The Predatory Environment that Destroyed Britney Spears Badly Needs Collective Reckoning
Recently, Britney Spears’ ongoing struggle for control over her life has moved from the realm of hardcore fans to the attention of the broader public. For many who care about the development of the story of the most famous icon of American female pop music, it is not for the entertainment value of her battle with her father over the conversatorship that enthralls them, but because what she is going through is a exemplar of the fight for freedom across the world.
In 2008, Britney lost custody of her two children with her ex-husband Kevin Federline and was ordered by a judge to be placed in an involuntary psychiatric hold for supervision and treatment under California law because of a series of “outlandish” acts that were publicized. In addition, at the request of Britney’s then-lawyer, she entered into legal conservatorship that year, giving her father, Jamie Spears, custody of her personal and financial estate.
Under California law, a judge appoints an individual or organization, called a conservator, to take care of someone who is “unable to care” for themselves or manage their own finances. Many Britney fans are not happy with Jamie’s management of his daughter, as he was absent much of the time when Britney was growing up, only to repeatedly brag about how much financial benefit his daughter brought to him.
As the #MeToo movement exploded in 2017 and a series of entertainment heavyweights were left in disrepute due to allegations of sexual assault and rape, more and more people began to reflect on the systematic condoning of sexism in society and culture. And it was at this point that people began to discover that Britney had been in escrow proceedings under her father’s banner for a full decade. As early as 2008, many then-sober cultural critics and her fans argued that Britney was by no means incapable of taking care of herself, but that her entry into this conservatorship was the result of her father’s manipulation. Ever since Britney entered into her father’s custody, her ardent fans have been very concerned about her personal situation. They believe that Britney has long wanted to continue being managed and controlled financially by her greedy father, wants to leave the relationship through legal means, and is using social media to send secret distress signals.
The concern about Britney’s personal safety stems from a podcast hosted by two of Britney’s fans. The podcast’s main role is to dissect and analyze the content on Britney’s Instagram feed. Britney’s originally planned tour in 2019 was canceled, as she claimed a hiatus to take care of her ailing father. Soon after, news spread that she had entered a mental health rehab center for “short-term recovery” after the cancellation. An anonymous tipster who worked as a paralegal on Britney’s legal team told the podcast’s hosts that Britney was admitted to the psychiatric facility against her will, and that the mental rehab incident broke because she no longer wants her father as a conservator.
In an instant, a movement that wanted to free Britney from Jamie, #FreeBritney, was born (It existed since 2009, but had no real wide-range influence until early 2019). Many prominent figures in the entertainment industry began to express their concerns about Britney’s condition through public statements and social media. In 2019, to prove their concern for Britney, dozens of fans holding signs gathered peacefully in front of City Hall in West Hollywood, wearing her merchandise, playing her hit songs and explaining to a news team on the scene that they were collectively concerned about Britney’s problems.
Since then, dozens of Britney fans have come out in solidarity whenever there has been talk of Britney and her father’s lawyers going to court over regulatory issues. And after the New York Times and Hulu teamed up to air a documentary film called “Framing Britney Spears,” the movement has moved beyond the safety of individual actresses to a reflection and critical discussion of how the “male gaze” form of sexism in the entertainment industry and society at large has exploited her and other women from a young age.
In Framing Britney, we learn about the many humiliating comments that seem repulsive today, but have long been allowed and condoned. She was repeatedly asked about her sexuality, virginity and motherhood at times vulnerable, as if almost she was a person without emotions.
With Britney herself not speaking out in the documentary due to restrictions of the conservatorship, this documentary that once again thrusted her into the spotlight. However, this time, it became a moment of self-examination for the entire entertainment community. Rather than the usual praise for Britney’s musical achievements, the fervor is centered more on a review of the harsh treatment of the environment that made her.
In pop culture, every famous figure faces the invasion and loss of privacy at the height of their fame. For Britney, however, the glare of the spotlight was particularly off-putting as a young woman who had carried the “girl-next-door” image since her teenage years. The excessive criticism of her mental health, motherhood and sexuality by the entertainment tabloids in the 2000s was not only their moral degradation, but also a widespread public failure that became a direct cause of her descent into the current deprivation of personal and financial freedom.
It is also worth reflecting on the sexist double standard and how it encourages the public to morally condemn female celebrities more readily than male ones. By releasing a music video suggesting her infidelity, Timberlake gained the upper hand in the subsequent media controversy surrounding the end of their relationship. Not even the mildest criticism of the move was forthcoming, as all the cultural and music critics fell for his hook, unloading the cruelest insults on Britney.
The sexual exploitation and objectification of young girls is at the heart of the pop entertainment industry. This is not just an institutional problem, but it is the only reason the industry is popular with consumers in the first place. In this context, there is no room for young women to own their sexuality or to explore it in their own way. Instead, they become objects for adult men to sexually sensitize them in an industry and audience as cheap as adult magazines.
Speculation about Britney’s private life, the endless exploitation of her breasts, virginity and motherhood, was the mental feeding tube for many young Americans in the 2000s. In the words of Adrian Horton, a journalist for The Guardian, the extra burden she carried as a role model for young women instead embodied the psychological contradictions imposed on young American women by the outside world when it came to sexuality — dress sexy, but be virginal. It is unfortunate that as her fame took off during the Clinton-Lewinsky sex scandal, the social climate of the time opened up a discussion about sexuality. Such a discussion, which never happened in the society before, seemed to made her success a form of female sexual liberation.
This, of course, was a lie. The entertainment industry was, and still is, largely dominated by men who want to see women perform in a sexually liberated manner to satisfy their own sexual desires. In addition to Britney, Amanda Bynes, Paris Hilton, Lindsey Lohan, and Amy Winehouse, also remembered by many for their “outlandish” behavior, were also victims of this cultural environment and became the subject of amusement and ridicule in the streets.
The American and global public’s perversion and worship of icons, ignorance of mental health issues, and tolerance of sexism were the underlying factors that allowed the entertainment industry to flourish in the 2000s. And this endless oppression did not stop there — from Harry and Meghan’s “exodus” to entertainment host Caroline Flack’s suicide, this deep-rooted psychological pattern is still being perpetuated in the public through entertainment and the emerging social media. The media is still amusing public figures, mocking and trampling on their mental health.
However, Britney is kind: using the platform of millions of followers, she has recognized her passionate support in the LGBTQ community from early on and advocated for their voices to be heard. For her advocacy, she has received an award from the gay rights organization GLAAD in recognition of her support. Not only that, but she also speaks out on political issues and cares about those whose rights are limited: she supported the passage of the DREAM act, which provides a path for undocumented immigrant children to remain in the United States.
Framing Britney offers no resolution on Britney’s actual problems, because in the midst of existing restrictions, the only way to get any information is to rely on her ardent fans’ constant stream of tweets from her social media feeds. However, if her fans only denounce and condemn her father and her ex-boyfriend after watching the film, then they inevitably selectively ignore the environment that created this former teen idol and did not choose to treat her well in the first place.
It is the “normalcy” of this cultural environment that leads to its ubiquitous and pervasive invasion of everyone’s life, even the brightest stars. In today’s increasingly polarized world, through Britney’s struggle for her freedom, we must take the opportunity to remind ourselves that in the past, the consensus of an environment was often based on the tacit approval of exploitation.
The consoling news is not entirely lacking: according to the latest court ruling, Jamie Spears must “share” Britney’s conservatorship with a professional money manager and no longer be in sole control of her daughter’s affairs.