Have you encountered the #FreeBritney movement these past couple of months? And whether or not you’ve paid attention to it, here’s a reminder that you probably should. Before we lay down the reasons why, here’s a brief recap of what’s going on ICYDK.
Britney Spears was catapulted to stardom in the early 2000s through Baby One More Time, which was released when she was 16 years old. She became a pop and fashion icon and, as a result of the music industry enforcing the ‘sex sells’ mentality, a sudden sex symbol despite being a minor at the time. Her booming career reportedly led her to spiral into massive anxiety attacks that were dismissed as natural bouts of stress.
Then in 2006, at 25 years old, Britney had a very public ‘breakdown’ following her divorce from American rapper Kevin Federline. She shaved her head, went out in public bald, attacked a paparazzo with an umbrella, and looked less like her ‘glam’ and ‘sexy’ pop star image. The ‘Britney breakdown’ became the butt of jokes in the entertainment industry for a long time. This is where the issue comes in.
What is a conservatorship?
In 2007, Britney’s father became her conservator following her ‘breakdown’. A conservatorship refers to the legal appointment of someone (conservator) to be in charge of someone else’s (conservatee) financial affairs. This is if the conservatee is a minor or deemed physically or mentally incapable of personally managing their assets.
Aside from her financial assets, business contracts are also under his father’s consideration and approval, giving him control over her career. What’s meant to be a temporary set-up that will last for just a year (from 2007 to 2008) extended until 2019.
But why did it take so long?
There may seem like a sudden buzz about the #FreeBritney movement, but Britney fans have actually been pushing for the cause since 2009. It was because after her public meltdown, she was able to rise back up and go on tours and perform and be a full-time mum to her kids.
In 2019, Britney’s father relinquished control over some of Britney’s finances but still remained in-charge of her estate. Jodi Montgomery, Britney’s former care manager, took over as co-conservator.
Still, it wasn’t until recently that Britney herself was reported to have filed a case against her father to finally fully transfer her conservatorship to Jodi and to disclose some of the details of her conservatorship to the public.
The legal documents suggest that apart from Britney wanting to fully transfer conservatorship rights to Jodi instead of her father, her conservatorship will also be more voluntary. This means, Jodi will have more of an adviser role to Britney and Britney will gradually have more control over her assets over time.
Britney’s not the only one
Now, you might be thinking: estates, million-dollar careers, celebrity legal battles, these have nothing to do with me. But the thing is, they do.
First, there’s the issue of exploitation against women in the entertainment industry — as well as other industries for that matter — that Britney’s career mirrors. Stars like Emma Watson, Millie Bobby Brown, and many others were openly sexualised in the media in their early years as child stars. Sure, people can say they consented to that to boost their careers. But we can’t use this excuse to defend why minors (like Emma, Millie, and Britney were at the time) were referred to as “sexy” or “sultry”.
Next, the way the media never forgets women celebrities’ ‘unglamorous’ moments and often make them punchlines to jokes. Miley Cyrus is still being criticised about her Blurred Lines performance in the 2013 VMAs; Taylor Swift’s ‘long list of boyfriends’ being a crowd-pleasing joke in variety shows, movies, and TV dramas is still a thing; Janet Jackson and the nip-slip incident at the Super Bowl XXXVIII having its own Wikipedia page — the list is endless.
Some of them have spoken out about it.
Miley said that people often forget that Robin Thicke (the main artist of the song) was also actively grinding on-stage with her at the time and had very suggestive ideas for the number prior to production. She openly expressed her dismay at how she was the only one who took the hit at the time, which reflects how women often get the short end of the stick when it comes to ‘scandals’ or ‘sexually charged’ incidents.
Meanwhile, Taylor also expressed her disappointment in how she’s often portrayed in the media in her Miss Americana documentary on Netflix. She said that as an adult, she has realised that her dating record is just like any other celebrity’s; she has fallen in and out of love as one does, and wrote songs about her experiences much like any other artist — especially male counterparts — in the industry. And while she clapped back at those criticisms with songs like Blank Space, I Know Places, and many more, she has now taken an active role in voicing out how unempowering and rejecting this kind of treatment is.
