Why Britney’s freedom matters

Why Britney’s freedom matters

The liberation of Britney Spears is the radical moment our culture needed.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Culture Politics USA

After being freed from an oppressive 13-year conservatorship last Friday, Britney Spears took to Instagram to celebrate with her 37million followers. It was hard not to feel moved by her words. ‘I think I’m gonna cry’, she said. The court’s scrapping with immediate effect of the conservatorship which denied Britney autonomous control of both her estate and her person – that is, of her vast wealth and her bodily autonomy – was ‘the best day ever’, she said. It was ‘the little things’ she felt excited about – getting her car keys, having an ATM card, ‘seeing cash for the first time’. Here was a woman rediscovering the joys of everyday freedom, and it was wonderful to witness.

The ending of the staggeringly excessive conservatorship over Britney’s affairs has been widely celebrated. Not least by the viral FreeBritney movement of fans and TikTokers who’ve spent the past year agitating for the liberation of Britney from court orders, psych evaluations and her own dad, Jamie Spears, who oversaw the conservatorship. And yet it feels as though some people haven’t clocked just how radical Britney’s liberation is. How much it threatens to disrupt the mental-health narratives and millennial neediness that sadly define our times. Britney’s freedom may well prove to be a blow not only to her father and other actors in this sordid drama who allegedly profited from the court-ordered subjugation of Spears, but also to a culture that ceaselessly encourages us to confess to our mental frailties and instructs us to prefer psychological comfort over the messy, risky business of freedom. Now that Britney’s been freed, perhaps we need to free ourselves?

Britney’s conservatorship only really became a point of controversy over the past year or so. The FreeBritney fan movement and documentaries like Controlling Britney Spears, Britney vs Spears and Toxic: Britney Spears’ Battle for Freedom shone a harsh light on the intolerable conditions Britney was living under. Britney’s own powerful plea to end the conservatorship, made via telephone to a court in LA in June this year, grabbed the world’s attention. In 23 minutes of testimony she revealed that she didn’t only lack control over her money and property but over her body too. Her movements had been restricted, she was given drugs against her will, and she was forbidden from getting pregnant. ‘I want to be able to get married and have a baby’, she said. There was a palpable sense of shock that even a woman as successful and wealthy as Britney Spears could have her basic right to self-government suspended for 13 long years.

And yet the truth is that the conservatorship was always highly questionable. It was introduced in 2008 following what the media referred to as Britney’s ‘breakdown’ in 2007. We all remember the images from that year. They’re burned into our cultural consciousness. Britney shaving her head in a hair salon before the glare of the global paparazzi. A newly bald Britney using a green umbrella to attack a pap’s car. ‘Britney Shears’, the headlines cried. ‘MELTDOWN’, declared tabloids across the planet, next to pics of Britney shouting and gurning. You can even get ‘Britney with umbrella’ Halloween costumes. Britney was clearly troubled. There was a mental-health problem of some kind. Following a clash with her then partner, Kevin Federline, over the custody of their kids, Britney was subjected to a ‘5150 hold’, an involuntary psychiatric assessment. She was hospitalised and evaluated. ‘Sectioned’, we call it in the UK.

It was these events that led to the conservatorship. On 1 February 2008, the court ruled that Britney and her estate – that is, both her as an individual and the wealth she had accrued from being the ultimate millennial pop icon – would be controlled by a conservator: her father. It was meant to be a temporary arrangement. Long-lasting conservatorships, or being made a ward of state, are normally reserved for people who are seriously physically or mentally incapacitated. Very often people with dementia, who lose the ability to care for themselves, control their financial affairs, pay their bills, and so on. And yet in the case of Britney, and against her wishes from the very beginning, the conservatorship was continually extended by the court. Eventually, in October 2008, it was made permanent. Britney, just 26 years old, faced the prospect of having every aspect of her life and her earnings controlled forever. ‘Even when you go to jail, you know there’s the time when you’re gonna get out. But in this situation, it’s neverending’, she said in November 2008.

