Since 2008, indelible bubble gum pop star Britney Spears has been confined by a conservatorship that leaves her without control of her finances, business, or personal affairs. And for the past two years, her fans have been speculating with increasing fervor that the conservatorship has left Spears, now 39, a prisoner in her own glamorous life and that she is in need of rescue.
“She has NEVER had control over her life,” said a post on the celebrity-focused Instagram Diet Prada that spread rapidly across the internet in the summer of 2020. “I don’t care if you personally like her or her music, NO ONE DESERVES THIS.” The post ended with a now familiar rallying cry: Free Britney.
#FreeBritney is the hashtag Spears’s fans use to follow rumors about her conservatorship — under which Spears answers to a mandated caregiver — and to advocate for its end. Together, they compare notes on anonymous reports about Spears’s living situation, pore through the posts her friends and relatives have “liked” recently, and work to decode Spears’s enigmatic social media presence. In April 2020, they held a protest in Los Angeles demanding Spears be released.
This February, the #The FreeBritney movement rose up once again. The New York Times released a much-discussed documentary titled The Framing of Britney Spears that covered Spears’s harrowing rise and fall, and in its wake celebrities from Sarah Jessica Parker to Bette Midler issued their own calls to #FreeBritney. Justin Timberlake issued an apology for allowing the press to slut-shame her after their breakup 20 years ago. And Britney herself had a new day in court.
Spears filed court papers in August 2020 asking that her father, Jamie Spears, who is currently in charge of both her personal life and her financial life, be removed as her conservator. In November, a judge for the Los Angeles Superior Court declined to make that happen. However, on February 11, 2021 — one week after The Framing of Britney Spears debuted — the court agreed to one of Spears’s requests: It placed the financial company Bessemer Trust in an equal partnership with Spears’s father.
To understand the #FreeBritney movement and exactly what is at stake in the equal partnership decision, we’re going to have to delve into the nuances of California conservatorship law, Spears’s long and troubled career trajectory, and the deep protectiveness of her fans. And in the end, we’ll come back to the same question that’s been driving our fascination with Britney Spears since the “… Baby One More Time” video first blazed across TRL back in 1998: Is Britney Spears the architect of her own life, image, and career? Or is she a puppet for unscrupulous people who want to use her doe-eyed prettiness to build fortunes for themselves?
Just who is in control of this woman, anyway?
“A collapse on a scale that we’d really never seen”
When Britney Spears entered conservatorship in 2008, it was the climax to a years-long run of steadily more outrageous public behavior. Gone was the aspirational pop princess of her heyday who famously did 1,000 crunches a day and writhed with a snake onstage at the VMAs. In the mid-2000s, Britney Spears was going through a breakdown, one that the rising gossip blogs of the day served up to the public for avid consumption.
There was Spears’s quickie Vegas wedding in 2004, which lasted only 55 hours total. Then there was the marriage to backup dancer Kevin Federline, also in 2004, which lasted two and a half years and was greeted by what E! tactfully described as “mystification” from Spears’s public.
The end of Spears’s marriage to Federline in 2007 at first appeared to signal a return to form, says media studies professor Moya Luckett. “She seemed to be on the verge of getting back from what people read as a misstep with the Kevin Federline marriage,” Luckett told me. “There was an appearance on David Letterman where people said, ‘Oh, she’s dressing better; she’s got herself back. We’ll now see Britney reappear as herself after she’s got rid of the dead weight of Kevin.”
Instead, Spears’s every action became the topic of breathless tabloid coverage. The paparazzi followed her around for up-skirt shots. She started yelling at them in a British accent. She shaved her own head, allegedly telling a nearby tattoo artist that she was sick of people touching her hair, while paparazzi photographed every angle through the windows of the hair salon. She attacked a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella. She went in and out of rehab. She sleep walked through her performance at the 2007 VMAs so badly that Perez Hilton lectured her for being “disrespectful” to her fans.
Spears gossip coverage became even more pantingly furious as her appearance changed. She went brunette, and then lost her hair entirely and turned to wigs. And after injuring her knee, giving birth to two children, and taking a multi-year break from live performances, she’d gained weight, which the press treated as a salacious betrayal: ABC News’s postmortem of those 2007 VMAs quoted a celebrity publicist describing Spears as “heavy” before bracingly noting that an anonymous internet commenter had said of the starlet, “I’d hit it.”