At the end of this turbulent year, when some things are slightly better and other things are much worse, there is one development over which we can all rejoice: Britney Spears is finally free.
The #FreeBritney movement may feel like a story of 2021, but for Britney herself this has been a 13-year journey. After her public breakdown in 2008, her father, Jamie Spears, took control of the singer’s life under an American court order called a conservatorship, usually deployed for people with dementia or other serious mental illnesses.
Since then, Britney has been subjected to horrific manipulation. She was forced to perform while she was unwell; forced to take psychiatric medication; not allowed to marry her fiancé or remove her IUD; and administered pocket money – from her own estate – worth an eighth of what her father cut for himself.
At 39, she was not allowed to choose her own lawyer to challenge any of these restrictions, which were put upon her life when she was 26.
The campaign to free Britney began in 2019, after she cancelled her Las Vegas residency and a story emerged that she was being involuntarily held in a psychiatric facility. For a while, #FreeBritney was a niche hashtag with a handful of ardent supporters.
In February 2021, the New York Times released the documentary Framing Britney Spears, which outlined the trajectory of her career and life under the conservatorship and the sharp eye of the media. Suddenly, the whole world tuned in.
2021 was also the year that Britney, who had in 2019 attempted to quell rumours of her distress by reassuring her fans on social media, spoke. Though her lawyer had argued in 2020 for alterations to the conservatorship in her favour, it was not until June this year that she said it all in her own voice. She was “traumatised”, she told a Los Angeles court over the phone, barely pausing for breath, by the abusive behaviour she had been subjected to by her family. She wanted the conservatorship to end.
A month later, she was allowed to hire a lawyer outside the arrangement. Instagram posts peppered this period. Mostly she was dancing, posing, but on 3 August she posted a photo of a wooden door, cracked open just slightly, with a rambling caption about getting locked in her bathroom in the middle of the night. Her security were telling her to wait “just 10 more minutes” to get her out, she wrote – and then, eventually, the door opened.
Nine days later, her father said he would stand down as conservator.
On 12 November, she was released. Fans chanted her name outside the courthouse in LA. Britney, who will now be able to marry her fiancé, have a baby and revive her career (she pledged in 2020 not to perform until the conservatorship was over), tweeted that she was going to “cry for the rest of the day”.
#FreeBritney is primarily a story of abuse of power. It speaks deeply of our times for many reasons: we are all the more aware of insidious and covert methods of manipulation, particularly when they are used to control women. We are increasingly wary of the power of both mainstream and social media to affect real lives, no matter how famous the person.
But now that #FreeBritney’s goal has been achieved, this has also become a story of collective power – of fandom, justice and hope. Without the movement, Britney Spears might still have been trapped and alone, but now she’s free – and we should all be elated by her escape.
Find the other entries in the New Statesman A-Z of 2021 here.