Since 2008, indelible bubble gum pop star Britney Spears has been confined by a conservatorship that leaves her without control of her finances, business, or personal affairs. And for the past year or so, her fans have been speculating with increasing fervor that the conservatorship has left Spears, now 38, a prisoner in her own glamorous life and that she is in need of rescue.
“She has NEVER had control over her life,” said a post on the celebrity-focused Instagram Diet Prada that spread rapidly across the internet early in July. “I don’t care if you personally like her or her music, NO ONE DESERVES THIS.” The post ended with a now familiar rallying cry: Free Britney.
#FreeBritney is the hashtag Spears’s fans use to follow rumors about her conservatorship — under which Spears answers to a mandated caregiver — and to advocate for its end. Together, they compare notes on anonymous reports about Spears’s living situation, pore through the posts her friends and relatives have “liked” recently, and work to decode Spears’s enigmatic social media presence. In April 2020, they held a protest in Los Angeles demanding Spears be released.
And this summer, Spears added her own voice to the fray. On August 18, she filed court papers calling for her father to step down.
Spears’s lawyer Samuel D. Ingham III did not call for the conservatorship to end, although he maintains that Spears retains the right to do so. But the filing did say Spears “strongly prefers” that her father, Jamie Spears, who temporarily stepped down as her conservator last September, not return to his role. According to Ingham’s filing, Spears wanted her temporary conservator, licensed professional conservator Jodi Montgomery, to stay on permanently instead. The filing also stated that it’s time for a “new phase” of the conservatorship to begin.
But on November 10, a judge for the Los Angeles Superior Court declined to #FreeBritney — at least for the time being.
Judge Brenda Penny ruled against immediately removing Britney Spears’s father from the conservatorship of her estate as Spears requested earlier this summer, although she has not ruled out future petitions for his removal or suspension. The decision is just the latest in a saga that’s been playing out in public view for the past 12 years.
After Penny ruled not to remove Jamie Spears from the conservatorship, Ingham declared that Spears is “afraid of her father.” He added, “She will not perform again if her father is in charge of her career.”
To understand the #FreeBritney movement and exactly what is at stake in Penny’s decision, we’re going to have to delve into the nuances of California conservatorship law, Spears’s long and troubled career trajectory, and the deep protectiveness of her fans. And in the end, we’ll come back to the same question that’s been driving our fascination with Britney Spears since the “… Baby One More Time” video first blazed across TRL back in 1998: Is Britney Spears the architect of her own life, image, and career? Or is she a puppet for unscrupulous people who want to use her doe-eyed prettiness to build fortunes for themselves?
Just who is in control of this woman, anyway?
When Britney Spears entered conservatorship in 2008, it was the climax to a years-long run of steadily more outrageous public behavior. Gone was the aspirational pop princess of her heyday who famously did 1,000 crunches a day and writhed with a snake onstage at the VMAs. In the mid-2000s, Britney Spears was going through a breakdown, one that the rising gossip blogs of the day served up to the public for avid consumption.
There was Spears’s quickie Vegas wedding in 2004, which lasted only 55 hours total. Then there was the marriage to backup dancer Kevin Federline, also in 2004, which lasted two and a half years and was greeted by what E! tactfully described as “mystification” from Spears’s public.
The end of Spears’s marriage to Federline in 2007 at first appeared to signal a return to form, says media studies professor Moya Luckett. “She seemed to be on the verge of getting back from what people read as a misstep with the Kevin Federline marriage,” Luckett told me. “There was an appearance on David Letterman where people said, ‘Oh, she’s dressing better; she’s got herself back. We’ll now see Britney reappear as herself after she’s got rid of the dead weight of Kevin.”
Instead, Spears’s every action became the topic of breathless tabloid coverage. The paparazzi followed her around for up-skirt shots. She started yelling at them in a British accent. She shaved her own head, allegedly telling a nearby tattoo artist that she was sick of people touching her hair, while paparazzi photographed every angle through the windows of the hair salon. She attacked a paparazzo’s car with an umbrella. She went in and out of rehab. She sleepwalked through her performance at the 2007 VMAs so badly that Perez Hilton lectured her for being “disrespectful” to her fans.
Spears gossip coverage became even more pantingly furious as her appearance changed. She went brunette, and then lost her hair entirely and turned to wigs. And after injuring her knee, giving birth to two children, and taking a multi-year break from live performances, she’d gained weight, which the press treated as a salacious betrayal: ABC News’s postmortem of those 2007 VMAs quoted a celebrity publicist describing Spears as “heavy” before bracingly noting that an anonymous internet commenter had said of the starlet, “I’d hit it.”