Britney clearly had ‘issues’, to use modern parlance. But from the very beginning of the conservatorship the idea that she was so psychologically incapacitated that she required external control for the rest of her life was incredibly suspect. In the first few months under the conservatorship she undertook the gruelling and fantastically successful ‘Circus’ world tour. It grossed $132million, making it one of the highest-earning tours of the 2000s. In subsequent years she released albums, including Femme Fatale and Britney Jean, and made numerous television appearances, including as a judge on the American X Factor. As many commentators have pointed out, the resolve, focus and stamina these undertakings will have required fundamentally call into question the idea that Britney was in such a state of mental disarray that she needed constant control by state-appointed conservators. We think of conservatorships being applied to people who are so unwell that they can’t even make themselves breakfast or remember who they are, not people who play gruelling gigs in cities across the globe and issue crisp, articulate judgements of singers on TV talent shows. The disparity between what was being said about Britney – that she was incapable of governing her life, her money and her body – and what Britney was doing – working hard and entertaining millions of people – has always been vast and unsupportable.

So how did this 13-year-long rule of Britney’s life come about? The first thing to say is that we don’t know all the facts. Britney, bucking the celebrity trend, has not opened up about her mental-health diagnosis. Rumours swirl that it is bipolar disorder, but we do not know. The FreeBritney movement pins the blame for the injustice of the conservatorship entirely on Britney’s father and other family members, whom it accuses of exploiting this dastardly legal arrangement to milk Britney’s fortune. There may be some truth in this, though as one columnist aptly observed, the FreeBritney movement has ‘often strayed into the conspiratorial’ and has a tendency to view the undoubtedly problematic conservatorship as a sinister plot by a money-hungry clique to keep Britney mentally incarcerated forever. It is likely to be a fair bit more complicated than that.

It strikes me that there may be another contributing factor to the relative ease with which Britney was subjected to an extraordinary conservatorship, and more importantly to the media’s abject failure to question the conservatorship until very recently. Namely, the 21st-century fashion for viewing public figures as wounded beasts, as people who ‘hurt’, mentally, as much as the rest of us apparently do. Namely, the modern fad for celebrity victimhood, where we want to know as much as possible about the physical and mental struggles of stars. Show us your wounds, tell us your horror stories, splash your diagnoses on the front pages of the papers… these are the demands that a media saturated in the cult of victimhood and insatiably desiring stories of pain make of celebrities in the 21st century. It seems possible to me that the media’s decade-long unquestioning attitude to the fact that one of the most famous and talented pop stars in the world had been locked into a freedom-crushing conservatorship ‘for her own good’ could have been shaped by, or at least influenced by, this perverse cultural preference for mentally discombobulated victims over autonomous, free-willed individuals. Britney as the ‘disordered’ celeb, apparently helping to raise awareness about mental health, was surely a narrative that the emotionally voyeuristic 21st-century media was as invested in as Britney’s dad and his lawyers allegedly were.

For years, Britney was the media’s favourite celebrity victim. The tone may have shifted, dramatically, over the past decade – from the exploitative ‘MELTDOWN!’ coverage of 2007 to the seemingly more understanding ‘troubled pop star’ coverage of recent years. But the intent has remained strikingly constant down the years: Britney must be made into a symbol of the mental toll 21st-century society takes on people. She must be marshalled as victim par excellence – of the tabloids, of showbusiness itself, of the mental trials and pressures that apparently afflict millennials more than any generation that preceded them. Britney risked being locked into this voyeuristic cultural narrative as much as she was locked into the conservatorship – and her newfound freedom could well represent a rejection of this narrative as much as it is a revolt against the legally imposed restrictions on her life.

