Conservatorships are used for people who can’t handle their own affairs — financial or otherwise. They’re used for people with dementia at the end of their lives or for people with long-term cognitive impairment. But in Britney Spears’ case, a conservatorship that was originally put in place as a “temporary” emergency measure in 2008, is now going on its 13th year. Spears wants out. And after searing testimony in court Wednesday, it seems like much of the world has rallied to the star's side.
After searing testimony in court on Wednesday, it seems like much of the world has rallied to the star's side.
This surge in support may be rooted in a much deeper frustration — and fear. Indeed, it feels almost impossible to read her statement and not connect it to a larger societal pattern in which concocted mental health claims have been used, including in proceedings that carry the imprimatur of the courts, to sideline inconvenient women.
While under the conservatorship, Spears has worked successfully and earned enormous sums of money, but control of her earnings is in the hands of her father and a co-conservator, Bessemer Trust. They dole out an allowance. Her relationship with her two children is monitored. The conservators must agree to any business deals Spears wants to do and she says she cannot get married without their approval. From this, you might think Spears is closer to the adorable 12-year-old on the Mickey Mouse Club than the 39-year-old mother of two whose work and career are so influential that she has 30.4 million followers on Instagram.
The full details of the situation aren’t public. They’ve been sealed by the court, although apparently not at Spears’ request, as she told the judge she wanted a public forum. Perhaps in those details there is a legal justification for her ongoing conservatorship, but in leaked audio from Wednesday’s hearing, she sounded competent and reasonable as she explained her side of the story. And it was a pretty disturbing story.
The singer told the judge that disagreements over artistic and business decisions led to false claims from those around her that she failed to take medication. She said she was forced to take lithium, a powerful mood stabilizer, which left her incapacitated, feeling drunk. She expressed her belief that her father reveled in the control he had over her, even as she lost all sense of autonomy or privacy. She claims the people controlling her life won’t even let her take out her IUD, despite her desire to have a third child. “It’s demoralizing what I’ve been through,” Spears said, adding she didn’t speak up earlier because she didn’t think anyone would believe her.
Spears was never permitted to pick her own lawyer, which may also explain the reason she didn’t mount an earlier challenge to the conservatorship. Probate law is complicated and it’s easy to see how, without a background in the law, she could have remained unaware she had the right to ask for its termination.
The impossible-to-ignore overtones of this case should concern every woman who has ever refused to go along with someone more powerful.
Spears came off as a regular person as she read her statement to the judge. A megastar, of course — but also a woman who has experienced severe difficulties in the past and wanted to regain control of her own future, just like anyone else would. She even chuckled self-deprecatingly as she noted she still needed “a little therapy.”
No matter what led her father to seek control in the courts 13 years ago, the impossible-to-ignore overtones of this case should concern every woman who has ever refused to go along with someone more powerful.
Spears’ career has left her with an estimated $60 million in assets. She continued to work after the conservatorship was put in place, often in demanding environments that would seem to belie the need for an ongoing conservator. Spears released four albums and did a season as a judge on “X Factor.” From December 2013 to December 2017, her Las Vegas residency grossed $137.6 million on ticket sales of 916,184 over the course of 248 shows.
But, somehow, at least in the eyes of the court, she needed her father, someone who struggled to hold a job during her childhood, to manage the fortune she’d produced. It’s impossible to avoid the question: Would a 39-year-old man in her position be subjected to the same level of control? For instance, no one prevented Michael Jackson — despite the concerns of people around him that his mental condition was deteriorating — from living at Neverland Ranch, where he kept giraffes and a chimp. He was able to raise his children, Prince, Paris and Blanket (who are actually all named Michael).
Examples of inconvenient women unfairly locked away throughout history are easy to find. In 1860, Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard, a mother of six, was committed to the Illinois state hospital by her pastor husband to protect the children from her “heretical” religious beliefs — she disagreed with his Calvinism. He labeled her failure to agree with him as insanity and got her committed. Packard, a teacher, fought back in court and was ultimately able to win her freedom.
In 1927, the Virginia courts ordered the sterilization of a young woman named Carrie Buck, who had a child out of wedlock when she was 17, after she was raped by her foster parents’ nephew. They had her committed, claiming she was an “imbecile,” which her school records disproved. The facility she was committed to wanted to sterilize her and the Supreme Court let them, relying on an expert witness who had never met Buck but nonetheless testified she had led a life of promiscuity and immorality.
In their work titled “Lunacy in the 19th Century: Women’s Admission to Asylums in United States of America,” Katherine Pouba and Ashley Tianen detail the practice of sequestering women in mental institutions in the late 1800s when their behavior failed to conform to the expectations of male-dominated society. These women were rarely afforded anything close to due process and were often committed for reasons the authors characterize as “questionable.” Women who failed to fit neatly into the contours of daily life – male life – were at risk of being labeled insane and institutionalized. Whether it was an illness like epilepsy or the dreadful sin of having opinions or goals that made their presence in a household unwelcome, in the wrong setting, a father, a brother, a husband, a son could force these women into institutionalization. Problem solved.
While we might prefer to relegate these stories to history, we hear echoes of them in Spears’ case, although admittedly, much of her last 13 years remain a mystery.
Women have made enormous strides since Packard was institutionalized and Buck was sterilized, but history rhymes even when it doesn’t repeat. Why should a grown woman who is capable of functioning at such a high level remain under the control of her father after a period of emergency passes? Why restrict her from making the most fundamental personal decisions? In the absence of compelling evidence of incompetence, we are left with the lingering suspicion that Spears’ treatment echoes that of her sisters in earlier eras.
The “Free Britney” movement is, in many ways, a placeholder for our need to speak out on behalf of women who are being treated unequally because of gender.
The “Free Britney” movement is, in many ways, a placeholder for our need to speak out on behalf of women who are being treated unequally because of gender. Yes, it’s 2021 and the United States has its first woman vice president, but we are also the country that has failed to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. Even as American women have made gains, the country has not seen fit to adopt the seemingly incontrovertible statement that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
And, in a time where a woman’s rights to make her own decisions about her body are increasingly at risk, the interest in Spears' situation is more than just fascination with a beautiful pop star’s seeming fall from grace. It’s a manifestation of a sneaking, insidious concern. It leaves us wondering: What would it take for our own freedom to be taken away — and by whom? #FreeBritney.