I’m sure you can remember the last time you had a “meltdown.” It probably wouldn’t take long to recall, even. Perhaps it was a tantrum, a crying fit, a screaming match in a pub (back when screaming in pubs was legal). Perhaps it was more serious than that. A panic attack, a period of dissociation, a month after a break-up when you were so depressed you couldn’t make your bed or take out the rubbish. A mental health episode which required professional intervention, or hospitalisation. I’m sure, as well, that although that experience may remain memorable to you, easily accessible, and raw, that for those around you, it’s not the first thing they think of when they think of you. Although horrible, it does not define your life now, if it even ever did, including in its immediate aftermath.
That ability to compartmentalise and move on without being constantly reminded of your previous mistakes is the privilege of privacy, and the prison of living a public life. Thirteen years ago, Britney Spears had a mental health episode which is still defining and dictating her life today. Unlike our own lapses in judgement, Spears’ temporary break from reality – which, in retrospect, coming after a public break-up and exacerbated by the demands of years of public exposure, is more understandable than the tabloid press may have wanted to admit in the noughties – led to a 13-year-long conservatorship, which saw her father, Jamie Spears, and his legal team gain control of her personal life, finances and career. That conservatorship, which the pop superstar is finally contesting in court, has continued to restrict Britney’s life as an adult woman and withhold her estate from her for over a decade. Throughout, she has been forced to generate capital for the custodians of that estate (and seemingly everyone else around her).
Until now, Britney has never spoken of her complicated legal situation. But in a court statement last week, she revealed the full horror of the arrangement, which included forcing her to perform on tour, take lithium medication she feels she didn’t need, and forbidding her access to her $60 million fortune. Perhaps most shockingly, Britney also revealed she was denied control over her own body (the 39-year-old mother of two wanted to come off birth control to have more children with her long-term partner, Sam Asghari, but horrifyingly, was not given permission to remove her IUD). “I’ve been in shock. I am traumatized,” Britney told the LA court in a harrowing 24-minute statement that was livestreamed to the media. “I just want my life back.”
Following the statement, shocking in both its content and rare honesty, media outlets scrambled to cover the unfolding case in great detail. Britney’s full statement was reproduced for readers, while the years-long saga of her conservatorship was explained in SEO-optimised pieces, her name trending on Twitter for hours. Therein lies the puzzle of Britney Spears’s conservatorship. The very thing which has the ability to free her is the thing which binds her: her public exposure. In order to regain her freedom, Spears must publicly divulge details about her body, her finances, her family and her mental health. “It’s embarrassing and demoralising,” she told the court on Wednesday, speaking about her acting conservator, Jodie Montgomery’s, decision to make her go twice weekly to therapy in full view of the paparazzi. “I deserve privacy.”
In a complicated balancing act, to regain that privacy, Britney must continue to publicly denounce the conservatorship. In doing so, she must also pierce the veil of the public persona she’s spent years creating on social media: a Britney so positive, so happy, so well-rounded that anyone – a fan, a father, and most importantly, a court of law – can see she’s a million years away from the Britney we watched shave her head and attack a car in 2008. “I was in denial,” Britney is now telling the court of those same posts, which feature her dancing, trying on outfits and painting, all whilst inside her closely guarded, albeit palatial, mansion. “I’ve lied and told the whole world I’m okay and I’m happy. But now I’m telling you the truth, okay? I’m not happy. I can’t sleep. I’m so angry it’s insane. And I’m depressed. I cry every day.”
The public case, coming off the back of the highly-publicised documentary Freeing Britney Spears, is amounting to the culmination of the #FreeBritney campaign, which has itself been the focus of discussions on whether or not the public pressure on the superstar is helpful or problematic. Although the awareness it has continued to create around Britney’s legal situation ultimately benefits both Spears herself others in similar situations, the social media fervor surrounding the campaign and the nature of viral Twitter hashtags has sometimes led #FreeBritney to be seen as less of a movement and more as fodder for memes, jokes and RTs. These all fail to consider the humanity of the person at the centre of it all; a humanity affirmed by Britney’s strength and vulnerability in court last week.
So what now? Well, what Britney wants is simple. She wants the conservatorship to end. She wants to be able to get her nails done, to be driven in her boyfriend’s car, and to no longer have her father control her own life. “I deserve to have a life,” she told the court this week. To get there, Britney must maintain two paradoxical realities at once. In removing the muzzle she’s been forced to wear both by the conservatorship and the pressures of young superstardom, and having her story heard, she’s inevitably experiencing the crushing weight of public attention once again. The difference is, this time, perhaps for the first time ever, she’s doing it on her own terms.