There has been a great deal of commentary on how the media discussion of Britney has changed over the past 13 years. Where once celebs like her were hounded by tabloids and paps, always desperate for a photo, for an image of distress ideally, now they are more likely to be sympathetically invited to tell their own story, in their own words. As Spencer Kornhaber writes in the Atlantic, ‘the culture of the 2000s was primed for the torment of someone like Spears’. Back then, and especially during Britney’s ‘meltdown’ in 2007, ‘the gossip industry was at the height of its powers’. When Britney shaved her head, ‘observers tittered with concern and condemnation, creating a doom spiral’, says Kornhaber. Their incessant coverage of Spears’ alleged ‘craziness’ may well have ‘worsened [her] situation’, he says. But now things are different. Better. Nicer. We have social media now, where stars can ‘commodify their own image without an intermediary’, says Kornhaber. He quotes the editor-in-chief of People magazine, who says media outlets no longer brand troubled stars as ‘crazy’ – instead they provide them with ‘the opportunity and the safe space to sit down with us and share their personal journey…’.

This sounds like an improvement in media coverage, even like an overhaul. But is it really? The true shift, it seems to me, has been from one form of voyeurism to another. So in the 2000s, during the torment of Britney, media outlets wanted the shocking image, for the shocking headline, so that they could declare to the world that such and such a person had gone ‘MAD!’ and was possibly even ‘SUICIDAL!’. But now, because we’re all so much more ‘socially aware’ of mental-health issues, the invitation goes out to celebrities to voluntarily share their stories of pain and suffering, in order to help others, naturally. I say voluntarily – in truth there is a great deal of social pressure on people to expose their psychological wounds and reveal all about their break-ups and breakdowns. The hunter-like voyeurism of the 2000s seems to have given way to a more insidious form of voyeurism that requests, and expects, the revelation of the inner most of our secrets and troubles.

Is this really an improvement? It strikes me that today’s commodified self might even be worse than the tormenting culture of the 2000s that swept up Britney and others in its machinery of intrusive images. Consider Kornhaber’s claim that social media now allow celebs to ‘commodify their own image without the need for an intermediary’. This is true, but the end result is often greater intrusion. Self-intrusion. Celebrity self-commodification on platforms like Instagram, Twitter and TikTok may have dislodged the old power of the paps, but it has reproduced in an even more graphic and semi-voluntary form the thing paps sought out – the hidden moment, the private torment, the zapped soul. Witness the extent to which celebrities use social media not only to promote themselves and their wares but also to declare their suffering; to tell stories of bullying, self-harm, turmoil; to cultivate a careful image of an individual who has achieved ‘awareness’ through pain. If the ‘tormenting’ tabloid culture of the 2000s has waned, it is partly because the celebrity elites have now internalised it. They’ve internalised the old paparazzo instinct to capture the private moment, only it’s worse now, because the private moments celebrities willingly share are not only along the lines of ‘I went to buy a coffee’ but also ‘I once cut my arms because the pressure of fame became too much to bear’. The tabloids may have retreated, but emotional exposure has intensified.

Indeed, this is one reason why Britney’s social-media presence – her Instagram account – is so refreshing. It is largely just videos of her dancing, and occasionally talking. It feels like a mini-revolt against the expectation of more profound forms of self-revelation. In response to those who tell her it’s weird to post so many dancing videos, Britney says, ‘Kiss my ass, eat shit and step on legos’. More striking still are Britney’s expressions of discomfort even with some of the sympathetic documentaries that have been released over the past year. She seems to recognise that these more ‘caring’ investigations of her life under conservatorship share something in common with the tormenting tabloid media of old – that is, an instinct to pore over every facet of her life. So in response to the pro-Britney BBC documentary, Battle for Britney: Fans, Cash and a Conservatorship, broadcast in May, she took to Instagram to say: ‘They criticise the media and then do the same thing????? Damn.’ She said of CNN’s Toxic: Britney Spears’ Battle for Freedom, ‘I hate to inform you but a lot of what you heard is not true!!!’. Britney seems able to perceive what many others cannot – that both the old media-pressured revelation of a celebrity’s ‘difficult moments’ and the new, apparently more therapeutic emphasis on a celebrity’s ‘troubled life’ share in common a voyeuristic and distorting lens. In both scenarios, Britney ends up exposed, when she seemingly doesn’t want to be.

