“I’ve been a Britney fan since I was a sassy little gay boy from Arkansas,” said Weston Ashley, a co-organizer of the July 14 #FreeBritney protest in Union Square. “When I was 15-years-old my parents sent me to rehab for being too gay and so that’s my connection to Britney; her music really helped me get through that experience. I actually have first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to be trapped behind closed doors.”
This summer, longtime members of the #FreeBritney campaign saw talk of her conservatorship extend beyond those who came of age with “Oops! I Did It Again” and into the public at large. On June 23, Britney Spears’ “I am traumatized” court testimony was heard via leaked audio. At the case’s subsequent hearing on July 14, the judge granted the singer the ability to choose her council, a monumental victory for Spears after 13 years with a court-appointed attorney. She quickly appointed Matthew Rosengrat to represent her in the case. In the weeks following, Spears has used her widely followed Instagram page to reveal a feud with her sister Jamie Lynn Spears and reemphasize that she refuses to perform while under the conservatorship.
With star power and legal know-how, the once unfathomable goal of freedom seems tangible. On July 26, Rosengart petitioned to permanently remove the star’s father, Jamie Spears, as her conservator. Only a few days later on July 28, new legal documents were submitted to the court revealing the pop star’s doctors supporting the removal. The presiding Judge Brenda Penny has moved up the next hearing to Sept. 29 to determine if the petition will be granted. If Spears is successful, she has requested that her care manager Jodi Montgomery would become her conservator as she works to end the conservatorship entirely.
“I want to feel heard, and I’m telling you this again so maybe you can understand the depth and the degree and the damage that they did to me back then,” Spears said at the June 23 hearing about the triggering of the conservatorship in 2008. “I want changes, and I want changes going forward. I deserve changes.”
Some trials are flashpoints in popular culture that mark a shift, moments when so many phenomena overlap that the world is forced to stop and acknowledge truths writhing under the surface of reality—the O.J. Simpson trial, the Monica Lewinsky trial, the Brett Kavanaugh trial. But unlike other high-profile cases, Spears has tightly and repeatedly held the collective gaze long before her court hearings drew protesters.
“Baby One More Time”: The Price and Power of Fame
In 1998, her single “Baby One More Time” sparked America’s reckoning with the sexy virgin archetype. From 2006-2007, the pop princess drove with her infant child on her lap, almost dropped him and later lost custody of both her sons, revealing the pure vitriol the public directs towards “bad mothers.” Spears’ steady decline culminated in the shaving of her own head and attacking a paparazzi’s car in 2008, triggering the conservatorship and a collective reckoning with mental health.
Spears’ enduring presence at the center of the limelight has magnified the significance of her trial. On their own, cultural moments like these can add fuel to existing debates—O.J., they can remind us that America loves to hate a woman—Lewinsky, they can help shift election results—Kavanaugh. #FreeBritney may very well do all three. Her case has revealed paternal views of female celebrities, mothers, the non-neurotypical and may bring a new generation of voters to the 2020 midterm polls.
“As a society, we are waking up to the idea that mental health is the same as physical health but also, we definitely look at mental health in women [differently] than we look at mental health in men,” said #FreeBritney organizer Megan Sayad. “I think that there needs to be more awareness of women’s psychological health and how that looks. Truly, it shouldn’t matter if she has a diagnosis or not, we are not concerned with that. Anybody in the U.S. who has a mental health issue, you’re not going to be conserved, you should have the same civil rights as anybody else.”
“(You Drive Me) Crazy”: Losing Control to Conservators
Sayad and Ashley joined the movement in 2011 with other ‘90s babies whose formative years were marked by the star. It was social media, blogs and podcasts that drew these early #FreeBritney devotees. Spears’ Instagram posts at the beginning of the conservatorship mostly contained long strings of emojis or vague aphorisms that were just as cryptic as closed court documents. Throughout the conservatorship, the pop princess has been increasingly explicit in her posts, calling out her family and fellow celebrities who she blames for her continued imprisonment. Recent posts have included the star dancing furiously in her living room and memes directing readers to “take me as I am or kiss my ass, eat shit, and step on legos.”
Over the 13-year saga, the superstar has had a famous cameo on How I Met Your Mother, a residency in Las Vegas, toured the world and made millions. As denoted by the conservatorship, these funds, schedules and the minutiae of her daily life have been controlled by her father, Jamie Spears. Rumors continue to circulate that the he has depleted his daughter’s fortune. According to Forbes magazine, the pop superstar’s fortune is surprisingly low partially due to the elder Spears’ lavish lifestyle and $16,000-per-month living stipend.
