Photo by Chelsea Guglielmino/Getty Images

Is Britney Spears really okay?

She doesn’t look as if she is “living her best life”

Artillery Row

Britney Spears’ Instagram is, apparently, “one of pure unadulterated fun”. “The pop star,” writes Nardos Haile for Salon, “posts whatever she wants typically clad in a pair of underwear or shorts and a crop top dancing her heart away.” Who could ever have a problem with that?

I suppose I do, for one. I’ve occasionally scrolled through Spears’ account, and it doesn’t look much like fun to me. If anything, the impression I get is one of loneliness. A recent video of the singer dancing with knives led to some viewers calling the police to conduct a welfare check. I wouldn’t go that far, but in an age where people do extreme things online as a cry for help, I don’t think it’s completely absurd.

Why can’t people like me just leave Britney alone?

This is not an acceptable position for anyone who wishes to celebrate Spears’ freedom, following her release from a 13-year conservatorship. Due to my failure to understand that dancing with knives “shows that Spears is more free than she’s ever been — more in control than she’s ever been”, I am, in the words of Haile, not “recognising Spears’ autonomy as a 41-year-old woman”. In a similar piece for the Independent, Katie Edwards argues that concern for Spears is “not really #FreeBritney at all”. Instead, it suggests one has “internalised the ‘poor crazy Britney’ narrative that’s become a mainstay in popular culture”, becoming “primed to see her as broken, as needing rescue and pity”. Why can’t people like me just leave Britney alone?

The trouble is, I think what is happening is far more complex than “liberated woman continues to be treated as mad by those who just can’t handle her new-found autonomy”. I was always very much in the #FreeBritney camp. One of the things I found most disturbing about her story was the way in which, due to the constant scrutiny to which someone of her level of fame is subjected, there seemed no way for her to ever convince anyone she was just “being normal”. Those defending her now have identified a genuine problem; what’s less clear is whether this accurately describes the situation today.

It’s true that the moment you have a psychiatric label, you lose credibility. Ordinary behaviour is viewed in a different light. Press reports on Spears throughout her conservatorship reminded me of my own experiences as a teenager in psychiatric institutions, when looking at random objects for a moment too long led to reports that you were “fixating” on them, or the slightest irritation at other people was “rage”. Constantly feeling the pressure to “act like the normal person” distorts your behaviour, compounding the problem. It is like being in an abusive relationship, trying to second-guess the hidden rules of “the sane”.

I get all this. It is appalling when it happens to non-famous people, but in Spears’ case, the scrutiny was global and unremitting. All of it was made worse by the fact that a woman apparently incapable of controlling her own affairs was deemed capable of being exploited as a performer. Does this then mean there is nothing worrying about dancing with knives or some of Spears’ other post-conservatorship posts? I, too, am invested in Spears having the last laugh, but surely we can acknowledge that what was done to her was wrong, without hanging this on the insistence that there is nothing disturbing about her behaviour today.

Critics of psychiatry, and the way it is used to control “difficult” people, sometimes risk sounding deluded and prone to conspiracy theories. For a long time, I had no interest in questioning anything to do with psychiatric diagnoses because all I could hear were people in positions of relative privilege, reducing mental illness to a state of being “a bit different”. Spears, Haile writes, is “a performer at heart and she is bound to be more theatrical than most people”. This argument is incredibly weak. It makes it sound as though in order to demonstrate that Spears was mistreated — and I have little doubt that she was — it is necessary to gloss over the truth.

Recasting concern as interference absolves observers from any duty of care

There are multiple questions relating to power, control and the imposition of norms when it comes to understanding who gets designated “mad” and who doesn’t. It is absolutely the case that politically “inconvenient” people, particularly women, will get smeared as “insane” as a way to silence or mock them. Nonetheless, I would suggest that there is very little that is merely “norm-subverting” or “truth-telling” about the symptoms of certain mental disorders. It trivialises the experiences of both sufferers and carers, to reduce everything to someone who’s a bit different “upsetting the normies”. It also absolves external observers from any duty of care, by recasting concern as interference.

Edwards persuades herself that her initial fears that Spears may have been having a breakdown were in fact being “complicit in the mistreatment of another person”. “We wanted a #FreeBritney who didn’t make us feel uncomfortable,” she writes, “one who behaved the way we wanted and expected.” This, she decides, is not allowing Spears to truly reclaim “her body, agency and liberty”. I would very much like Spears to reclaim these things. At the same time, it seems to me that the pressure to insist Spears is not a deeply traumatised person may be rooted more in “proving” the #FreeBritney case than in accepting someone for who she really is.

In my late teens, I found I could put my own experiences into perspective by reading feminist fiction on “mad women”. Books such as Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper show creative, inconvenient women — “more theatrical than most”, one might say — being gaslit and controlled by men who wanted to take away their voices. These books also show, however, the impact this treatment has on a state of mind. Rhys’ Antoinette spends her life surrounded by whispers that she cannot challenge; she is called mad when she speaks the truth. Nevertheless, she is not merely “expressing herself” and “living her best life” when she sets fire to Thornfield Hall and kills herself. I don’t think it is judgemental to notice this.

As Sarah Ditum documents in her forthcoming book Toxic, Spears was the victim of an intensely cruel era, exploited and hyper-sexualised from an early age. I’m not suggesting we should all now continue the abuse by over-analysing her every move, deciding what is and isn’t a sign of insanity. She does deserve to be left in peace.

Nonetheless, it diminishes what was done to her to suggest she has emerged from the shadows a strong, creative woman, proving all the doubters wrong. It is not dehumanising or excessively “normative” to sense she may be suffering. It’s a natural human response to someone who deserves compassion. Let’s not withhold it in the name of being kind.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover