#FreeBritney Is Just the Tip of the Iceberg

Britney Spears, a white teenager with long, blond hair, smiles brightly at the camera while wearing a black dress

Britney Spears appears at the 1999 MTV Video Music Awards at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, New York. (Photo credit: Kevin Mazur/WireImage)

Hulu’s Framing Britney Spears takes a close look at its titular subject and her conservatorship, which has gained attention in recent years. The details of the conservatorship have sparked outrage online, making many people, including conservatorship law experts, wonder why she’s in one at all. The film may end up marking a critical tipping point for Spears’s individual situation, but ideally it will also usher in a total reassessment of conservatorships—called guardianships in most states—which would be a welcome turn of events for organizers who have been fighting for conservatorship reform for decades. Framing Britney Spears is fundamentally a documentary about a disability issue—and seeing it explode into the public consciousness has been heartening for the community. It begins with an exploration of the pop star’s early life and career before turning dark, as she’s chased by paparazzi and turned into the media’s punching bag.

In one scene we see Spears crying as she attempts to run from the paparazzi, yet one of the men chasing her tries to assure the viewer they would’ve stopped if she’d asked. (The interviewer notes that she did, in fact, ask.) In addition to being chased by paparazzi, Spears is also asked invasive questions by reporters and is the continual subject of tabloid coverage. The documentary exposes a world in which Spears, a sharp businesswoman and commanding pop star, is drowning in a riptide of misogyny. After Spears was hospitalized multiple times in 2008 to treat an unspecified mental health condition, her father, Jamie Spears (who, the film notes, was relatively uninvolved in her life), filed for a conservatorship: an extremely restrictive legal status reserved for people who are unable to care for themselves, make financial decisions, and understand the legal implications of entering contracts. He demanded conservatorship of her person—meaning the right to make decisions about her medical care, where she lives, who she sees, and how she leads her life—as well as conservatorship of her estate, which includes her finances.

Lest you think conservators enter these agreements out of the goodness of their hearts, Spears pays her conservators, their attorneys, and the court-appointed attorney who represents her interests. Her father also negotiated a hefty 1.5 percent take of the gross revenue of her Las Vegas residency. Mere months after a court approved the initial conservatorship, Spears began working on her critically-acclaimed 2008 album, Circus, which spawned a well-received international tour. In the official music videos for “Circus,” “Womanizer,” and “If U Seek Amy,” Spears appears calm, composed, and focused—the opposite of a woman who doesn’t understand what’s going on around her. It’s extremely unusual for someone as young as Spears to be in a conservatorship: These legal relationships are usually reserved for people at the end of their lives and are more commonly evoked for people with dementia rather than for pop stars with Las Vegas residencies.

Over the years, she’s given hints that she’s unhappy: In 2009, she asked a court to terminate the agreement; and in 2020, as the #FreeBritney movement began spreading online, Spears’s attorney requested for Bessemer Trust to replace her father as conservator of the estate, but the court denied the request. (Bessemer Trust is currently sharing conservator power with Jamie.) Spears has also said she will not perform while her father is her conservator. To those on the outside, and certainly ardent fans and members of the #FreeBritney movement, it seems patently absurd to force Spears into a conservatorship given that she can clearly handle her own affairs and health. Conservatorships are dehumanizing, turning the subject into an object—though friends told the documentarians that Spears isn’t a “puppet.” A person in a conservatorship legally cannot make decisions for themselves and has little power over the status of the conservatorship. Conservatorships are essentially value judgments, making assessments about someone’s capacity based on assumptions about how they think or move through the world; a diagnosis of dementia or cognitive decline, for example, is taken as an unquestionable indicator that someone is incapable of caring for themselves.

As people question whether Britney Spears should be subject to a conservatorship, it raises larger questions about more drastic reform of the legal framework surrounding the practice.

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In this case, Spears’s mental distress was used as grounds for a temporary restriction of her rights, which turned permanent. Most people exit the arrangement by dying: It’s very hard for someone who is labeled incompetent to contest an arrangement that the court claims is protective. In a cruel double bind, even when the subject is doing well (Spears is referred to as “high functioning”), they’re still denied autonomy and the ability to articulate that the arrangement is no longer serving them. It also creates a situation that renders the subject extremely vulnerable to abuse, with the monitoring of conservatorships and guardianships varying widely by state. We don’t even know how many people are in these legal situations because there’s no federal requirement to maintain records. As seen in Spears’s case, the conservator can also move to seal records, shrouding the proceedings in secrecy and making it very challenging to identify signs of physical, financial, emotional, or other abuses.

The star’s fans want to see her released from the court order and allowed to live her life on her own terms, and they’ve gone as far as actively encouraging fans to write to their lawmakers with proposals for reforms. For the disability community, this movement could result in major changes to a system that has, by and large, been taken at face value. As people question whether Spears should be subject to a conservatorship, it raises larger questions about more drastic reform of the legal framework surrounding the practice. One reform being championed would revise the current position that people in conservatorships can’t retain their own counsel because of their adjudicated incompetence. (Spears attempted to hire her own lawyer at the outset, but the judge refused to allow it.) Those fighting for conservatorship reform are also calling for a clarification of the legal standing of interested parties and for full funding of the Conservatorship and Guardianship Reform Act of 2006 in California.

Changes like these could have altered the trajectory of Spears’s life. It’s also important to keep in mind that there are alternatives to legal conservatorships; for example, supported decision-making can be a highly effective substitution that allows people to retain their dignity and autonomy, making their own decisions with the assistance of the people around them. Participants solicit information from their supporters but still make the final call. In a sense, this could be viewed as a formalized version of the conversations we have with friends when weighing options and would be a much better solution for someone experiencing temporary mental health distress who needs support. Though Spears is the focus of this documentary, it could have an incredibly powerful and lasting impact, something Spears herself might appreciate. (She has nodded to the fans who have been calling to #FreeBritney since at least 2009.) Viewers are clearly shocked by the terms of her conservatorship, and from there, we must begin to ask whether, for those not in the limelight, taking away their autonomy is truly in their best interest.

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by s.e. smith
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s.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California.