we failed britney

There wasn’t a magazine in a grocery store or television channel that didn’t cover Britney Spears’s behavior during 2007 and 2008. Her “breakdown” – consisting of, but not limited to, checking in and out of a rehabilitation center for her mental health, shaving her head, and taking an umbrella to the window of a paparazzo’s vehicle – was a spectacle. Arguably, Spears’s public “meltdown” was one of the most documented and mocked celebrity events in modern history.

Shortly after the events of 2007 and 2008, Spears was placed under the conservatorship of her father Jamie Spears and an attorney, meaning they had control over her finances, mental and physical health. The attorney resigned from the conservatorship, and Jamie ultimately still has control over her personal decisions and $57.4 million in assets.

This has led to the #FreeBritney movement: fans raising awareness for Britney’s reported lack of agency over her life and pleading on and off social media for a reconsideration of Britney’s conservatorship.

But how can fans and public Tweet #FreeBritney and call for her to regain control of her life without acknowledging past discrimination of Britney’s mental state?

It never had to be this way for Britney, and we’re partly to blame.

In the time around and after 2007 and 2008, I was part of the problem. I had laughed at the image of Britney with a shaved head and an umbrella. The jokes about Britney were abound. Oh no, I’m not 2007 Britney Spears crazy.

The parody of Britney was harsh enough, but the media’s coverage of Britney was just as, if not more, damning. The headlines were sensational and, frankly, gross. The language used to describe Britney’s distress, i.e. “meltdown”, aren’t terms commonly used by medical professionals and that perpetuates stigma for those with a mental illness. 

This all culminated into public belief that Britney was “crazy” and needed to be controlled. We didn’t treat Britney like a human who was struggling with her mental health, and instead we continued to treat her as an individual with needs just as we would her music – like a form of entertainment for our own personal consumption.  We furthered the sigma. That’s why we’re to blame.

I try not to speculate, and I can’t turn back time and prove whether public perception yielded her father’s actions, but I can tell you that our attitudes towards those who indicate mental distress influence and have an impact on how they’re treated. It’s hard not to believe that the public’s constant stigmatization of Britney’s actions had no impact on her being able to have full autonomy.

Our views towards those exhibiting signs of a mental illness have improved dramatically since 2008. (Tragically, Amy Winehouse may have had to die for this to be the case…which I plan on addressing in a later post.) The #FreeBritney campaign has been protesting the courts to end Jamie’s role as permanent conservatorship over Britney and the campaign has grown in popularity, which is progress. However, is #FreeBritney an acknowledgement and retribution of how we failed Britney? Is it too late?

Still, conspiracy theories and a constant berating of the status of Britney’s mental state flourish. Unfortunately, Britney will remain under conservatorship until at least February 2021. So the battle is far from over for Britney. In order to not repeat history, it’s crucial that for us to pause before we make judgements and react to those showing symptoms of mental distress and/or mental illness. While outside intervention may be necessary, those experiencing a mental health issue are still individuals that have rights. The ACLU recently tweeted, “People with disabilities have a right to lead self-directed lives and retain their civil rights. If Britney Spears wants to regain her civil liberties and get out of her conservatorship, we are here to help her.”  We must point them in directions to treatment in order for them to regain control and freedom of mind and life, not take control away from it.

While I neither know nor am entitled to know what Britney is going through, I wish nothing but good health, privacy, calm, and independence for her. Britney may never decide to return to music, but Britney will never lose her legacy of a pop icon, paving the way for so many other female artists. This week’s playlist honors women in music.

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Thank you everyone for all your love, grace, and feedback you’ve given me for this project. If you’d like to contribute a piece, please send me an email – shealynkilroy@gmail.com.


This week’s playlist can be found here.

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