Updated: Sep 25, 2020
By Kaylin Tran
Recently, #FreeBritney has been circulating across social media as fans become increasingly worried about singer Britney Spears’ safety. They are under the impression that her father, James “Jamie” Spears, is exerting unnecessary control over Britney as her conservator.
An ongoing court battle with Jamie has revealed Britney’s attempt to prevent him from regaining this position, which gives him complete power and access over her career and personal life. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has also stepped in to offer its services and help Britney regain her civil liberties. This is certainly not the first time that similar news has broken about a celebrity struggling to regain her freedom after feeling trapped by pressures from the media or dominating figures (e.g. producers, managers, parents) in their lives. The common thread between all of these stories is that the overbearing forces nearly always tend to be men, or at the very least, a product of the male gaze. Britney’s circumstances make up one of many stories that shine an alarming light on this widely-accepted precedent.
What does “conservatorship” mean?
A conservatorship is a process where a court-appointed individual or individuals are chosen to oversee and manage a person’s affairs, either because that person is unfit (physically or mentally limited) or a minor. A conservator and guardian are seemingly similar concepts but have an important distinction. While a guardian’s sole job is to oversee a person’s physical and medical care, a conservator is almost completely involved with every aspect of their life. The conservator oversees the person’s finances, establishes and monitors their physical care, and manages their living arrangements among other things according to Investopedia.
Britney’s conservatorship under Jamie began in 2008 after she experienced a series of breakdowns the year prior, both publicly and privately. In 2007, she underwent a divorce, lost custody of her children and was admitted to rehab. Jamie and attorney Andrew Wallet were initially named as Britney’s temporary conservators by an L.A. court but this became permanent in October. Newsweek reported that Jamie must “sign off on every major decision she makes, from business, to health, to voting and marriage.” In other words, Britney had absolutely no control over her own decisions.
According to Vulture, Wallet resigned from his role in 2019 and Jamie was left as her only conservator until he also left that same year due to health issues, though he has continued managing Britney’s finances. Since then, her care manager Jodi Montogomery has been overseeing her health. Montogomery’s position ended on August 22, which is what prompted Britney to file a document on August 17 to the Superior Court of California in L.A. stating that she is “strongly opposed” to having her father return to his previous role. Additionally, she prefers to have “a qualified corporate fiduciary” oversee her finances instead of Jamie. Despite this, Variety stated that a judge extended her conservatorship under Jamie until February 2021.
The ACLU, an organization that works to protect others in civil liberty cases from government abuse and overreach, has offered its services to help Britney in her legal battle for her conservatorship.
“This issue is getting attention right now because of Britney Spears’ fame,” said the ACLU. “But she is only one of untold thousands nationwide under or at risk of guardianship or conservatorship.”
How does #FreeBritney fit into this?
Although this movement was popularized recently, this is not a new effort to help the star. Protestors stood outside court hearings when the conservatorship was first put into place in 2008. When there was a status meeting in 2019, protestors gathered again outside the courthouse with #FreeBritney signs. During that time, law experts told the L.A. Times that it was unusual for someone as “young and productive” as Britney to be in a conservatorship, which is typically implemented for older patients who are not likely to get better.
Her career over the past 10 years clearly shows that she is far from unfit. The L.A. Times reported that she played 248 shows for her residency in Las Vegas from 2013 to 2017 without any other public meltdowns or outlandish behavior. Since the conservatorship, she continued to release new music and studio albums, performed world tours and even served as a host for X Factor.
However, Britney’s social media activity during the past several months has raised alarms for some fans about the stability of her mental health. They believe that she sends hidden messages through her posts and tweets that subtly call out for help. A tweet by @ToLoveJanet compared a photo of Britney that they believed was styled very similarly to Janet Jackson’s “Control” album cover. Another user, @partylikebrit, referenced back to a photo of Britney reading the poetry memoir “Shout: The True Story of a Survivor” at the beginning of the year. Furthermore, people prompted requests such as “If you need help wear yellow in your next video” or to “post doves if she was in trouble.” Britney later posted a video of her walking back and forth in front of the camera in a yellow shirt, as well as a picture of a Hans Zatzka dove painting, though there is no proof that the posts are at all related.
Britney has not explicitly commented on the situation, which has only fueled fans’ concerns for her safety. While many of them showed concerns for her well-being, some social media users also made fun of her seemingly bizarre posts and chalked it up to her previous history of mental instability. However, she has been stable for years—the past decade, in fact.
“This doesn’t sound like a woman who needs a guardian,” wrote Kaitlyn McQuin for Restless. “This sounds like a woman being controlled and manipulated.”
She is not alone.
These internet responses emphasize the acceptance of this toxic behavior that still allows men to exert unnecessary, harmful, and unbelievably inhumane control over women—and big surprise, she’s not the only victim of this type of scenario.