The star also claims it was her father who forced her to implant an IUD, drawing widespread revulsion from those following the case. It should be noted that despite sterilization of marginalized women throughout U.S. history, it is categorically illegal to force a female to use birth control outside of a conservatorship. With the true reason for the IUD and the other intricate details of the legal arrangement being closed to the public, onlookers are forced to speculate.
The conservatorship, also called a guardianship in many states, is designed to provide support to those legally incapacitated. Oftentimes conservatees have severe cognitive disabilities or are octogenarians with advanced dementia, a diagnosis Spears’ father initially marked her as having at the onset of the legal arrangement. However, Spears’ mother Lynne wrote in her memoir Through the Storm that she believes Spears was experiencing postpartum depression after two births in two years.
So arrives the crux of the intrigue captivating the public—who to believe?
“I’m a Slave 4 U”: The Black Box of Conservatorships
Legal analyst Aron Solomon, who holds a Juris Doctor and writes about the intersection of topical subjects and the law, has been one of many experts attempting to shine a light on the shadowy case. In a recent Today’s Esquire article, he referred to the legal guardianship over Spears as a toxic “poison paradise.”
“The more we learn about the details of this case, the more yellow and red flags it raises, not just from a legal perspective but more importantly from the perspective of the tens, if not hundreds of millions, of people around the world who don’t want to see her life prematurely end as a cautionary tale,” Solomon wrote.
In an interview with Honeysuckle, Solomon was quick to point out that due to the closed nature of conservatorships, the specific agreements and psychological evaluations cannot be known. He states that this is embedded in the very structure of the arrangement since the conservatee is having their rights taken away because of physical, intellectual, or emotional issues. Solomon said that’s why you won’t be able to find the case’s details “on page six of the New York Times.”
“It’s a pretty unregulated side of the courts and something we don’t understand enough because we just don’t have enough information.”
What we do know is that the singer has twice been placed on involuntary psychological holds, that she is currently on a cocktail of mood-altering medications and that she has submitted to several psychological evaluations. Which, according to her father, she has failed. In the June 23 speech, Spears expressed her unwillingness to submit to further psychological evaluations, which she implied were biased and being used to justify her father’s supremacy. Without released records, all the public has had to go on is court transcripts, what her team has released publicly and her cryptic Instagram page. But what may ignite her supporters could be a liability in court.
“It’s such a double-edged sword when you get caught in the scope of being in a conservatorship,” Solomon said. “If I was her lawyer I would strongly counsel her to not talk. For every person who’s listening to Britney and saying she’s standing up for herself, there’s an equal number who could listen to that and say she’s sounding like someone who doesn’t have it all together.”
“Womanizer”: Gender, Disability and the Court of Public Opinion
While Spears’ court hearings are closed to the public, the leaked audio reached her fans as a galvanizing force. In the corresponding transcript, the judge repeatedly asks Spears to slow down for the stenographer. New York’s Free Britney movement members believe this to be a sign of the suffocating vise she had been placed within, though Solomon worries it could peg her as too emotional. He said that if he was opposing counsel he would perhaps try to goad her into going onto another soliloquy with the understanding, as he said it, that courts make more allowances for male behavior than female.
“If you compare Kanye West’s public behavior over whatever period of years, if you want to pick 13 years, the conservatorship, great. Compared with Britney Spears, it’s pretty clear who seems to have the greater depth and scope of psychological and emotional issues, and that’s Mr. West,” Solomon said.
Despite erratic behavior related to bipolar disorder leading the Kardashian clan to purportedly threaten West with a conservatorship, West maintains his independence and equally split custody of his children.
From the beginning of the public’s widespread criticism of Spears, a central point of contention has been her status as a mother. It can’t be known for sure to what extent she experienced postpartum depression partially because collective acknowledgment of the disorder is only now taking hold. Just in the last year, the fight for postpartum Medicaid coverage to be extended from 60 days following birth to one year has gained a public and political following. Conversely, Spears’ every misstep as a mother has been front page of tabloids since she became pregnant, raking in millions for magazines and paparazzi.
The famous photos of a bald Spears wielding an umbrella were divorced from the events that preceded them, specifically the star being denied access to her sons. It was not the first time a desire to see her children was a trigger point. She was placed under her second involuntary psychiatric hold after she refused to return her sons to the custody of her ex-husband and father of her children, Kevin Federline. Not only was the possible presence of a very real medical condition—postpartum depression—ignored, unlike in the case of West, but the compounding of possible depression, loss of full custody and paparazzi harassment was considered irrelevant to the discussion of her legal ineptitude.