“It was a collapse on a scale that we’d really never seen,” Luckett says. “And it was clearly abetted by the fact that gossip blogs had established themselves as very popular. With cameraphones, there was more access to this kind of information than we’d ever had before — both in terms of receiving the information and in terms of how many people could get on their phones and sell their pictures to the likes of TMZ.”
In January of 2008, Spears was twice placed under a psychiatric hold. A month later, her father petitioned the courts for emergency “temporary conservatorship” over Spears. The order was granted. And 12 years later, Britney Spears is still under conservatorship.
“If you’re an adult, there is a legal presumption that you are competent to make decisions about a range of things, good, bad, or indifferent,” says Josephine Gittler, a law professor and the author of “Reforming the Guardianship and Conservatorship System: An Introduction.” “Your decisions can be good or bad, but you are entitled as an adult to make decisions about your finances and your property and your medical care. But all states have laws that recognize that some people have diminished decision-making capacity.”
Conservatorship is designed to be the solution to the problem of a legal adult who has a brain injury or mental health condition that leaves them unable to care for their lives properly. Instead, the courts assign someone else to do so for them. (Some states distinguish between conservatorship as covering financial matters and guardianship as covering personal matters, but California, where Spears lives, calls both conservatorships. Spears’s conservatorship covers both her finances and her day-to-day life.)
Proving that an adult is no longer competent to run their own life is a long and drawn-out process. Someone has to file a petition with the court, often Adult Protective Services or its equivalent. (In Spears’s case, it was her father.) The courts will send an investigator to observe the subject’s life and see if there’s really enough evidence to warrant a conservatorship. And the judge assigned to the case will hear testimony from experts to see if the subject’s behavior meets the criteria for that state’s statutes. In California, in cases where the stated reason for the petition is mental health concerns, as it was for Spears, a psychiatrist would have to testify that the subject has a DSM-recognized diagnosis.
Once the conservatorship is in place, the conservator assumes final control over the subject’s decisions, which is where Spears is now.
“Anything she wants to do, she has to ask permission, as if she were a child,” says Elaine Renoire, president of the National Association to Stop Guardianship Abuse. “She doesn’t have the legal right to engage in a contract. That has to be done through a conservator.”
The exact details of Spears’s conservatorship are private. But the New York Times reported in 2016 that her financial conservators — at the time, her father Jamie Spears and lawyer Andrew M. Wallet — kept track of “her most mundane purchases, from a drink at Starbucks to a song on iTunes.” Meanwhile, her personal conservator (first her father and now her “care manager” Jodi Montgomery) oversees Spears’s mental health treatment and approves her visitors.
Putting someone under conservatorship means giving someone else enormous power over them. So the potential for abuse is high. “The check on that can and should be court monitoring of the conservatorship,” says Gittler. “Routine monitoring occurs through reports that the conservator has to make to the court, which the court has a very high responsibility of reviewing in detail. Not all courts always do what they should do, and that’s been a concern that’s led to reform of guardianship.”
For their work, conservators are paid a healthy salary. According to that 2016 New York Times report, Jamie Spears made an annual salary of $130,000 and took home 1.5 percent of the gross revenues from Spears’s Las Vegas residency.
Under Jamie’s supervision, the Britney Spears financial empire flourished. After releasing four studio albums, doing a stint as a judge on the The X Factor, and holding down two multi-year Vegas residencies since her father took over running her life in 2008, plus establishing multiple lucrative merchandise deals, Spears is now worth $59 million.
And none of the money she has earned, or the life that it funds, is under her control.
Spears’s fans have been suspicious of her conservatorship for as long as it has existed. Many of them point accusingly at all the work Spears has done over the past 12 years: If she is so unstable that she can’t be in control of her own life, they say, why was she guest-starring on How I Met Your Mother just two months after the emergency conservatorship was established? Doesn’t that seem to suggest the conservatorship exists less to safeguard Spears’s well-being than to maximize her income and, by extension, the income of those in control of her life?
Gittler says it’s not uncommon for people under conservatorship to be active and productive in some parts of their lives but still not be considered legally competent to make their own decisions. “A person with Down syndrome, which may be minimal or profound, may be able to do all the activities of daily living, like holding a job, having a bank account, or purchasing food and clothing for themselves,” she says. “But they might not have the capacity to do their taxes.”
Nevertheless, the secrecy surrounding the Spears conservatorship has added to the growing sense that there might be something sinister going on here. “The public has the right to know that the state is taking care of the citizens that need help,” says Renoire. “Everything’s so quiet with this case that it’s very disconcerting.”
