age. In her article “The Lies Hollywood Tells About Little Girls,” she points out: “The saddest thing about Ms. Spears’s ‘breakdown’ is that it never needed to happen…she was a new mother dealing with major life changes. People need space, time, and care to deal with those things. She had none of that.”
Britney wasn’t ‘crazy’ or ‘hysterical.’ She was struggling, and she needed help. Instead, the world (specifically the media and the legal system) turned its back on her and allowed the conservatorship to happen.
#FreeBritney not only calls for Britney Spears to be freed from her conservatorship, but it calls for the end of misogynistic narratives about women in the media. While we can’t know exactly how Britney feels about the movement (at least, not until she’s freed) we can fight for her voice to be heard, and for other underrepresented voices to be amplified. Like #MeToo, #FreeBritney is just one of several movements that are calling out men for their harmful behaviour, and calling out society for its complacency.