With so much of a celebrity’s personal life accessible through social media, it’s no wonder an icon like Britney Spears continues to stay in the limelight. Recently, Spears has not been the center of media attention through her acts of her own, however, but through the ongoing speculation that swirls around her.
The Princess of Pop became a trending topic after the February 5th release of Framing Britney Spears, a New York Times produced Hulu documentary which weaves together footage and interviews from various sources about the singer’s life to date. For many, the doc further substantiates the objective of the #FreeBritney hashtag which seeks to advocate for the singer’s well-being amidst a decade-long debate about her conservatorship.
Since its release, celebrities from Sarah Jessica Parker to Christian Siriano took to social media to show their support for the embattled star. Even former boyfriend Justin Timberlake was prompted to publicly apologise to Spears after social media erupted with criticism for his treatment of her during and after their relationship.
During her very public mental crisis between 2007 and 2008, Spears’ career and personal life was the subject of intense scrutiny by many, especially fans who grew to care for her. To understand how we got to this month’s documentary and the #FreeBritney hashtag, we have to go back to 2006, when things really unraveled for the pop superstar.
2006 was a tumultuous one for the singer, who seemed to be in the tabloids constantly for reckless behavior. By November, Spears filed for divorce from then-husband Kevin Federline followed by a string of highly publicized incidents, including an infamous attack on paparazzi, a shaved head, hospitalizations and rehab stints.
By October 2008, Spears was placed under court-sanctioned conservatorship, an arrangement created when a person can no longer care for themselves or handle their affairs. The decision was initially a temporary one that gave Spears’ father, Jamie, and attorney Andrew Wallet, sole control over nearly everything in Spears’ life.
What made Spears’ case so noteworthy was the fact that these arrangements are typically made for elderly individuals who may not have the mental facilities to control their welfare or in more extreme cases of mental illness. As explained to Newsweek, Spears’ father now signs off on “every major decision she makes, from business to health to voting and marriage.” A 2016 New York Times article detailed that her most “mundane purchases, from a drink at Starbucks to a song on iTunes” are all tracked.
Spears who was 26 at the time the decision was made, is now 39 years old and nearly 13 years later, the supposedly temporary conservatorship is still intact. Fueled by the power of the Internet and a deep distrust of those controlling Spears’ estate, many of Spears’ super stans turned their fandom into activism after news of the conservatorship broke.
In 2017, two such fans Tess Barker and Barbara Gray started the podcast, Britney’s Gram, to “discuss and dissect Britney Spears’s Instagram posts”, as their website says. The pop superstar’s IG account was the only window into her otherwise highly controlled life, where handlers and managers filter everything. Outside of her Instagram, Barker and Gray would caringly monitor any other news relevant to Spears, hoping to glean what the singer herself felt about her situation.
In April 2019, a year and a half into the podcast, Barker and Gray received a voicemail from an anonymous source claiming to be a former paralegal on Spears’ team who said the star was being held against her will. After playing the call on their podcast, the #FreeBritney movement took off beyond the niche confines of fandom, and into mainstream media where celebrities and even Spears’ mom appeared to support the cause.
As the decade plus conservator drama unfurled, Spears remained hard at work with four album releases, multiple world tours, and a highly profitable residency in Las Vegas bringing to light whether Spears is as incapable and unstable as the conservatorship deems her to be — or whether she is being exploited.
Adding to the gossip cycle, Netflix announced yesterday it will also be releasing its own documentary about Spears, helmed by true crime documentarian Erin Lee Carr. While the project doesn’t have a release date, the movie was underway before Framing Britney Spears debuted.
Now that the details of her situation are becoming common knowledge, it will be interesting to see how this impacts future hearings for the 13-year conservatorship case. In an ideal world, the furor will sway legal authorities to create a situation where Spears can thrive and gain a sense of agency. Until then, her plights continue to hold a mirror to society’s treatment of women, especially those who cannot escape the spotlight.