There’s no shortage of celebrity movements online, but one of the most compelling (and for me, probably the *only* compelling) has to be the #FreeBritney movement. It exploded two years ago when Britney Spears was put into a psychiatric facility – allegedly against her will – and reached a watershed moment this week, when the singer told a court she was “traumatised” by her conservatorship and wanted out.
Until relatively recently, the#FreeBritney movement was seen as a niche corner of Twitter, and most fans who were advocating for her freedom were seen as delusional fanatics. Prior to the groundswell of support mid last year, #FreeBritney was often a messy analysis of cryptic Instagram posts and (sometimes) out of context quotes, and anyone who wasn’t part of the movement didn’t seem to afford it much credibility. Basically, people thought it was a conspiracy.
Then, as Britney’ Spears’ legal cases started to gain traction, and court documents were released quoting Britney alleging being drugged against her will, things got more serious. Fast forward a few more legal proceedings, and the whole world is now watching. Britney’s son said on an Instagram live that he wants to free his mother, her celebrity friends have come out condemning her situation, and the New York Times made a documentary all about #FreeBritney called Framing Britney Spears.
I started following the movement after I read court transcripts of her case from a couple of years ago, but I was still viewing it as an intriguing celebrity conspiracy. It wasn’t until this February, when I read claims Britney Spears wanted to have a baby but wasn’t allowed to under her conservatorship, that I realised the gravity of the #FreeBritney movement.
#FreeBritney isn’t just scrutinising Britney’s Instagram pictures – it’s actually far more topical and relevant than that.
It’s about financial subjugation and abuse of women in different classes. It’s about bodily autonomy, and specifically, the relationship between bodily autonomy and ableism.
It’s 2021 and one of the most famous women in the world has to fight this hard to have an actual care professional replace her abusive father who appears to have the job by default because he’s… her father. https://t.co/WnRfq258Us
— Laura Shortridge-Scott 🐈💙🏴 (@DiscordianKitty) June 24, 2021
In case you aren’t across what’s been happening with Britney, it actually started way back in the 2000s. Britney Spears was on a downward spiral as she struggled to cope with her life of stardom – ultimately ending in her infamous 2007 ‘meltdown’.
She was hospitalised twice, and then her father, James Spears, applied for a temporary conservatorship of one year until her mental health stabilised – which was approved in 2008. He then ended up applying for an extension to the conservatorship on the basis of Britney apparently having ‘early-onset dementia’, which was approved, making the conservatorship becoming permanent.
The conservatorship denies Britney the right to do basic acts like spend her own money, have any control over her career, choose her own staff or lawyers, speak about her conservatorship to the public, use a mobile phone or any social media. She also can’t leave her home or travel, drive, marry or be pregnant without permission from her guardian either, under conservatorship laws.
In just a couple of years, Britney went from an A-list star in her prime to a trapped woman stripped of her bodily autonomy.
#FreeBritney is legit feminist discourse
Despite her conservatorship and being deemed too mentally unstable to have basic rights, Britney Spears was somehow considered well enough by her father to release four albums, complete three world tours, complete a four-year Vegas residency, appeared as a full-time judge on The X-factor, release multiple perfumes and lingerie lines (which have brought in over US $50 million a year) – and yet she is apparently not well enough to be an independent and autonomous person.
The #FreeBritney movement actually opens up a discussion on the way we view women’s mental health, autonomy and ableism. Specifically, the way men can legally control women’s bodies and rights, while still cashing off their labour.
Time and time again, it seems to impact women, not men. Look at Roberty Downy Jr, who in 1999 was a fucking mess and spent time in jail. Yet look where he is now, compared to Britney Spears. There is not a single male star of this level of fame that has been put in a conservatorship, despite many having even worse spirals than Britney’s.
Let’s talk about bodily autonomy
The #FreeBritney movement also highlights bodily autonomy in regards to pregnancy. There were reports for ages that Britney wanted to have a baby with her boyfriend, and this week those were finally confirmed when Britney revealed in court that she has been forced to have an IUD, and is being actively preventing from her own right to reproduction.
The concept of a male patriarch inflicting control on a person’s reproductive rights will always be relevant to feminists – whether it’s about terminating a pregnancy or conceiving one. It brings about the question: who gets to decide if a woman can or can’t have a child?
Britney Spears says she isn’t allowed to remove her IUD under her current conservatorship.
This has stripped her of her rights to reproductive choice and bodily autonomy. Every person should have the right to decide whether they want to have children or not. #FreeBritney
— Clue (@clue) June 24, 2021
Given the history of forced sterilisation and removal of reproductive rights from people with disabilities, and the gaslighting that women with mental health struggles have experienced historically and to this day, it is important to discuss the ethics of this in the current political landscape.
Should people have the power to control a woman’s reproductive rights? What if she’s unwell? How do we even decide if a woman is ‘of sound mind’? And if she isn’t, why does that mean she deserves to lose her bodily autonomy? Why is being mentally ill treated like a punishment?
#FreeBritney highlights the intersection of feminism and disability rights
Let me change the subject to Kanye West for a second (this is relevant, I promise, lol). We’ve seen both Britney and Kanye have very public devolutions of mental health. With Kanye, we’ve seen just a tiny part of his bipolar disorder through concerning tweets. He’s (now) open about having a mental illness, his fans respect his struggle, and some even think of it as essential to his art.
Kanye West has not been forcibly institutionalised, he’s not had his dating or marriage life dictated for him, he’s allowed access to his children, and he has full control of his fortune.
Critically, Kanye West has still maintained his autonomy while being mentally ill – unlike Britney Spears. Look me in the eye and tell me if a male celebrity would be forced to undergo a vasectomy to prevent creating a pregnancy. Of course he fucking wouldn’t.
#FreeBritney is about so much more than celeb drama, and it could create serious change.
As sad as it is to say, Britney Spears’ situation is not unique: data from the US shows us the number of people under conservatorships (otherwise known as guardianships) is more than one million. They’re a legal mechanism designed to help people who can’t help themselves, whether due to old age or illness (such as people with severe dementia).
Britney’s situation is unusual, and not just because she’s one of the most famous women in the world: she’s continued to work.
It also needs to be said that we don’t know all the details here. Many of the court hearings and records have been sealed. Hearing Britney speak yesterday was highly unusual in and of itself.
But hearing her speak has had so much more impact than we realise.
It’s opening up discussions around less privileged people – those without Britney’s fame and money – losing their bodily autonomy and being victims of financial abuse. It’s also asking questions about how we define mental health, and about who has the monopoly on our bodily autonomy.
If you’re someone who has struggled with mental illness in any capacity, then you should be paying close attention to what’s happening to Britney Spears, and how the law enforcement systems we currently have in place can so easily be leveraged to disenfranchise the mentally ill.
— Sarah McGonagall (@gothspiderbitch) June 24, 2021
Britney’s situation can and should spark discussions on the limits of conservatorships, who is in charge of them, their impacts, the ward’s rights, and where we draw the line at controlling other’s autonomy. And I really wish more of us would take this, run with it, and make the world a better and safer place.
You can listen to my podcast episode about it here.