Kesha’s music career was forcibly halted during her lawsuit against producer Dr. Luke in 2014 for “sexually, physically, verbally, and emotionally” abusing her “to the point where [she] nearly lost her life,” stated Rolling Stone. During the legal process, she sought to void her contracts with Luke, which were preventing her from creating new music with other labels. However, the court injunction was denied on several occasions throughout the years. The judge assigned for the case stated that no irreparable harm was being done and that Kesha still had the opportunity to make music, given that she could still record with Luke.
“All I ever wanted was to be able to make music without being afraid, scared, or abused,” Kesha wrote in a Facebook post. “This case has never been about a renegotiation of my record contract—it was never about getting a bigger, or a better deal. This is about being free from my abuser.”
The case was dismissed in 2016 without nullifying Kesha’s recording contract and another lawsuit in February 2020 ruled against her, deciding that her claims against Luke were defamatory.
Taylor Swift is yet another music artist who was entangled in a similar predicament. Swift created music under Big Machine Records, formerly headed by CEO and founder Scott Borchetta, until 2018. That meant that the label owned all of the master recordings, or original recordings, of her songs since working for them at 15 years of age. The owner of the recordings must give permission and receive payment if an artist wants to play a song at a venue. The entire label was sold to manager Scooter Braun, someone Swift viewed as an “incessant, manipulative” bully, as she wrote in a Tumblr post. This is in reference to online altercations between her and his clients, Kanye West and Justin Bieber, regarding her outcry against West’s song “Famous,” which she called “a revenge porn music video which strips [her] body naked.”
She felt threatened by Braun’s new power over her and betrayed by Borchetta’s lack of loyalty. Borchetta refused to sell the master recordings to her in the first place.
“When I left my masters in Scott’s hands, I made peace with the fact that eventually, he would sell them,” wrote Swift. “Never in my worst nightmares did I imagine the buyer would be Scooter. Any time Scott Borchetta has heard the words ‘Scooter Braun’ escape my lips, it was when I was either crying or trying not to. He knew what he was doing; they both did. Controlling a woman who didn’t want to be associated with them. In perpetuity. That means forever.”
In November of 2019, Swift posted again about the lack of control she has over her own music. She claimed that Braun refused to let her play several of her songs at the American Music Awards and declined the use of her older music and footage in an upcoming Netflix documentary about her.
“The message being sent to me is very clear,” she said in the post. “Basically, be a good little girl and shut up. Or you’ll be punished. This is WRONG. Neither of these men had a hand in the writing of those songs. They did nothing to create the relationships I have with my fans.”
Even beyond music, Meghan Markle is a prime example of the pressures and stifling environment that many well-known figures face, though her perpetrator was the British media. Ever since announcing her relationship with Prince Harry, she has faced an onslaught of criticism over the most ridiculous things. She had a “wardrobe malfunction” when her bra strap was visible for a split second, holding her pregnant belly was decidedly too “showy,” and apparently she’s the cause of Harry’s hair loss. It is no wonder that the couple eventually decided to leave royal life with the constant barrage of hatred they faced and continue to face.
“Finding Freedom” is a recently released biography that details the couple’s personal life as they experienced defamatory headlines and disapproval from high-ranking individuals over the past several years. Through interviews with over 100 friends and aides in their circle, the book argues that the couple’s decision to leave their positions is due to “a toxic media environment and untenable protocol,” as writer Autumn Brewington said for the Washington Post. The British media is notorious for its exploitive and sexist coverage of stars. It looks like Markle and her family were no exception to this pattern. Piers Morgan, an English broadcaster and T.V. personality, is known to be hypercritical of Markle’s actions. He called her a “shameless piece of work” and accused her of using her marriage into the Royal Family as a means to “get to the top.”
“People say I’m too critical of Meghan Markle,” he once tweeted. “But she ditched her family, ditched her dad, ditched most of her old friends, split Harry from William, and has now split him from the Royal Family. I rest my case.”
Clearly, Britney is not alone.
The unfortunate reality is that the #FreeBritney movement is one of many endless stories about women being subject to submittance. These are not isolated incidents. Taking advantage of women and exploiting them is an outdated behavior, yet it still runs rampant in the modern-day. No matter if the movement is called #FreeBritney, #FreeKesha, #FreeTaylor, or #FreeMeghan, the call for help is to #FreeWomen.
“We see her desire to simply be free,” wrote McQuin. “And if we see that desire in one woman, we see it in all of us. Is it important for her to have autonomy over her life again? Absolutely. But there is a broader need here too. The need for society and us as individuals to stop accepting instances, big and small, of men controlling women.”
Kaylin Tran is an editorial writer who focuses on social justice issues and communication strategies, especially within the entertainment industry. You can find her on Instagram.