Britney Spears on stage during the "Piece Of Me" Summer Tour at the O2 Arena on August 24, 2018 in London, England.(Photo by Gareth Cattermole/BCU18/Getty Images for BCU)

Trapped in a gilded cage

Women’s rights are far more precarious than we have been led to believe

Artillery Row

Britney Jean Spears finally had her chance to speak thirteen years after the appointment of her father as conservator of her estate. In a submission to Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Brenda Penny on 14 July 2021, Spears detailed a “portrait of a legal nightmare”, according to legal analyst Lisa Green.

Spears came of age under the relentless media scrutiny that accompanies uber-celebrity, achieving international success at 16 years old in 1999. The rapid ascension of her stardom and fortunes fractured dramatically in 2007 with a very public breakdown, following her two infant sons arriving in quick succession combined with an acrimonious divorce from back-up dancer Kevin Federline.

One has to wonder if Spears dramatically discarding her signature mane goes far beyond “mental illness”

The ensuing media circus revelled in her emotional and mental distress. Photos of the young mother attacking a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella and infamously shaving her head were splashed all over the world. 

I have shaved my head on two occasions, once as a 15 year old rebelling against the strictures of an Anglican all-girls boarding school, and the second time as a mother of three small children who could not be bothered with the expense and hassle of hair maintenance.

One has to wonder if Spears dramatically discarding her signature mane goes far beyond “mental illness”. Rather, could it not be an act of rebellion against those exploiting her for their own livelihood, or an attempt to avoid unforgiving criticism of her body, weight, appearance and relationships by opting out of the demands of femininity. Or even, very simply, a new mother struggling with untreated post-partum depression while in the blinding spotlight of societal judgment. 

Still in full view of the world’s media, Spears was placed on a psychiatric hold in 2008 after refusing to hand her infant and toddler over to her ex-husband. State enforced separation of mothers and infants by family law courts is a trauma that is rarely addressed and instead of being recognised as a young mother upset at being legally compelled to hand her children over, Spears was cast as unstable and uncooperative. 

Described as “disabled due to dementia”, Spears was denied custody of her children, and in a move that curtailed any remaining autonomy, her father Jamie Spears successfully applied for a conservatorship giving him complete control of her finances and person.

A conservatorship is a legal mechanism, similar to guardianship or power of attorney, for the protection of impaired adults, such as: the elderly, developmentally disabled, or those suffering catastrophic illnesses or accidents. Since her father took control, Spears has performed over 200 concerts at a Planet Hollywood residency in Las Vegas, had several world tours and made numerous media appearances and released multiple albums. Yet even this prodigious professional output was not enough to restore her personal and financial independence. 

According to Spears, the conservatorship dictates every aspect of her life: it prevented her from having custody of her sons, contractually binds her to professional obligations over which she has no control, denies her “credit cards, cash, phone, passport”, and restricts her freedom of movement as she explains that she’d “like for my boyfriend to be able to drive me in his car”. Unable to make her own medical and reproductive decisions, she has expressed her unhappiness at being prevented from having a child with Sam Asghari, her long-term boyfriend. 

History is littered with stories of inconvenient and disobedient daughters, wives and mothers having their children taken away, being medicated, hospitalised or isolated, their frustration and distress at being stripped of their fundamental right to self-determination diminished and pathologized. 

Dr. Jessica Taylor, founder of Victim Focus and author of bestselling “Why Women are Blamed for Everything” has defended Spear’s anger as a justified and normal response to those who are seeking to control her. Further, women are subjected to “deliberate pathologisation” because becoming angry or upset is commonly used as evidence of “out of control, mentally ill, anger management issues” to discredit claims of abuse or exploitation. 

Spears claimed she was manipulated into believing she would be released from the conservatorship, since becoming distraught upon realising she had been misled. She alleges she was subjected to further unwanted performances, repeated psych assessments, residential rehab and inappropriate medicalisation. 

Compare this with Charlie Sheen’s very public mental breakdown in 2011, and an exemplar of the double standards still at work between men and women is apparent. Charlie said on British daytime show, Loose Women, “I’m not sure how I created such chaos and wound up in that headspace. It’s as if there was some alien or demonic possession going on”, openly admitting he was “not even responsible enough for my children’s needs”. Over a six month period he reputedly spent $500,000 on women and drugs, managing to successfully avoid a conservatorship petition brought by his parents by entering rehab.

An exemplar of the double standards still at work between men and women is apparent

A campaign, #FreeBritney, was dedicated to ending Spear’s conservatorship and garnered over 100,000 signatures for a White House petition. Despite Spears’s preference for proceedings to be public and transparent, her father relentlessly and aggressively fought to keep meaningful information out of the public domain, preventing Spears from being able to speak for herself until the 14 July hearing.

Spears pleaded in court “I just want my life back”, calling the conservatorship “embarrassing” and “demoralising”, before finally being granted the right to appoint former federal prosecutor Mathew Rosengart as her attorney. Rosengart has stated that there will be a “vigorous investigation” into the conduct of those who exploited her, including her father: Jamie Spears. 

The saga of Britney Spears’ conservatorship is not a new story. Until recently, women have had their persons and property controlled by the ancient law of coverture: a female’s legal standing was first subsumed by their fathers and transferred to their husband upon marriage.  

For Spears, it was the perfect confluence of events. A young mother having an understandable reaction to extraordinary circumstances portrayed as dysfunctional, an ex-husband wanting custody of her sons, a father wanting control of her person and property, voracious media feeding off her distress, rapacious public clamouring for salacious details, and a court willing to believe the word of the father.

Empowered by the court and in spite of Spears’s protestations and maintaining a prodigious workload, Jaimie Spears was able to strip her of her autonomy and right to self-determination for well over a decade. The fact that one of the world’s most successful celebrities is being kept in a gilded cage at the behest of her father suggests that state-sanctioned coverture never really went away, and that women’s rights are far more precarious than we have been led to believe.

On 12 August 2021, Jamie Spears finally stated he is planning to relinquish control of his daughter’s estate. Spears is pushing for her father to be charged with conservator abuse.

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