The question isn’t, ‘What’s going on with Britney?’ The question, I think, is, ‘What’s going on with us?’
Most of us have seen the video by now, Britney Spears seeming to have a mental health crisis in a restaurant.
Her husband has since denied that Spears was having any kind of meltdown. Spears was lucid enough to spot another diner surreptitiously recording her and hid behind a menu. In fact, a restaurant employee said, ‘the disruptor wasn’t Britney — it was the diner who taunted her by taking a video without consent.’
So much of Britney’s life has centered on the very issue of consent. It was the basis for the #FreeBritney movement, one that grew from grassroots online activism to a New York Times documentary to a deep-dive New Yorker investigation to Spears’s own harrowing testimony, in 2021, detailing her life under conservatorship.
That was the beginning of a nuanced and necessary conversation about mental health in America — or so we thought. When Britney Spears was first placed under conservatorship, it did seem necessary: She had clearly been in crisis, shaving her head, attacking a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella, and suffering enough that she had been placed on a temporary involuntary psychiatric hold in Los Angeles in 2008.
As Spears testified in 2021, however, she became well enough to release several studio albums, go on world tours, perform on television and complete a massively successful Las Vegas residency., employing thousands of people in the process.
‘I don’t know why she still has a conservatorship,’ one of her psychiatrists told The New Yorker.
The judge didn’t either. Everyone, it seemed, was rooting for Britney and her freedom.
Most of us have seen the video by now, Britney Spears seeming to have a mental health crisis in a restaurant. Her husband has since denied that Spears was having any kind of meltdown.
But now that she has it, it seems we’re all second-guessing her.
Does this feel fair? Just because Spears was found by a judge to be capable of making her own decisions, that doesn’t mean her story ends with a nice little bow. It doesn’t mean she might not still be suffering or struggling.
And really, after the trauma of being under such oppressive control for thirteen years — who wouldn’t struggle?
Britney Spears was under that involuntary conservatorship for thirteen years. In her testimony before a judge in 2021 — testimony she argued should be public record — she talked of not being allowed to make a single decision for herself, whether that was replacing her kitchen cabinets or having her own cell phone or removing her IUD.
‘I truly believe this conservatorship is abusive,’ she told the judge in part. ‘I want to be able to get married or have a baby. I was told right now in the conservatorship, I’m not able to get married or have a baby. I have an IUD inside of myself right now, so I don’t get pregnant. I wanted to take the IUD out so I could start trying to have another baby. But this so-called team won’t let me go to the doctor to take it out because they don’t want me to have children — any more children.’
When it comes to women and mental illness, we still have a long way to go. The twentieth century is littered with examples of complicated women who were dismissed as crazy and institutionalized against their will, from Rosemary Kennedy (forcibly lobotomized) to Frances Farmer to Gene Tierney to Marilyn Monroe. The etymology of ‘hysterical’ is from the Greek ‘husterikos’ — ‘of the womb.’
We should know better, but ‘crazy’ still looks different on women. Women are hysterical. Men are complicated, or have demons, but their individual autonomy is rarely in question.
What happened to Britney Spears was terrifying. Her conservatorship, as The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow and Jia Tolentino reported, took a judge ten minutes to grant. Spears spent the next thirteen years trying to get out of it, and as we learned, conservatorships are notoriously hard to reverse.
Spears said she was forced to perform against her will, once suffering from a 104-degree fever. She said she had been forced to take drugs that turned her into a zombie. She said her father, who had a history of addiction and who she claimed had been abusive, should never have been in charge of her conservatorship. She didn’t understand why she was forced to pay a court-appointed attorney over $500,000 a year when her own annual living expenses were less than that, or why her father was able to limit her to a $2,000 per week allowance when she had signed a $15 million deal to be a judge on ‘X-Factor.’
So much of Britney’s life has centered on the very issue of consent. It was the basis for the #FreeBritney movement
The conundrum remained: How could this woman pull in such money, perform in high-profile jobs, but be wholly unable to care for herself?
Spears also had enough self-awareness to tell the judge that she knew she needed therapy and wanted to continue with it. She said she was confused as to why she couldn’t see the friends she made in Alcoholics Anonymous.
‘I’m not able to see my friends that live eight minutes away from me, which I find extremely strange,’ she testified. ‘ . . . This conservatorship is doing me way more harm than good. I — I deserve to have a life.’
Britney Spears testified, during COVID lockdown, to feeling alone. Who among us didn’t feel sympathy?
Even Elizabeth Warren and Matt Goetz united in a bipartisan effort to #FreeBritney. So did many other lawmakers.
‘Reproductive coercion is wrong — period,’ Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) tweeted at the time. ‘Everyone should have the freedom to make choices over their own bodies and reproductive care.’
Ted Cruz agreed, calling the conservatorship ‘freaking ridiculous’ and something that ‘needs to end.’
Now that it’s happened, the culture has turned on Britney Spears. Why? Is it her exhibitionism on Instagram? Is it a discomfort with her sexuality? Not for nothing, but this is a woman who was highly sexualized when she was just 16 years old. Do you think today’s culture would abide a 16-year-old posing seductively in bed, dressed in a bra and panties and holding a stuffed animal, as a teenage Britney did for Rolling Stone in 1999? Or consider it okay for Diane Sawyer to badger Spears about her virginity and her sex life, as Sawyer did in a televised 2003 interview? Or for Britney to be blamed for her high-profile break-up with Justin Timberlake, castigated as a slut who cheated?
Just because Spears was found by a judge to be capable of making her own decisions, that doesn’t mean her story ends with a nice little bow. It doesn’t mean she might not still be suffering or struggling.
Britney Spears may never be fully well. A childhood spent in the spotlight, with her parents on her payroll — not to mention a family history of addiction, mental illness, and suicide — all but ensured that.
There may be no more prominent, poignant example of how complicated mental illness is than Britney Spears. Her case is a stark reminder of how far we have to go in understanding its root causes, its multiple manifestations, its misdiagnoses and over- and under-corrections.
Britney may be free, but she still needs us to root for her.
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