Britney Spears has been a fascinating presence from the beginning. Her rise to stardom in a male-dominated era of music captivated audiences, and her fan base has always been fiercely loyal to and appreciative of her. But since the early aughts, there’s been another, less glamorous side of Britney Spears that’s followed her like a shadow, and the resulting ramifications are ongoing to this day.
The #FreeBritney movement began in earnest in April 2019, but while it’s slowed, it hasn’t gone away.
A podcast episode from popular social platform Britney’s Gram caused a larger audience to become familiar with the conservatorship situation Spears is held under; to recap, during 2007 and 2008, Spears was going through custody battles, psychiatric holds and public altercations with the paparazzi, circumstances that led her to be placed under a conservatorship (“unique legal arrangements usually designed for elderly people who are unable to take care of themselves or their money,” as Liz Day, senior editor for the New York Times, explains) controlled by her father, Jamie Spears. He is conservator of both Britney’s person and estate, meaning he makes decisions for her well-being and for the well-being of her money.
This week, though, #FreeBritney is back in the news. A series called “The New York Times Presents” is streaming on Hulu, in which the publication dives into news stories that have gripped the country. Other episodes have covered the Australian bushfires and how a teenager hacked Twitter, but the one that has celebs and social media talking appeared on the streamer over the weekend, called “Framing Britney Spears.”
The hour-long episodes tracks the pop star’s career, from “The Mickey Mouse Club” all the way to her current Instagram antics, through the lens of her conservatorship, using interviews with people close to Britney (though not her father, God forbid), media coverage from the early 2000s and explanations by #FreeBritney activists to frame her fame in an entirely new way -- and one that those who watched are angry about.
Not because the Times did a bad job with their coverage, no -- because Britney fans can see now what Britney fans didn’t see then, i.e. the unfair treatment and depiction of her that Britney underwent for years and continues to pay for today.
The Times shed light on the legal battle that has been ongoing for the last couple of years in which Britney has continuously requested not for the conservatorship to end, but simply to remove her father as conservator. Some reports even say that she has refused to work until that’s the case.
Parts of the episode paint Jamie in a very money-hungry light, touching on his early bankruptcy filing and comments he’d make about how rich Britney was going to be one day. Cut to today, and Jamie Spears is still in charge of Britney’s finances and profiting off of his daughter’s well-deserved net worth -- Day explains that during her residency in Vegas, a court granted that Jamie could pocket 1.5 percent of all performance and merchandise revenues.
Despite Britney reemerging in a type of “comeback” in the decade following the implementation of the conservatorship (her judging gig on “The X Factor,” guest-starring on network television, going on tour and holding a Las Vegas residency, for example), it’s her lowest point that is still dictating the rest of her life.
Though those who were previously unfamiliar with the conservatorship and #FreeBritney movement are (rightfully) appalled, it’s the rest of the episode that has fans -- and even celebs -- rallying behind Spears and calling for the removal of the conservatorship. Viewers have taken to social media, taking note of the outside influences Britney went through -- at such a young age! -- that ultimately led to the situation she now finds herself in.
Take her stage presence, for example. There was intense scrutiny for how she dressed and displayed her sexuality while performing, so when she and Justin Timberlake broke up and the media latched on to rumors that she had cheated on him, it was allowed to become the narrative. Of course she did something wrong! She was a harlot!
The episode also points out that Britney’s mother, Lynne, thought her daughter was suffering from postpartum depression; mixed with a messy custody battle with her soon-to-be ex-husband and paparazzi harassment, even the strongest of people would break. But when Britney did, indeed, break, culminating in the infamous 2007 umbrella-to-the-window incident, there was an absence of sympathy, understanding and explanation. Media coverage chose to ignore all the battles Britney was facing; instead, it was simply, “Britney snapped.”
Everyone has pretty much had the same reaction: They did Britney dirty.
This all lends itself to a larger conversation on the manipulation of women’s public images, which is, ideally, a conversation that 2021 is ready for more than 2007 was. For now, we hope Britney feels all the love the internet is sending her.