Less than twelve months ago Britney Spears told her story in court. In her harrowing testimony, she spoke of her lack of bodily autonomy, with the conservators who had control of much of her life refusing to let her remove her own IUD. It was because of this that millions of people campaigned to #FreeBritney.
That is, until Britney used her freedom in a way people didn’t like.
Her crime? Posting naked photos to her Instagram account. There were always going to be trolls, but most concerning is the way in which her supporters have changed their tune. “Please have a little respect for yourself and your children,” one Instagram comment reads. “Anyone else legitimately concerned?” another asks. “Starting to think those who were in control perhaps should have stayed in control,” one user said. The photos, people suggest, are at best a sign of little self-respect, and at worst proof that Britney is too mentally unwell to look after herself — which was the basis for the conservatorship.
These objections are hypocritical. Why would fans spend all this time pleading for Britney to be freed from a controlling influence, and then try to dictate her Instagram posts? That wasn’t part of the deal. Fans seem to think that Britney’s freedom is contingent on her acting in a way that they approve of; they believe they’re entitled to have a say in her life just because they campaigned for her to be free. Some of the concerns might be well-intentioned, but overwhelmingly it feels like many of Britney’s fans see her as an eternal child: a Peter Pan who is incapable of making informed choices without the guiding hands of her saviours. The problem with that is that Britney is forty years old.
And of course, there’s plain misogyny driving this all. All her life, Britney has only been able to explore and express her sexuality under the male gaze. If it wasn’t skimpy schoolgirl outfits in music videos while she was a teenager, it was tabloid magazines having a “countdown” to her eighteenth birthday, or her being slut-shamed on live television after she broke up with Justin Timberlake in the early 2000s. Media and society were supposed to have moved on from this kind of objectification. In 2022, I thought we had the understood that if a woman wants to post naked pictures on Instagram, that’s her prerogative.
It’s uglier still that so many media outlets are presenting her Instagram posts as a huge scandal, equating it to a mental health crisis. If a woman posting naked photos on Instagram of her own volition is a surefire sign that she needs to be placed under a conservatorship, as some suggest, how much have the media, and Britney’s fans, truly changed? Apart from the body-shaming, there is a fundamental resistance in letting Britney explore her sexuality in her own terms. People can’t stand the idea of Britney having the potential to evolve outside the identity her conservators and the media boxed her into so well over the last few decades.
The saddest part of this situation is that it shows how, for many, #FreeBritney was about nothing more than jumping on a trend. If fans, commentators and media outlets truly understood the significance of the movement — rather than being blindly performative — they would understand that Britney doesn’t have to be free on their terms.