If We’re Going to Talk About Britney Spears, We Also Need to Talk About Ableism

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Stacy Lee Kong

Jan 06 2021

10 mins read

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Looking back at the way media spoke about Britney Spears in 2007 and 2008 is… a trip. I don’t know if you remember, but the coverage was remarkably cruel. “If there is one thing that has become clear in the past year of Britney’s collapse—the most public downfall of any star in history—it’s that she doesn’t want anything to do with the person the world thought she was,” Vanessa Grigoriadis wrote in Rolling Stone in February 2008, weeks after the singer had been hospitalized on a 5150 psychiatric hold—twice. “She is not a good girl. She is not America’s sweetheart. She is an inbred swamp thing who chain-smokes, doesn’t do her nails, tells reporters to ‘eat it, snort it, lick it, fuck it’ and screams at people who want pictures for their little sisters.”

… Inbred swap thing? What? At this point, remember, Spears had spent more than a year behaving erratically—shaving her head, going to town on a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella, driving around with her infant son, Sean, on her lap. She’d already faced an investigation by the Los Angeles Department of Children and Family Services, lost custody of her sons, Sean and Jayden, “bombed” her VMA comeback performance (a stage she’d always dominated), done two stints in rehab and been involuntarily admitted to the hospital twice, just weeks apart. Something was clearly up, yet Grigoriadis’ reaction was to write a takedown of Spears that literally describes the pop icon as “arrogant, anxiety-ridden and paranoid”—but not as someone who’s experiencing mental illness, or deserving of compassion.

In comparison to those dark, Perez Hilton-influenced days, the way we talk about Britney Spears now is miles better. But there’s still something missing from mainstream, pop culture-focused conversations about the singer: acknowledgement of the ableism she’s been facing since the days of that Rolling Stone profile, if not before.

Proof: This week, news broke that a judge has (temporarily) denied Spears’ request to remove her father from his role as conservator and—predictably—there has been a spike in stories about the state of her conservatorship, whether the #FreeBritney movement is a conspiracy theory and her mental health. (Something we’ve discussed in this newsletter, even.) But outside of Disability Twitter, I haven’t seen a lot of conversations about her loss of autonomy, the way she may have been exploited for her labour over the past 12 years, or what her experiences have to do with the wider—and less privileged—disability community. And that’s really where our attention should be focused.

Conservatorships, explained

First, some backstory: According to California Courts, a conservatorship is “a court case where a judge appoints a responsible person or organization (called the ‘conservator’) to care for another adult (called the ‘conservatee’) who cannot care for himself or herself or manage his or her own finances.” Following Spears’ two hospitalizations in January 2008, her father, Jamie Spears, asked the courts to put her under a temporary conservatorship, which granted him and an attorney, Andrew Wallet, the legal right to oversee both her business and her day-to-day life, down to who she could see.

The arrangement eventually became permanent, which means that Spears hasn’t made her own financial, business, hiring or health decisions for 12 years. 

And for most of that time, we haven’t known many details of that arrangement, why courts believed that she needed this type of care or what she thinks about it. Some details have emerged, of course, and they’ve been enough to keep the speculation going. But it wasn’t until this year that we began to learn more about the conservatorship—including how Spears feels about it. Over the summer, her legal team made a series of court filings that show she has opinions about the way it functions (namely: she doesn’t want her father to fill this role), and that she wants people to know what’s going on (her team wants future court hearings open to the public).

What does Britney Spears want, and will she get it?

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According to court documents obtained by People on August 18, the day after they were filed, Spears is “strongly opposed” to her father filling the role of sole conservator, which allows him to oversee her affairs and finances. Jamie Spears stepped down from the role last year for health reasons, so the singer’s care-manager, Jodi Montgomery, took over; Spears wants her to continue in that role permanently.

“We are now at a point where the conservatorship must be changed substantially in order to reflect the major changes in her current lifestyle and her stated wishes… Without in any way waiving her right to seek termination of this conservatorship in the future, Britney would like Ms. Montgomery’s appointment as conservator of her person to be made permanent,” her court-appointed attorney, Samuel D. Ingham III, said in the filing.

But this week, Los Angeles superior court judge Brenda Penny rejected Spears’ request—though it’s important to note that she didn’t bar future requests. But for now, someone Spears says she’s literally afraid of is in charge of every detail of her life. She’s protesting this decision by refusing to perform until her father is no longer in charge of her career.

Britney’s conservatorship is just one high-profile example of the way we treat people with disabilities

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Here’s what’s most jarring for me: this seems like such an easy request to grant. Spears has described her conservatorship as “voluntary” in court filings. She’s not asking to end the arrangement entirely; she just wants a say in who makes decisions on her behalf. Really, she’s asking for some autonomy. 

But she’s not getting it—and if you’ve paid any attention to the way people with disabilities are treated by our legal and healthcare systems, that’s not surprising at all.

