An (Almost) Unified Theory of Britney Spears

We learned a lot about Britney Spears’ conservatorship this week. To help put it all in perspective, I recruited my friend Russ Martin, a writer, pop culture expert and long-time Britney fan.

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Stacy Lee Kong

Jun 25 2021

12 mins read

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Content warning: this newsletter contains references to ableism, abuse and reproductive injustice.

 

I’ve written about Britney Spears several times over the past year and a bit, from a piece on how we talk about celebrities’ mental health, to the ableism at the core of her experience under a conservatorship to Framing Britney Spears and the role media played in her ‘downfall.’ In some ways, I feel like I’m moving toward a unified theory of Britney Spears—that is, a more ambitious piece that puts into perspective all the various issues and intersections embedded in the past two decades of her life. But I know I’m not quite there yet, because I’ve been struggling to figure out how to write about her this week, not because there’s nothing to say, but rather because there’s so much.

Even before we heard from Britney herself, the New York Times revealed that she’d been pushing to end her conservatorship for years, and that she raised concerns about her father’s suitability to act as her conservator as far back as 2014. Then, at a court date on Wednesday when she directly addressed her conservatorship for the first time since 2019, she revealed just how restrictive her life has been for the past 13 years.

The most horrifying part for me was the revelation that she wants to get married and have another baby, but has been denied permission to remove her IUD, which is a clear infringement on her reproductive freedom, and as many people with disabilities have pointed out, deeply tied to the larger issue of disability rights. (Because even if Britney doesn’t self-identify as disabled, the California court system has deemed her disabled and is treating her the way it treats other people with disabilities—denying them autonomy and self-determination.) The second most horrifying part for me was that she didn’t know that she could ask the court to end this arrangement. Can you imagine anything more tragic that being forced to work, forced to submit, forced to watch other people spend your money… all the while thinking there’s no way out? I don’t think I can.

But those are only two small parts of a really complicated story. So, to help me sort through all this new information—and how it impacts the role Spears occupies in a larger cultural context—I went to the most learned Britneyologist I know: my friend Russ Martin. A writer, pop culture expert and long-time Britney fan, he’s the perfect person to contextualize these revelations. Read on for our conversation.

 

What was the most jarring thing about Britney’s testimony for you?

 

That she was speaking from a place of power. I don't think that in 13 years we've ever heard an unfiltered Britney Spears. I think that we've always been mediated by her team. But this sounded like a human being. She wasn’t completely eloquent or articulate, necessarily, but it felt like she was a human being trying to take a stand for herself.

 

For me, it was the IUD. I'm actually not sure if this is fair, but somehow knowing her father controls her finances or who she can see pales in comparison to knowing she can’t make her own reproductive choices.

 

The IUD thing messed me up, too. I saw somebody say that it's the intersection of disability rights and reproductive rights. When you hear that she wasn't allowed to remove an IUD, you really understand the extent of the control that was placed over her, not just personhood, but her physical body. Because you know, for an everyday person, we don't know what it's like to have an estate, but we do know what it’s like to have a body.

YES. That’s so true—it makes the restrictions she lives under so much more visceral. There’s also the creepiness of her father being the one who has assumed control over her reproductive decisions.

 

Yeah. But it harkens back to times when fathers literally owned their daughters’ bodies. Did you see what Liz Phair tweeted? It was something to the effect of, it's the oldest trick in the patriarchy playbook to declare a woman mad and then seize her assets. It's been happening for centuries.

I feel like what Britney said in court really shifted my understanding of her experiences. Like, I knew that she was living under restrictive rules, but I didn’t understand how restrictive. I didn’t understand the degree to which her bodily autonomy was compromised. And, I thought the fact that she hadn’t filed to end the conservatorship meant she was basically okay with the arrangement, only to find out that she didn’t actually know that she could ask for it to end. Did Britney’s testimony change anything for you, though?

 

I think for long-time watchers of this case and long-time fans of Britney Spears, there was very little that was surprising. Some of the specific stuff, like the IUD, was shocking because that is a shocking story. But the fact that something like that was happening to Britney Spears, I don't think was.

 

When we first started talking about Britney a couple of years ago, the wider conversation was really mediated through the Free Britney movement and centred on fandom. I think it was understood as a conspiracy theory more than anything else. As a fan, what do you think of how coverage has shifted?

 

I think for a period, the media, the culture and even just the everyday person gaslit her fans. The idea was like, ‘This is a really tall tale. You're fanatics.’

 

I’ve had a lot of conversations about Britney over the past few years, trying to explain to people who don’t follow what’s happening, and they are almost always skeptical. There has been a lot of gaslighting of her fans, most of whom are women and gay men now in their 30s, grown adults with experiences in the world navigating power, respect and control. There has been a fairly widespread notion that her fans are some kind of teenage stan army. (Not to slight teen fans of pop music, who are similarly correct in their defenses of, say, Billie Eilish and her sexualization a couple years back.)

But I think it’s important to note that Britney fans aren’t some kind of deranged or delusional group. They are an incredibly informed group of people who have been advocating for a woman’s basic human right to autonomy, or at the very least to be heard.

 

I think that really gets at how we perceive fans, as people who have irrational and illogical love for a celebrity, even though that's not really fair. But you’ve also mentioned that you think fans have some culpability too, right?

