Yesterday, the singer Britney Spears told a court that she is “traumatised”. Speaking over the phone as part of an LA hearing, Spears asked a judge to free her from her 13-year conservatorship, which gives her father Jamie Spears control over her finances, work schedule and personal life, including which therapists and lawyers she is allowed to employ, and which medications she should take. In a 20-minute outpouring, in which the judge intervened several times to ask Spears to slow down for the court transcript, she compared the conservatorship to sex trafficking, and said that she wanted to sue her family. “I’m not happy,” she said. “I can’t sleep. I’m so angry. It’s insane. And I’m depressed. I cry every day.”
The conservatorship was instigated in 2008 in the wake of Spears’ public mental health breakdown (of which two notable incidents were her attack on a paparazzi car with an umbrella and her shaving her own head). The ruling established that Spears was not in a fit state to govern her own life; her father was then given control over her finances, medication and work schedule. Spears alleged yesterday that she is banned from seeing certain friends, and that she wants to get pregnant but is not permitted by her “team” to have her IUD removed. The #FreeBritney movement – a group of fans who united to campaign for Spears’ control over her own life – was established soon afterwards in 2009, but it is only in the last couple of years that it has gained widespread traction. Jamie Spears renewed the conservatorship year after year; campaigners argue it is no longer necessary.
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Jamie Spears not only gained control his daughter’s finances, but was granted a percentage cut of everything she earned. Spears has an estate of $60m, and is permitted a $2,000 weekly allowance. Her father pays himself $16,000 a month. He earned 1.5 per cent of gross revenues from her Las Vegas residency, which ran from 2013-17. Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that when she said she needed a break before more Vegas shows in 2018, her management threatened to sue her. After working on the show in rehearsals four days a week, which she did “out of fear”, she was ultimately permitted to withdraw from the new tour. But this was immediately followed by claims from “the conservatorship” – which refers to the whole team that surrounds Spears – that she had not been cooperating and had not been taking her medication. She was put on lithium. Spears, who has described a previous therapist as “abusive”, said she feels like she lives “in a rehab programme”.
It is often difficult for a story such as this about a pop star of Spears’ stature to be treated – by fans and the press – even-handedly, without hyperbole or shock-factor tabloidisms. But Spears’ testimony in court yesterday was a rare, raw insight into her personal tragedy, and the extent of her exploitation. Among the horror stories, such as being forced to take medication and being made to perform with a fever of 104 degrees Fahrenheit, the most distressing line of Spears’ account, for me, was this: “The last time I spoke… made me feel like I was dead – like I didn’t matter, like nothing had been done to me, like you thought I was lying or something.”
[See also: Even now, we are still indulging our obsession with Britney Spears’s downfall]
There is a cruel, stark irony in the fact that this legal relationship between Spears and her father was supposedly established because her mental health was suffering, when it is exploitative relationships such as these that erode a sense of self, that strip people to the bare bones of what it means even to be a person. There is even deeper irony in the fact that Spears’ breakdown that justified the conservatorship in the first place is widely assumed to have been caused by the pressures of spending adolescence as the biggest pop star in the world, way before “mental health awareness” was mainstream. Spears’ life has been controlled legally for 13 years, but arguably has been dictated in some way since she was 16 and made to conform to a strict, sexualised, highly specific image that sold millions of records. In other words, a mental breakdown caused by exploitative work practices was used as an excuse to exploit her even further, under the guise of protecting her mental health.
This is made all the more poignant in light of numerous other women artists who have been subjected to various forms of control by men, particularly in the height of 2000s pop culture: Beyonce by her manager-father, Christina Aguilera by her business manager, Taylor Swift by her label, and, notably, Ke$ha, who has accused her former producer Dr Luke of professional, sexual and emotional abuse. It is a sad indictment that these women are ostensibly some of the most influential in the world, and yet even their performative independence and positive sexuality has often been an act dictated by powerful men.
In 2008, mental health problems were viewed very differently: most of us will remember the moment that the news broke of Spears’ head-shaving and the outrage, derision and mockery that followed. Perhaps back then it felt right that somebody we then viewed as “crazy” should have her life closely monitored. But, today, it appears that there are virtually no compassionate grounds upon which the conservatorship can now be justified. Spears advocated yesterday for her own freedom without hours of rigorous evaluation; she said she didn’t know she could contest the conservatorship until now. Spears has been trapped in a sticky, suffocating web of manipulation and control for 13 years – yesterday was a rare opportunity for her to have a voice. We must listen.