“Psychiatric wards do not function without policing; you have to have that backing of the state because you are keeping people against their will,” says Erin Soros, a Mad writer and postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University who studies psychoanalytic conceptions of psychic energy and psychosis as a response to trauma. “At this very moment there are people cuffed to beds in British Columbia. Tying people who experience madness to beds? That’s legal in Canada. Solitary confinement? Legal. It’s not legal in every single case, but solitary confinement cuffed to a bed is a legal treatment.”

She goes on: some people don’t have any say in what dose of medication they’re given, or what pills they’re made to take. Sometimes they are injected with medication against their will—something that involves assault, as she points out.

And it’s not just the type of treatment people receive from healthcare professionals. The ACLU even weighed in on Spears’ case this summer, pointing out that this type of arrangement requires the stripping away of a person’s civil rights—which should be a really big deal, but instead, conservatorships are “viewed as harmless” and are “imposed routinely.” According to Zoe Brennan-Krohn, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Disability Rights Project, “while it’s possible that this is an example of a thoughtful conservatorship that was implemented as the last resort and is being reviewed carefully, thoroughly, and regularly, that is not the norm for conservatorships, and it appears inconsistent with what we see of Britney publicly.”

The paternalistic idea that the state, experts or even just non-disabled people “know best” is deeply embedded in how our society thinks about people with disabilities—and it’s something Soros tries to push back against. “I’m interested in challenging people’s assumptions that we’re on the side of reason, that people in a locked ward are crazy, and that [it is done] for their benefit. We do a lot of horrific things for people’s benefit,” she says.

As Spears is experiencing now, one of those horrific things is making it difficult, if not downright impossible, to reclaim rights that have been taken away—and not being particularly careful to preserve people’s autonomy in the first place.

What about the #FreeBritney movement?

If you’ve read anything about Britney Spears in the past couple of years, you’ve also read about #FreeBritney. It’s a self-described movement/fan theory that Spears is being held against her will and communicating with fans via the outfits and emojis she posts on her Instagram; in general, it sounds over the top but well-meaning. But I think, in addition to driving speculation about Spears’ mental health, which is something we should try to do less of, it may also be perpetuating ableist thinking. For example, I keep seeing tweets implying that she struggled with her mental health ages ago, but maintaining the conservatorship is unfair because that’s over now. The maybe unintended implication is that sometimes it’s appropriate to completely strip someone of their civil liberties, which is obviously false. She may need ongoing support, and that doesn’t diminish her right to autonomy. (And to be clear, she deserved that autonomy even back in 2007 and 2008, when she was “collapsing,” as Grigoriadis put it.)

Soros sees another flaw in the movement: why just Britney? If you care about the civil liberties Spears has lost, you also need to apply that care to the people who don’t have vast personal fortunes, and who are also experiencing this type of control right now.

“I think the #FreeBritney movement is interesting… But I’m thinking, ‘You know, there’s a lot of people who could be freed.’ Are Britney fans concerned for her access to her income also engaged with other struggles for disabled/Mad rights? Are these less visible struggles being represented by the hashtag?” she asks. “Britney’s fans are concerned that her liberties are being compromised. But that’s part of how disabled and Mad people are treated in a larger way by society. If people are bothered by her father taking control of her finances, well, that’s what the state does to people who are Mad. It takes control over their bodies; it takes bodily integrity and autonomy away.”

Clearly, the scariest thing about the #FreeBritney movement isn’t the fact that fans have uncovered a shocking conspiracy theory—it’s that this is how we treat people with disabilities.

Friday Picks #3: The Secret History of Canada

This month, we’ll be discussing the “Where is Japantown?” episode of The Secret Life of Canada.

This CBC podcast is about Canadian history, but it covers the stories you don’t know about this country, from Caribbean migration to Private Buckam Singh (one of the first Sikh Canadian soldiers) to L.M. Montgomery’s mental health to, in the Japantown episode, early Japanese-Canadian history, which we all wanted to learn more about.

Head to FridayThings.com for background reading and discussion questions. And join us on Wednesday, November 20 at 7:30pm for an IG Live Q&A with Leah-Simone Bowen, creator and host of The Secret Life of Canada.

And Did You Hear About…

All the celebrities who congratulated Joe Biden and Kamala Harris—but didn’t endorse them before the election. (Yes, we noticed, Kim K.)

This truly excellent deep dive into Canadian boy bands.

Eva Longoria’s weird comment about Latinas being the “real heroines” of the election. She quickly apologized for diminishing the role Black women played in electing Joe Biden, but this essay by Jasely Molina explains why those types of statements are so problematic.

The Atlantic’s argument that Seduced does a better job of explaining NXIVM than The Vow.

This lovely personal essay about how the Delia’s catalogue became a way for the writer to feel American.

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