Spears’s diagnosis and treatment plan remain private, as do the details of what she is and is not allowed to do. Few would dispute that Spears’s medical status is her own business and not information the public has any right to, but fans are troubled by how heavily mediated her access to the public appears to be.
Any reporters Spears talks to have to be vetted by her conservators first, with the result that Spears has only discussed her conservatorship in public once, in her 2008 documentary Britney: For the Record. (She said it was worse than being in jail, because at least when you’re in jail, you know when you’ll get out.) She has a regularly updated Instagram, but after a prominent post went up with an emoticon rather than Spears’s preferred emojis and another one recycled a clip from 2018, fans have begun to doubt whether Spears is always in control of what is posted on it. It’s rumored that Spears’s access to the internet is heavily curtailed and that she is only allowed a flip phone.
Spears has said publicly that she handles her Instagram herself. “For those of you who don’t think I post my own videos, I did this video yesterday,” she informed her followers in 2019, in a now-deleted post showing her modeling different dresses to Rihanna’s “Man Down.” “So, you’re wrong!” she concluded.
Fans remained unconvinced. “It sounds and looks so scripted!” says the post’s top reply.
But the Free Britney movement really began to take off in April 2019. That’s when comedians Tess Barker and Barbara Gray, hosts of the Spears-centric podcast Britney’s Gram, received a voicemail from someone who said he used to be a paralegal at the law firm handling Spears’s conservatorship.
Earlier in the month, a post on Spears’s Instagram announced the singer had checked herself into a mental health facility for “a little ‘me time.’ :)” (Note, Spears’s fans insisted, the emoticon.) Months before that news broke, Spears had canceled her planned Vegas residency, ostensibly to spend time with her gravely ill father.
“What is going on is disturbing, to say the least,” the former paralegal said in the voicemail on Britney’s Gram. He alleged that Spears had been committed to a mental health facility against her will and that there was no timeline for her release. The trigger, he claimed, was that Spears had been seen driving with her boyfriend to pick up some fast food, even though her conservatorship forbids driving. Moreover, he said that she had begun to refuse to take her medication. Jamie Spears had decided to take drastic action and blame his own illness for it.
Barker and Gray have said they spoke to the paralegal separately and found him credible. No other outlet has ever been able to verify his claims.
Meanwhile, Spears’s camp maintained that the conservatorship remains necessary to keep Spears’s life on track. “The conservatorship is not a jail,” Spears’s manager Larry Rudolph told the Washington Post in 2019. “It helps Britney make business decisions and manage her life in ways she can’t do on her own right now.” Those successful Vegas residencies, for instance, were courtesy of the conservatorship: Part of Spears’s contract demanded she remain under conservatorship for as long as she was in residency to ensure that she wasn’t a flight risk. Without the security of the conservatorship in place, the thinking went, Spears would go off the rails again, and she would surely lose the business advantages and the stable and happy life she had worked so hard to build.
Rudolph added that Jamie Spears wanted the conservatorship to end as much as anyone else. “It’s his daughter,” Rudolph said. “He wants to see her happy [in] a functional life without any intervention like this.”
In April 2019, Lynne Spears, Britney’s mother, entered the spotlight. Lynne has no legal involvement with the conservatorship, but she began “liking” posts under the #FreeBritney hashtag.
In September 2019, Jamie Spears stepped down as conservator after a physical altercation with one of Spears’s sons. Montgomery, Spears’s longtime caregiver, took his place on a temporary basis. In August 2020, Spears asked that Montgomery become her permanent conservator. Jamie Spears has heretofore remained in control of Spears’s financial affairs, but Spears also requested in August 2020 that he step down and be replaced by a “qualified corporate fiduciary.”
The Free Britney movement watched and waited.
Media scholar Isabel Molina-Guzmán suggests that the Free Britney movement caught particular fire for coming so quickly on the heels of the Me Too movement. “We’re really paying attention to women’s agency and power right now, and here’s this super-successful celebrity who can’t make decisions for herself and her kids,” Molina-Guzmán says.
And Spears’s position, she adds, seems particularly wrong for the generations of fans who grew up idolizing her. “That’s fan culture: You aspire to be your idol, or to feel like your idol understands you, right?” Molina-Guzmán says.