Indeed, there is a possibility that the FreeBritney frenzy could end up aping the ‘pap Britney’ frenzy of the previous decade, by subjecting Britney to an intense, globalised scrutiny. Adrian Horton makes this point in a piece for the Guardian. He argues that ‘the intensity of emotion around Britney’s case’ – and ‘more specifically, the intensity of devotion to freeing Britney as an identity’ (my emphasis) – has tipped ‘into the queasy’. Yes, the fascination with Britney’s case could ‘shed light on a system rife with abuses, neglect and indignity’, he says, but it could also ‘boomerang into obsession that disregards Britney’s wishes for privacy, one that resembles the furore which precipitated her mental-health crisis in 2007 and led to the conservatorship in 2008’. This is right. More profoundly, this possibility that ‘Free Britney’ will end up harming Britney speaks to the replacement of old systems of intrusion that were justified in terms of satisfying the public hunger for information and titillation with new forms of intrusion that are justified as a method of ‘raising awareness’ about important issues like mental health. In both cases, the individual – in this case, Britney – is subordinated to the allegedly greater good of social and political appetites.

This speaks to some profound contradictions at the heart of the FreeBritney moment. It presents itself as a reprimand to the media intrusion of old, while institutionalising new forms of intrusion into Britney’s very mind and soul. It rejects the old approach of condemning Britney for her ‘bad behaviour’, but replaces it with a similarly paternalistic urge to ‘save’ Britney from the conspiracy of demons controlling her life. In both scenarios, Britney is the passive object, requiring either the moral correction or the moral raising-up of better-minded people. Most importantly, FreeBritney deploys the language of ‘freedom’ to the cause of this brilliant pop star who has been treated so tyrannically by the courts, while unwittingly green-lighting the very culture of unfreedom which meant that even someone like Britney could languish for years in the Kafkaesque mental-health trap with nobody raising concerns about her plight. That is, the celebration of Britney’s liberation coexists with support for the ideologies and processes that nurtured her subjugation in the first place.

Even as the patrician scaffolding around Britney Spears’ life finally falls apart, the culture that erected it carries on. So while Britney seeks to flee being defined and controlled according to her mental-health status (she has refused to undergo any more psych evaluations), others desperately seek out a mental-health diagnosis. It has become positively fashionable to be mentally ill in the 21st century, especially among younger generations. As a doctor told the BBC a few years back, patients now plead with her to be described as mentally ill. Bipolar is an especially ‘desirable diagnosis’. ‘A diagnosis of bipolar disorder might… reflect a person’s aspiration for higher social status’, she said. Many people still long for the comfort blanket of a diagnosis of frailty, for the warm feeling of medically decreed incapacitation, perhaps believing it will protect them from the pressures and expectations of their lives. Even as Britney rejects the ‘care’ of external actors, many others still seek the phoney comforts of therapeutic guidance, whether via actual therapy or through self-confession on social media, seemingly unaware of how easily they might come to be locked into a relationship of existential neediness with this cult of mental health. As for freedom – many seem to want it for Britney but not for themselves. They claim to want Britney to have control over her life, while sacrificing control over their own lives – whether to government lockdowners, the cancel-culture clique, or the mental-health industry. The rallying cry ‘Free Britney!’ rings hollow when it comes from youthful activists, social-media influencers and a political set that continually send the signal that freedom is too hard for most people, and protection from on high is preferable.

Britney might be troubled – it’s none of our business if she is – but even troubled people must enjoy freedom. It is great to see Britney take the risk of living freely after 13 years of being under other people’s control. It’s just a shame that our culture constantly emphasises how dangerous freedom is and tempts all of us instead into the shallow embrace of neo-authoritarianism. I’m with Britney: give me freedom, even if I make a mess of it. Life’s better that way.

Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Culture Politics USA


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