Growing up in the 1990s, Britney Spears was the emblem of fame and celebrity. With her iconic sultry voice and powerful dance moves, she churned out bop after bop alongside memorable – now classic – music videos that are still referenced and replicated today. But it wasn’t just six-year-old me who was obsessed with her, it was the whole world. Since her first hit at the tender age of 16, Britney has made more headlines for her personal life than her musical accomplishments. Every relationship – from Justin Timberlake to K-Fed – was scrutinized, unflattering pictures from boozy nights out were plastered across front pages without shame, and everywhere she went – whether it was a grocery store or a private holiday with her children – she was hounded by the paparazzi.
Even heart-breaking video interviews of Britney explicitly stating the emotional toll the constant cameras were having on her did nothing to reduce them. She was pushed into a corner, suffered a very public mental breakdown and was even hospitalised in 2008 for five days after refusing to hand her children back to their father who had been granted sole custody. She had lost so much, but instead of stepping back, the world still wanted more. At her most vulnerable, all of those who had the capacity to help did nothing but critique, judge and laugh at her.
That was when her father – Jamie Spears – was made her legal conservator, which gave him complete power over her finances, her career and her body. And for a long time, no one questioned it. Her career recovered quickly, and later that year she put out her next album, Circus, which was considered a commercial success. This was followed by three more albums, two world tours, a Las Vegas residency, and countless other commercial deals. She was clearly well enough to work, but still, her conservatorship was being continually renewed by the courts, making her the only person in the world deemed both mentally incapable of making decisions but also capable of performing 97 shows across the world within an eight-month period.
But as long as Britney was making money and not making a scene, no one gave it much thought. That was until 2019 when she was admitted to a psychiatric institution, leading many fans to believe that she was being held there against her will. Instead of addressing the situation, the star began posting intense freestyle dance videos across Instagram and TikTok, which only fuelled further speculation that something was wrong. Soon details about her conservatorship – which was previously widely unknown – began to spread online and #FreeBritney was trending across the world, with a petition for Britney to be able to hire her own lawyer (something she can’t do under the conservatorship) receiving over 300,000 signatures.
Now in 2021, #FreeBritney is trending again after the release of the Framing Britney Spears documentary reignited everyone’s outrage. Stars such as Sarah Jessica Parker, Kacey Musgraves and Hayley Williams have all taken to social media to voice their support for Britney, and even Miley Cyrus gave the pop singer a shout out during her performance at the Super Bowl TikTok pre-game show. In the UK, influencers such as Munroe Bergdorf have urged their followers to watch the documentary in an act of self-reflection, with Munroe stating that “this is a human rights issue. This is a women’s rights issue.” And she’s not wrong.
But what is driving this trend more than anything else, is guilt. Guilt that for so long we watched as spectators while someone who gave so much of their life to us broke down. Instead of standing up for her, we kept quiet, because as long as she was also quiet we could convince ourselves that she was okay. Now social media is unveiling that false facade and is forcing us to confront our past behaviour and attitudes towards mental health and vulnerable women. Britney’s desire to have her father removed as her conservator is still ongoing, but knowing that the world is behind her this time, ready to call out any further injustices, could go a long way into helping her achieve her goal. We all played a role in her imprisonment, now it is time to help set her free.
By Lucinda Diamond, food and travel editor of CORQ.