In her heyday, Britney Spears was just about the most aspirational figure in popular culture. She was the girl everyone was supposed to want to be. And many of Britney’s fans in particular latched onto her when she was leaving the strictures of the Mickey Mouse Club, embracing an image more provocative than Disney would ever have allowed in a way that suggested she was trying to take ownership over her body. For her to be under conservatorship — to have lost legal control over her life and her body — doesn’t fit the narrative.
“It’s not supposed to end with your dad being in control of your life!” Molina-Guzmán says. “So fans ended up looking for signs to try to justify their belief in a different ending.”
As the date for Spears’s July conservatorship hearing approached, fans began combing her social media pages for cues. Wear yellow if you need help, they instructed; wear black if you’re sad. There are so many of these messages in the comments of every Britney Spears post that Spears could hardly avoid sending a coded message through her clothing if she tried, but nevertheless, when Spears showed up on her pages dressed in yellow and black, fans responded with shock and horror.
Luckett adds that fans’ distress is particularly exacerbated by their belief that Britney isn’t running her own social media. “Part of the Britney narrative and part of the persona that seems to be authentic — and you always have to be careful about this,” Luckett says, “is that she seems to want to speak directly to her public because she thinks they’ll understand what she’s going through.”
Luckett points to Spears’s infamous 2006 interview with Matt Lauer, for which Spears did her own makeup and during which she broke down in tears, as well as her documentary and her short-lived reality TV show with Kevin Federline. The confessional nature of those accounts is a far cry from the suspicious “We all need to take time for a little ‘me time.’ :)” of 2019. If Spears’s fans think someone is keeping them from direct access to Britney, then they can understand themselves as being robbed of the part of Britney’s persona that made her so compelling to begin with. They start to feel outraged and protective.
Ultimately, the Free Britney movement revolves around one question: Is Britney Spears in control of her own life? And that’s the question we’ve been asking about her for her entire career.
Early criticism of Spears sneered that she was a manufactured pop star, the product of a Swedish songwriting factory that had no real hand in either her music or her persona. “Seventeen-year-old actress Britney Spears couldn’t land more than a role in an off-Broadway update of The Bad Seed until she scored a contract with the Backstreet Boys’ record company,” begins a capsule review of Spears’s debut album, …Baby One More Time, in Rolling Stone in 1998. “She was flown to Sweden’s Cheiron Studios, the Lolita-pop dollhouse where ‘N Sync, Robyn, Five, Ace of Base and the Backstreeters all record their Eurofied impersonations of teen-targeted American R&B.”
And at Cheiron, Rolling Stone concluded, super-producer Max Martin and his team had collaborated to transform a perky Disney drama kid “into a growling jailbait dynamo.” Spears, in other words, was a passive blank slate, an actress with basic singing and dancing abilities who got lucky. The star audiences fell in love with was the product of clever producers and marketing.
When Spears came up in the late ’90s, music criticism was still overwhelmingly dominated by rockism, a system of aesthetic evaluation that prizes the so-called authenticity and grittiness of rock above all else. Spears’s slick, breezy pop was an affront to rockist sensibilities, and claiming that Spears was fake was an easy way to dismiss her.
Spears’s life, meanwhile, appeared to be entirely under her own control. Wasn’t she going out and partying every night with all of Hollywood at her feet? Wasn’t she reaping the rewards of all her producers’ hard work? And when she spiraled downward in 2007, it just proved that she should never have had that much freedom and that much control in the first place.
But over the past decade, the rise of poptimism, which celebrates the artifice and exaggeration of pop, has brought in a counter narrative. Spears, today’s critics note, was the one who came up with the iconic Catholic schoolgirl and cheerleader motif in the “…Baby One More Time” video. She made the “Oops I Did It Again” video dance-centric rather than space-centric as her producers suggested. It was she who ad-libbed all those “oh bay-bay bay-bays,” and she who used her dancer’s intuition to help select the beats for each track.
“The public perception is that this is all created, that the record company created this — the artist, the music, the image,” said Rolling Stone editor Ron Levy in 2018. “I have to tell you, if the record company could have created more than one Britney Spears, they would have done it, and they tried!”
“Britney was the chief architect of Britney,” wrote gossip expert Elaine Lui in May 2020. “Anyone who tells you different reveals themselves to be a pop culture amateur.”
This celebration of Spears as her own auteur was part of the great poptimist revolution that reframed the way media gatekeepers wrote about popular culture over the past 20 years. It’s part of a movement to stop reflexively dismissing culture created for and by teenage girls and to instead celebrate that culture as its own form of aesthetic expression.
