Renowned global pop star Britney Spears has been under conservatorship since 2008 following a public breakdown due to mental health distress. Her father James P. Spears took temporary control over her finances and decisions relating to her career after she was admitted at a facility to seek medical help.
In June 2021, after almost 13 years of being under the conservatorship of her father, Britney publicly made a 24 minute statement in court about wanting to put an end to the conservatorship as it was traumatising and abusive. This has sparked debates about agency, freedom and civil rights of people with mental health struggles, as well as the rights of differently abled people.
Conservatorship, control: Britney’s journey through struggles
In the USA, a conservatorship is a form of legal guardianship which allows a family member or an organisation to control the finances and living arrangements of the conservatee. A conservator is mandated by the court to take care of the conservatee, usually appointed during old age, dementia, or if the said person suffers physically or mentally and is unable to care for themselves. It also comes into place in cases where the individual is susceptible to frauds and other activities. Here, Britney is the conservatee.
In 2008, Britney was rushed to a hospital for psychiatric evaluation after she declined to return her children to her then husband (among other incidents). The police found an unknown substance in her system which resulted in her being admitted to UCLA Medical Centre in Los Angeles.
Following this incident, she lost custody over both her children and as a result, her father filed for temporary conservatorship because of her struggles and breakdown. He was a co-conservator and had control over finances, health, business deals such as recordings and performances, as well as her personal life.
Britney’s conservatorship invokes debates about freedom and choice as well as agency and control over one’s decisions, especially since she bounced back quite successfully in the last 13 years. Her conservatorship strikes many as odd and unusual because Britney got back to work after her incident and has featured in TV shows. She released albums, performed live and judged musical shows.
In addition, she also attended many award ceremonies and won awards, delivered speeches and went on tours, which makes her a smart “highly- functioning” conservatee. Why then, is she still under conservatorship, and why does she need her father and other co-conservators to dictate her personal affairs and career?
Why is the conservatorship detrimental for Britney?
Britney, while addressing the court in her statement remarked – “ I’m not happy. I can’t sleep. I’m so angry. It’s insane. I am depressed.”
In 2019, Britney filed a case to remove her father from the control of her finances and estates and instead hand it over to an organisation. She believes the agreement does her more harm than good, forcing her to seek permission for basic, routine choices and do what she is told and when she is told.
It is clear that the system is oppressive and only establishes a chain of command and domination by not letting Britney exercise control over her estates, finances, career and most importantly, her body. Britney stressed upon the abusive nature of her conservatorship and emphasised how she is forced to take birth control pills and is not allowed to marry her long-time boyfriend.
Abuse can be inflicted in many forms and degrees. Britney suffered emotional and mental abuse for almost 13 years and was forced to perform tasks she did not wish to and has to seek permission of her father to even plan her day to day life at 39 years of age. She has been denied this right for many years even after she successfully made a comeback after 2008.
Also read: ‘Framing Britney Spears’: The Dichotomy Of Hyper-Sexualization & Infantilisation Of The Pop Star
Britney revealed she had been actively trying to file petitions to permanently remove her father from her conservatorship. Britney’s father temporarily handed his position to Jodie Montgomery in 2019 due to health issues while in November 2020, the Los Angeles court appointed Bessemer Trust as co-conservators of Britney.
Now, her father is the co-conservator of her personal as well as financial affairs. Britney, in November 2020, began efforts to have her father removed from the conservatorship of her personal affairs. However the court denied her appeal. Furthermore, a month later the court declared her conservatorship to be extended till September, 2021 after denying her plea to have James step down in June, 2021.
The #FreeBritney movement: Support from fans and well wishers
Started by Britney’s fans in 2009 in response to the conditions of her conservatorship agreement, the movement is an attempt by her fans to ensure Britney gets the life, career and liberty to make choices about herself that she deserves. The movement surged after Britney announced a hiatus from work in 2019 and checked into a mental health facility due to distress from her father’s illness and alleged threats from her father and associates, as was later revealed.
FreeBritney.net, a website launched in 2009 to support the pop star and demand an end to her living conditions under the conservatorship has stated – “Her conservators decide whether or not she works, as she cannot enter into contracts for herself because she is legally not her own person. Britney Spears needs permission from her conservators to leave her house or spend any of her own money.”
Britney’s fans are often spotted protesting and standing up for her to end this authoritarian control over her life and demand the resolution of the conservatorship. Paris Hilton, Miley Cyrus among others, support Britney’s desire to gain back the control she rightfully deserves.
After the documentary “Framing Britney Spears” gave a glimpse of Britney’s rise to fame and her conservatorship thereafter, many celebrities have voiced their support for the singer, more so after her statement in court against her conservatorship. Within her family, Britney’s sister and mother have expressed their wishes for the conservatorship to end.
Concurrently, Britney’s father demands an interrogation into the claims of mistreatment addressed by her in the court statement. However, her father’s lawyer stated he was “sorry to see his daughter suffering and in so much pain“. With the option of filing a petition to end her conservatorship, and the already filed petition by the Bessemer Trust to remove itself from co-conservatorship, the next hearing is scheduled for July 14.
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