On Wednesday afternoon, Britney Spears made a simple plea to a Los Angeles probate judge: “I just want my life back.”
Spears was in the middle of delivering a forceful 24-minute statement against the conservatorship under which she has been living for the last 13 years. This searing testimony, the audio of which was livestreamed to the media, marked the pop star’s most public rebuke to date of the legal situation that has dictated the terms of her life since 2008.
She called the conservatorship “abusive,” compared it to “sex trafficking,” stated that her father (who was her conservator for the majority of those 13 years) “loved the control to hurt his own daughter,” and alleged that her conservators won’t let her go to the doctor to take out her IUD, even though she wishes to have another child. (A friend of mine referred to this final revelation as something “straight out of 'The Handmaid’s Tale',” which feels accurate.)
“I deserve to have a life,” Spears told Judge Brenda Penny. “I deserve to have the same rights as anybody does.”
The testimony, which was nothing short of horrifying, also seemed to validated what the “Free Britney” movement has long alleged: that Spears has been harmed and traumatized by her legal situation in a plethora of ways. It was certainly an emotional indictment of this particular conservatorship. But broader still, her statement served once again to highlight how popular culture has spent years putting Spears and women like her up on pedestals and profiting from their labor only to gleefully rip them down.
For more than a decade, a woman who was churning out albums, going on tours, judging “The X Factor” and doing a punishing, smash-hit Vegas residency that raked in $138 million was also considered a woman who could not "care for herself or manage her own finances," as the state of California defines the preconditions for conservatorship. (“I worked seven days a week, no days off,” Spears recounted in her statement.)
This is a potentially horrifying legal failing, but it’s also a collective societal one.
I grew up during the teeny-bopper pop renaissance of the late ‘90s and early aughts, and no name loomed larger than Britney Spears. Spears was the feminine ideal we somehow all understood we were meant to copy. She was effortlessly sexy while remaining virginal, the Baptist teenager crooning to the camera in a makeshift Catholic schoolgirl crop top uniform. Her entire image felt engineered in a lab to woo tween and teen girls while making older men believe she was winking at them.
In an iconic 1999 Rolling Stone cover story, paired with David LaChapelle photos that showed a 17-year-old Spears posing coquettishly with her dolls, journalist Steven Daly describes her “honeyed thigh,” her “ample chest” and the “silky white shorts” that “cling snugly to her hips.” According to Daly, Spears had laid a “trap” that was “carefully baited by a debut video that shows the seventeen-year-old singer cavorting around like the naughtiest of schoolgirls.”
The story is written as though it is Spears, a child, who is conspiring to entrap boys and men who come across her “receptive” smile and bare midriff. The machine behind her — the adults guiding and shaping her career and her image — are erased. In 2003, Spears told British GQ that LaChapelle had “totally tricked” her into those sexy photos: “The whole thing was about me being into dolls, and in my naïve mind I was like, ‘Here are my dolls!’ and now I look back and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, what the hell?’ But he did a very good job of portraying me in that way.”
It’s a clever sleight of hand. It's far more titillating to the imagined male-centric audience of Rolling Stone to picture Spears in control. The truth is more layered, and far less sexy.
When we tell ourselves that she was a famous, beautiful young woman whose agency was fully realized but was perceived as threatening, we let ourselves off the hook. We flatten the complicated ways that youth and beauty (especially white, cis, female, thin youth and beauty) both bestow a conditional type of power while also reinforcing patriarchal structures, as Tavi Gevinson pointed out so beautifullyin an essay for The Cut back in February.
“It is absurd to discuss [Spears’] image from that time as though there was not an apparatus behind it,” Gevinson wrote, “as though she existed in a vacuum where she was figuring out her sexuality on her own terms, rather than in an economy where young women’s sexuality is rapidly commodified until they are old enough to be discarded.”
This is not something I could wrap my head around when I was in sixth grade and “...Baby One More Time” came out. I alternately resented and admired Spears in her heyday, desperately wanting to differentiate myself from her (I was a smart girl) because I knew I could never be her, which is what happens when a pop star is relentlessly marketed at you and your peers.
In my mind, Spears had real power, and she was wielding it in ways that were punishing the rest of us; the girls whose bodies would never be so taut and valuable to the market. What Spears actually had, even at her most famous, was the fleeting empowerment of beauty. For many, if not most women, this power is not lasting. As Gevinson put it in that same essay, “this currency is not on your terms.”
The power of “beauty,” and its even more fickle cousin “sexiness,” is easily lost, subject as it is to age, fickle public opinion and changing trends. By 2007, when Spears — who had been mobbed and stalked by paparazzi and fans on a daily basis for nearly a decade — infamously shaved her head and then attacked a photographer’s car with an umbrella, that veneer of power had begun to wane (though not so much that both incidents couldn’t be photographed and monetized by others, of course.) In 2008, Spears was put under temporary conservatorship by her father.
Within this context, Spears’ conservatorship was in some ways culturally convenient. If she had lost control to the point that the state needed to intervene, she was beyond our collective care. If we had played a role in that “breakdown,” by breathlessly critiquing and consuming her, no one was ready to interrogate it. And if she could continue to produce material for the rest of our entertainment while under that conservatorship, even better. We could buy tickets to her Vegas show guilt-free.
Spears spoke about her body as an entity separate from herself on Wednesday, referring to “my precious body, who has worked for my dad for the past f---ing 13 years, trying to be so good and pretty. So perfect.”
But I would bet she’s not the only young woman from the aughts now suffering from this type of disassociation. Look at what happened to Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Amanda Bynes, Jessica Simpson — the list goes on. We wanted our beautiful girls to remain pretty objects. Their messy humanity was much more painful to contend with.
In the last five years, with the benefit of time and perspective, we have started re-examining many of these narratives. Hilton was the subject of a 2020 documentary in which she alleged she had been abused at boarding school as a teenager. (A representative for Hilton’s old school told NBC's "TODAY" the institution “was sold by its previous ownership in August 2000” and therefore could not comment.) Simpon’s captivating 2020 memoir was a massive bestseller. And after The New York Times put out a documentary about Spears’ conservatorship, “Framing Britney Spears,” in February, the #FreeBritney movement went mainstream.
Spears’ courtroom stand feels like a culmination of this collective reflection, a moment that will hopefully result in concrete change. “Britney being safe and not being taken advantage of is his No. 1 priority,” Vivian Thoreen, attorney for Jamie Spears, told NBC News. And yet, to hear, in her own words, exactly what she says this legal arrangement has done — and continues to do — to her, was excruciating. How could we have let this go on for so long? How did we not see how inhumane it was? Why didn’t most of us care to ask more questions and demand answers?
“It’s been 13 years. And it’s enough,” Spears said.
More than enough.