But now that our public image of Spears is able to afford her some credit for her artistic work, her personal life becomes a bigger question. Even if the rumors are wrong, and Spears does have control over her own social media accounts — well, what about the way she fills them with blank-eyed selfies and videos of her practicing the same pose over and over again or runway walking in a variety of different dresses? What is going on there?
“Because the videos are a kind of art brut expressionism, empty of context, they fill viewers with questions,” wrote Caity Weaver for the New York Times in 2019. “What does she want us to feel when we watch? Is she to be viewed as an innocent girl playing dress-up? An empowered stylish woman stomping across marble floors she bought herself? A sexy human Barbie with an infinite closet? Regardless of intention, the clips are illegible, generating primarily a voyeur’s guilty, mystified confusion.”
These repetitive, vacant videos feel somehow closely related to the ubiquitous paparazzi photos of 2007: Britney grinning into the mirror as she shaves her own head, Britney with the umbrella, Britney strapped down to a gurney in an ambulance.
In 2007, we were watching someone spiral away from the constraint of her managers and image-handlers and ultimately even out of her own control. And now, here in 2020, we seem to be watching someone at the limits of a very narrow, very prescribed world. It’s as though all Spears can do, the only thing she has, is the ability to pace through the halls of her mansion and hit a mark, over and over and over again. And then, maybe, have someone else post the video online with a smartphone she’s not allowed to use herself.
The Free Britney movement takes this sense of constraint and extends it.
“Her career has been on autopilot most of her life,” says that recently viral Diet Prada post. “If you look back at her music for years, she’s been telling everyone she’s too controlled and treated as a product.” It points to the many S&M-inflected photo shoots Spears has participated in, in which she’s shown in cages and chains, and to videos of Spears singing as a child, in which her voice is notably deeper and fuller than it sounds in the sexy baby coo she made famous. It argues that Spears has been forced to sing outside of her natural register, to act and dance unnaturally in ways that her team will be better able to market.
The case Diet Prada is making for Britney is, in a way, a close cousin to the case the rockists made against her in the late ’90s. It argues that she is a manufactured product unable to control how the public sees her, performing as her managers have forced her to for her whole life.
For the rockists, that apparent constraint made Spears disposable and unserious. For the current #FreeBritney activists, it makes her a victim who must be rescued. But one way or another, the question of whether that constraint really exists is the question Spears has been facing for her entire public life.
Britney Spears has remained tight-lipped in public on how she feels about her conservatorship. And the private reactions of hers that have filtered out to the public are all laced with ambiguity.
In May 2019, a judge ordered a medical expert to examine Spears and her life to see if she is competent to control her own affairs. Court papers show no official petition from Spears for such an examination, but TMZ reported that she made a verbal request for one, and a conservatorship lawyer told USA Today that if she had made such a request, appointing an expert to examine her case would have been the immediate response.
But at the next conservatorship hearing in September 2019, Spears no-showed. The lawyer appointed to advocate for her informed the judge that her absence meant she “did not object” to the conservatorship continuing. She also no-showed a July 22 hearing, ostensibly because of technical difficulties. Records of the case have now been sealed from public view.
The newly leaked August 2020 court papers in which Spears asks that her father no longer act as her conservator seem to reflect a continued ambivalence on Spears’s part. Speaking on Spears’s behalf, Ingham gestures toward the idea that Spears might eventually ask for the conservatorship to end, but as of now, she has not.
Instead, Ingham describes the conservatorship as having three phases. The first was a “triage” that rescued Spears from the events of 2007 and 2008. The second was her comeback and her Vegas residencies. And the third phase, Ingham writes, must begin now. What that phase might look like is currently unclear, but it seems as though Spears is asking for freedom from her father. Ingham also specifically notes that Spears does not wish to perform “at this time.”
In April 2019, Spears vaguely addressed the rumors floating around her in an Instagram post. “You may not know this about me, but I am strong, and stand up for what I want!” she wrote. What she needed most right then from her fans, she concluded, was something she’s been afforded precious little of throughout her multi-decade career: some space to herself.
“Your love and dedication is amazing, but what I need right now is a little bit of privacy to deal with all the hard things that life is throwing my way,” she concluded. “If you could do that, I would be forever grateful.”
The post was capped off by a string of heart emojis.
Update: This article was originally published in July 2020. It has been updated to include Spears’s August 2020 request that her father be removed as her conservator, and Brenda Penny’s November 2020 ruling against that request.
Correction: An earlier version of this article said that Britney Spears had twins. Spears’s two sons were born a year apart.
An earlier version of this article included a quote implying that Down syndrome is a mental illness. We’ve updated the reference in keeping with the CDC’s guidelines.