It is this same gender discrepancy filling #FreeBritney posts and signage. While there are famous conservatorships placed over male stars including Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys, the trend leans female. A slew of female stars that Millennials and Gen Z mark as cornerstones of ‘90s culture have been placed under or threatened with conservatorships include Amanda Bynes and Lindsay Lohan. #FreeBritney protesters use this as an example of an inherently paternalistic court system.
In addition to gender discrimination is the question of disability; it is not uncommon for conservatees to be non-neurotypical. Solomon pointed out the famous case of Jenny Hatch, a woman with Down Syndrome who successfully fought the strict conservatorship her parents had placed over her. The overthrow opened the door for an increase in disability rights and questioning of legal independence writ large.
“I think here’s a larger question here that too few people address, and that’s the ‘so what?’ question,” Solomon said. “[Spears] goes out and she does concert tours, she’s a grown woman. If the reason she’s under a conservatorship is the fear that she’s going to go out and blow money in her estate, so what? Isn’t it her estate to do with what she wants?”
The answer to the apt questions of “so what” has shifted over the years. With the near dropping of her son, the public was concerned for the child’s safety. With the shaving of her head and purported drug use, there was a concern as to how her sons would be affected. Once 70 percent custody was given to Federline, the concern was that the star would blow her fortune and presumably leave her family with nothing. When compared to the handful of male stars who have gone broke, gone to rehab, or gone to jail and have maintained legal and financial independence, the pattern of siphoning off a woman’s power in the name of concern is inescapable.
If the question is expanded we are left tracing the potential ripples of the case. The country, the world is watching and waiting to see what precedence is set for women, mothers, those deemed non-neurotypical, females who use birth control and all marginalized people who acquire power.
“Work Bitch”: Taking to the Streets
As these questions loom over the upcoming proceedings, her fans continue to wear pink, take to the streets and analyze every Instagram post uploaded to Spears’ page. The movement has continued its upward trajectory, attracting not only those who first fell in love with Spears in the ‘90s and early 2000s but also younger Gen-Zers—giving all involved a taste of activism.
“A lot of these—not everybody—but a good number of the people who are so ardently supporting her are voting age,” Solomon said. “I really hope that the action they are feeling now towards Britney when they think about all the injustices in society translates into voting in things like the 2022 midterm elections. I hope that people who are experiencing this activism for the first time through Britney Spears can think ‘hmm what else can I do with my activism.’”
Voting turnout has always skewed older, with retirees’ turnout considered consistent and new voters’ seen as sporadic. Democrats and progressives have tried to entice young people to the polls with varying results but analysts believe the 2020 turnout shows a shift—more young Millenials and Gen-Zers are flocking to polls in the name of equality with 65 percent having voted for President Biden.
Just like OJ, Lewinsky and Kavanaugh, Spears’ trial may very well mark a shift in political discourse across a slew of topics. And just like other famous cases, the impetus is not one phenomenon but a topical grab-bad including, in this case, the reality-altering year that was 2020.
“I think the outcry of support that has come for Britney and the #FreeBritney movement is people having been so fucking miserable for the last 18 months that they now have something to rally behind, which is the freedom of one of their beloved pop stars,” Solomon said. “They’ve been in some type of lockdown whether it’s been physical, emotional, intellectual for so long that the idea that they can physically go to a courthouse now and rally behind Britney and cheer for her independence is something that we have to factor in.”
As the Covid Delta variant spreads across the golden barrier of the vaccinated, ravaging unvaccinated populations, there is no certainty of what will happen between now and November 2022. Young people are looking at the hottest summer on record, continued police brutality, trickling social security, sterilization of female inmates in I.C.E. detention centers and asking what is left to trust.
For many, Spears marked the abundance of the ‘90s and early 2000s before the housing bubble burst and Nazis returned and women were imprisoned for being human. Perhaps it is this lost assurance that her devotees are marching toward. But wherever #FreeBritney may lead, Spears still sits a wealthy woman with the means to pursue a lengthy legal battle while many of her fans are not afforded the same privilege. Despite this inequality, her fight for freedom has reignited a hope that there might be a way out for all of us if we continue to take to the streets.
Featured photo: Britney Spears performing at London's Apple Music Festival, 2016. (C) Drew de F. Fawkes, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.