Why Do We Keep Failing Britney Spears?

Relentlessly slut-shamed and preyed on by the media, Britney Spears has been traumatized by the public, and it's time to talk abot it.

Britney Spears famously skyrocketed to fame in the late nineties with her debut single, ...Baby One More Time, aged only 16. Recently, there has been widespread uproar about the Britney Spears conservatorship, and the movement dedicated to her emancipation, dubbed the ‘Free Britney’ movement, has gained traction on social media. There have even been demonstrations outside court hearings with protestors shouting ‘Free Britney!’ as the megastar challenges her conservatorship in court. 

Then, in January of this year, a documentary was released as part of 'The New York Times Presents' series, entitled ‘Framing Britney Spears’. The 70-minute film takes a deep dive into Spears’ rise to fame as a teen, her struggles with fame and motherhood, and ultimately, her conservatorship. The episode also follows members of the ‘Free Britney’ movement as they analyze her Instagram posts and follow her court cases. Since its release, Spears has said that she was not comfortable with the way in which she was depicted in the documentary. 

But what led to Spears’ conservatorship? In court, Spears’ father, Jamie Spears, argued that she was susceptible to undue influence. She had spent years being hounded by aggressive paparazzi. That, combined with the stress of fame, mom-shaming, and speculation about her personal life ushered the pop star down a dark path. The media did not take Spears’ side in her breakup with Justin Timberlake, and she was painted as the villain of the story. Then, she famously shaved her head and attacked a paparazzi car with a baseball bat in 2007. This year has widely been reported as the date of her ‘meltdown’. In the documentary, it is implied that after this alleged ‘meltdown’, Spears’ father felt the need to control his daughter for her safety. Because of this, her father argued that Britney was unable to manage her finances and her estate, which at this point was massive. 

What was the climate that created the support for this conservatorship? At the time Britney Spears entered into the conservatorship, many people believed her to be a threat to society because of her behavior. In 2003, after her public breakup with Justin Timberlake, Spears sat down for an interview with Dianne Sawyer. In the interview, Sawyer chose to focus on how Spears ‘hurt’ Justin Timberlake and how her actions and choices of clothing have angered moms. The governor of Maryland’s wife said that she would ‘shoot’ Britney Spears for showing off her belly button piercing. Spears was asked about this comment in an interview and started to tear up. Yet little public sympathy was shown to the star. In 2021, this type of statement about a young celebrity would cause public outcry. In fact, after The New York Times episode aired this year, news outlets began reporting the incident in a different light, choosing to focus on how Sawyer was unfair to Spears. It is evident that in the minds of many at the time that Spears’ behavior was problematic. However, after seeing a teary-eyed Britney Spears try to defend herself to no avail, we are more critical of the treatment. 

 This shift from teen pop idol to ‘cautionary tale’ is eerily familiar. Many famous teenage girls from Spears’ era had ‘meltdowns’ of a similar nature which were triggered by a relentless focus on image and fame. Notable examples include stars like Amanda Bynes and Lindsay Lohan, who were pitted against one another in the media. Ultimately, this is a story about control, exploitation, and how society values teenage girls. Britney Spears, in many ways, was viewed by the public as a commodity. She was first branded as a wholesome teen pop star who skyrocketed to fame at a young age because of her talent. She was sold to the masses as the all-American girl next door. When her image changed and she was no longer America’s sweetheart, the media became relentless. 

Britney Spears is an unfortunate example of the negative effects of commoditization of celebrities and relentless public scrutiny. As mentioned previously, Spears wrote that she was not happy with the way that she was portrayed in the documentary, even admitting that it brought her to tears. Unfortunately, many of the details of her deeply personal conservatorship court case are available to the public. However, it seems the best thing we can do for Britney Spears is to stop prying into her life and give her a well-deserved break.