 

Yeah. What happened to Britney Spears, not to take agency away from her, but we did that to her. She was reacting to the insurmountable pressure of the tabloid system at the time. And that tabloid system did not happen in a vacuum. It was created out of an incredible appetite for celebrity gossip. That’s something I think the New York Times doc missed—the role the public had in how Britney was treated.

 

In his book The Exile of Britney Spears, Christopher R. Smit compares Britney to Marilyn Monroe in that she was a young woman destructed by media giants. Post-2008, he described her as being effectively ‘killed’—she was exiled from popular culture after we had consumed her until she hit a breaking point and then we decided we didn’t like what we saw. That book was published in 2011, but I read it in 2016, and it changed the way I looked at Britney. But it also changed the way I thought about being a media consumer and, to some extent, a fan.

 

We have been looking back on a lot of cultural narratives lately—we've revisited Monica Lewinsky, Janet Jackson, Britney Spears, and I think that there is a tendency to justly blame men like Les Moonves or Justin Timberlake, or the media, which is large and amorphous. But I do think that there is a culpability that all of us have with Britney. The tabloids sent paparazzi because we bought magazines with pictures of Britney Spears. There wasn't a movement against publishing upskirt photos of her; there were jokes about it. Comedians made those jokes or Diane Sawyer asked those questions. But we accepted them. We laughed at them. So, I think there's an element of like, it's on us.

 

I think there's a lot of blame to go around, though. This is the point I was making the last time I wrote about Britney and Framing Britney Spears—different journalists have made the excuse of, ‘Well, I'm just serving the audience.’ And I think that really diminishes what we as journalists are supposed to do. We're supposed to offer context, we're supposed to tell the truth, but we also have a responsibility, I think, not to further traumatize people. If you're appealing to America's most base instincts, you’re definitely not going to fulfill that responsibility.

I think that to me, the reason that we feel so greatly about Britney Spears beyond her being a pop star is that she represents different stages of the American woman in public life. The story of her life is a story of the roles offered to women, from being a Disney princess, pretty literally, to a schoolgirl Lolita, to being a sex object to ultimately being a crazy mother. I think especially women are responding so greatly because the constraint that is around Britney as a persona, or brand or idea in culture is a constraint that's familiar to all women. Do you feel that?

 

I do! Though this also makes me think of the times I felt like I needed to reject the idea of Britney Spears because I was this little baby feminist. I distinctly remember being in high school or maybe early university and having a conversation with a friend saying, ‘Liking her is not feminist.’ So, when we talk about there being plenty of blame to go around and plenty of rethinking to do, I'm not excusing myself. I think feminist spaces at that time had a very prescriptive idea of what a good woman looked like versus what a bad woman looked like, and Britney was a bad woman because Britney was appealing to the male gaze, regardless of Britney’s actual motivations. There was no intersectional understanding happening. A lot of my reflection when I was writing about Framing Britney Spears was how often I believed what I was told about women, even as I was growing up and becoming a woman and knowing those things weren’t necessarily true.

 

I think that we are culturally programmed to believe that women are crazy. The idea that there is a crazy woman is very culturally understandable to us. So, whether we want to admit that or not, I think if someone tells you a woman is crazy, you have been taught by society to believe that.

So, another thought on culpability: my approach with Friday Things is often about using a celebrity as a lens to explore a deeper issue. So, when I've written about Britney, it’s in the context of media, feminism, disability rights—her experiences apply so deeply to so many things. But I’ve been reading Smit’s book since you told me about it, and I was really struck by the part in the intro where he says he is part of this ecosystem as well. As fans, we're part of the ecosystem, as media, we're part of the ecosystem. I still think it's important to talk about what's happening to Britney Spears. But is there a way to do that without further exploiting her?

 

Oh, God. That's a big question. I think that the groundswell of support that she has received in the past couple of years is the only reason that she was able to enter the courtroom and speak from a place of power. When she says, ‘I didn't think anyone would believe me,’ I think that enough information has gotten back to her that she now knows that people will believe her. Maybe not everybody, maybe not the court, maybe not her family. But she has some sense that there are people who are willing to believe her. And I think that that has to be an empowering experience for somebody who has received so little in the way of positive reinforcement, support and care for many years.

 

What has stuck with you the most this week?

 

The police station. [Ed note: The day before Britney testified, she was photographed leaving the Ventura County Sherriff’s department looking “distraught.” Then, Sherriff’s deputies visited Britney’s home over a “civil issue” hours before her conservatorship hearing on Wednesday.] It's concerning. There seems to be very little information or even theories as to what is happening, but you know, she's shot her shot. She took a real big swing yesterday, and there have been repercussions for even small moments of declaration. She’s got to be really scared.

 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

 

OOO Alert

 

I’m taking some time off next week, so there won’t be a newsletter next Friday. But, you can catch me on Instagram—I’ll be sharing pop culture thoughts as usual, and I’ll be dropping some big news in July, so make sure you’re following! (A hint: if you liked this edition of FT, you’ll love what’s coming next.)

 

And Did You Hear About…

 

My new hobby making TikToks.

 

Journalist Fatima Syed's powerful essay on what it means for Canadian immigrants to be good allies to Indigenous people.

This essay on the makings of a Hollywood power couple.

 

Michael B. Jordan doing some short-lived cultural appropriation.

 

Bachelorette Rachel Lindsay’s no-holds-barred op-ed about her experience of the Bachelor franchise.

 

Bonus: The trailer for Harder They Fall, which is just… 😍

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