A toxic situation: Why the Britney Spears conservatorship saga tells a bigger story

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1 January 1970

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Too ill to run her life but well enough to perform in front of thousands? Rosemary McLeod shares her thoughts on Britney Spears’ fight for freedom.

Britney Spears became an “unperson” after having a public mental meltdown. Thirteen years ago, at the age of 26, she turned into a fairy tale Rapunzel, locked up and guarded by a witch – who, confusingly, has been her father – combined with a strange Californian law that may be changed because of her case.

Nobody saw her current moment of public rebellion coming, and it seems nobody saw the pitfalls in depriving her of her freedom through a conservatorship that has robbed her of her last taste of youth, as well as important years of growing up. You don’t grow up when you’re stifled, and your money means nothing if you’re not allowed to use it.

You don’t grow up when you’re stifled, and your money means nothing if you’re not allowed to use it

The closest thing to conservatorship we have is power of attorney. Both usually involve people who can’t look after themselves, through old age or mental incompetence. In this case, there was Britney’s US$60 million fortune at stake. That complicates things, as does her family dynamic. One family friend heard her father, Jamie Spears, shouting, “I am Britney Spears!” when it began.

Which begs the question, who was she? Who is anyone when they’re prevented from making mistakes?

American show business is a long saga of extreme behaviour. Johnny Depp, after the all-out bare-knuckle brawl of his recent court drama, is still the glamorous face of Dior’s Sauvage aftershave/ cologne for men. Hard living and great wealth go together. Stars rise high and fall low. They’re free to do that, just as we are.

Freedom may well include making dumb mistakes, taking drugs, going broke, being arrogant, throwing public tantrums, smashing paparazzi cameras, shaving your head – as Britney once did, as did Sinead O’Connor before her. It certainly must include having your IUD removed, which Britney says she’s forbidden to do though she’d like another baby.

Her current boyfriend has lasted five years; he had to be vetted by her father before they got seriously involved. She protests at having her friends vetted, being made to take medication and to see mental health workers chosen for her. She protests at having to get permission from someone else to do anything at all – who wouldn’t?

Stardom involves freedoms, like her first marriage, which lasted 55 hours, and her second, with two children in the space of a year. She filed for divorce after the second was born, which is not a happy story, but it’s surely not an uncommon scenario in a world full of single mothers and trails of divorce.

An unexplained paradox in Britney’s story is that while she’s been judged too ill or too fragile to run her own life and fortune, she’s been judged well enough to put out hit recordings and perform in front of large audiences on at least one world tour, while generating huge money from business deals.

That money is paying a retinue of people, starting with her father, lawyers (she pays for his as well as hers), and for mental health workers who haven’t been doing a brilliant job if they don’t think she’s fit for real life after all these years in their care.

The company in charge of Britney’s money has now asked the court to be removed from that responsibility. Her father says he’s withdrawn from close monitoring of his daughter and given that role to a woman. That woman says she wants out now she’s heard Britney say she doesn’t want her.

Nobody, it seems, asked Britney what she wanted, or maybe heard what she said. When people are put into care – jailed, in welfare homes, poor, addicted, homeless, or judged to have mental illness – they lose their voice, and with it the right to answer.

Without freedom, like Britney, we are unpeopled.

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