Taylor also said that in the duration of her career, it was like women entertainers are only expected to be in two boxes: the prim and proper ones and the sexy, rebellious ones. She fit the ‘good girl’ box and therefore was expected to do only ‘good girl’ things. She was afraid to speak about politics because she was slammed for having strong opinions. And yet when she didn’t speak up, she was also criticised for not using her influence properly.
The exploitation of conservatorships
Going back to Britney, if it’s so bad, then why is she transferring the rights of her conservatorship from one person to another? Honestly, it’s hard to tell and it feels rude to assume. However, it is worth highlighting why it’s important that conservatorships are further scrutinised.
One of the most glaring issues is the exploitation of this legality to take control of the assets of people with disabilities. There are many principles that direct this relationship. Some of which state how conservatorships are supposed to be time-limited. The conservatee’s mental ability to decide and still have control over their assets — and their overall lifestyle — should also be considered.
Britney’s testimony in court states that she felt intimidated and abused by her father under the legality of her conservatorship. She was also forced to change the medication she’s been in for five years to take a stronger drug, lithium, which made her feel “drunk” most of the time. Apart from this, her father also had control over her relationships, even to the extent of limiting her reproductive rights. So how was this unchecked for a long time? That’s why this issue matters so much. (Ed note: It has just been reported that the case's judge denied removing Britney's father from her conservatorship again. As of 15 July 2021, Britney has hired her own lawyer to continually pursue the conservatorship abuse case against her father after her previous court-appointed lawyer resigned.)
Why should we care?
In these instances, we realise that even these women who have many advantages — wealth, fame, and are white — are also subject to certain negativities. It’s a gender inequality matter that concerns the rest of us.
But it’s not just that. Aside from gender, this also concerns how people with disabilities are being treated. In Asia, conservatorships are more commonly referred to as guardianship. Usually, minors, elders, and people with disabilities are the ones assigned with legal guardians (a first-degree relative or next of kin) to care for them and their assets if they are deemed incapable. And just like Britney’s case, being exploited by these so-called guardians is also a recurring circumstance.
For example, in 2013 to 2015 alone, 7,610 cases were filed in China for child molestation against their legal guardians. Elderly abuse is also pretty rampant in Asia, especially in cases of dementia. Assigned guardians often mistreat elders, as well as take advantage of their financial assets, under the guise of this legal relationship. And that’s even the full story.
That’s when empowering each other comes in. It took long enough for the #FreeBritney movement to be amplified to this extent despite its existence since 2009 because back then, Britney was still seen as that ‘famous pop star who shaved her head and has gone crazy.’ Back then, if anyone claimed that they were exploited by a major entertainment industry producer, no #MeToo movement would’ve been born and the victim would simply end up careerless.
It’s hopeful to say that times are changing for the better since we are seeing these issues finally being paid attention to. But we have to keep on pushing for changed mindsets and speak up when necessary.
How can we help?
First, when it comes to ‘scandals’ or ‘mistakes’ done by women, popular or not, we must extend the same courtesy or discernment men are receiving. The same goes with achievements made by and for women as well. Next, we must remain inspired that women’s grace and excellence never expire even when society says we have to be this or that at a certain age.
We must also make sure that we empower not just ourselves and our closest peers, but also our communities by supporting causes that push for bigger change.
Support bills and campaigns that aim to fight discrimination and maltreatment of women, children, elderly, and people with disabilities. Celebrating businesses that are established by or in support of abuse victims. And be vocal about injustices done in person or on social media.
We may think that our individual efforts are so minute that they would have no merit, but if all of us do these together, then we can collectively address these issues slowly but surely.
In the end, the goal is not just to #FreeBritney. The goal is to free women — as well as anyone suffering from disabilities and those deemed incapable to decide for their own welfare due to circumstances they don’t have control over — from an exploitative society.