After a years of silence, singer Britney Spears has spoken up against her conservatorship and has moved court to end it. In 2008, a U.S. court granted conservatorship to Jamie Spears, the singer’s estranged father, following the pop star’s very public struggle with mental health and substance abuse.
Earlier this week, Spears spoke directly to a judge, where she described to the court how her father controlled not only her finances but also her daily life and the mundane details, such as the colour of her kitchen cabinets and what she posted on social media, and even her private life, including if she could meet her boyfriend, who she could befriend and whether she could have children.
The 39-year-old told the court that her father did not allow her to visit her doctor and get an IUD removed from her body so that she could have more children, and even forced her to go to a rehab facility, and work long hours against her will. Spears categorically stated that she wants the conservatorship to end a long cycle of abuse by those around her and it has left her traumatized and incapable of living a normal life.
The 13-year-long conservatorship led to the start of the #FreeBritney movement, when fans realized the singer was being forced to live a life against her wishes by her father. The movement gained traction over the last two years, as fans increasingly expressed concern over Britney’s well-being. Spears’ friends and colleagues, too, came forward with concerns over the longevity of the conservatorship and whether she was being exploited.
But how did a pop star, at the height of her career and earning millions, end up in such a bizarre and abusive situation? It is not as uncommon as we think. For eons, misunderstood mental health challenges have been used as a weapon against women, to persecute them, to demonize them, to rob them of all agency. From the 16th century witch hunts, which deemed women acting ‘abnormally’ as witches who needed to be killed, to the 1800s, when outspoken and opinionated women were institutionalized for ‘hysteria,’ to the present-day, where women are still gaslighted and labelled “crazy,” “difficult” or “psycho,” poor mental health has always been used to further oppress women.
We only need to look at other celebrities like Lindsay Lohan and Demi Lovato to understand how this toxic culture is still in play. Lohan was at the peak of her career in the early 2000s as a Disney star with movie and music deals, and a huge fan following. However, being a young teenager under such heavy media scrutiny and familial pressure, it was not long before she fell into alcohol and drug abuse. The public and the media became obsessed with her downward spiral, without questioning what she was actually going through. Even today, everything from her accent to her behaviour is mocked and scrutinized in tabloids, despite having opened up about the abusive environment she grew up in. Similarly, Lovato has been under intense media scrutiny and has consistently faced the wrath of online trolling for their mental health, their struggles with their body image and their drug abuse.
The onus of putting women with mental health challenges in an oppressive position is often found to be with men in the situation.
This misunderstanding of mental health challenges, which continues to this day, is what led courts, the public, and Spears’ father to brand the mother of two as someone who was incapable of functioning as an adult. Had the court and the public recognized that what she simply needed was less media scrutiny, help for her mental health, family care, we may not have pushed her into a life of confusion, restrictions, doubt, and mental distress.
It is also important to note that while these misunderstandings are dangerous, the onus of putting women with mental health challenges in an oppressive position, is often found to be with men in the situation. In 2019, Spears even said she was afraid of her father, but it took the revelation of her father’s physically abusive acts to actually make him step down as her primary conservator. Patriarchal structures thrive on this abuse of power, where men assume control over women’s bodies, careers, and lives, take away their agency and portray women as incapable of leading their own lives.
Across the world, mental health challenges are still considered a sign of weakness that deserve making a person live a life with lesser rights and lesser agency. While there are challenges that debilitate people and make them legally unfit to take care of themselves, this does not mean that they cannot exercise their right to live a life of freedom. Spears, in her statement, went into detail about how the male therapist she consulted put her on lithium medication, used to regulate moods and treat severe mental health challenges, without taking her thoughts or opinions into consideration. This kind of forceful, superior attitude towards those struggling with mental health makes them feel unheard, disrespected and prone to more mental health struggles.
There is only one way out of this — an overhaul of an inadequate system propped up by and in favour of white men who have for long been making decisions about women’s bodies. If we invested more in women’s healthcare, understanding and educating people about mental health, and actively de-stigmatizing it, men like Spears’ father would not be able to exploit these misconceptions for their own good. Everyone, including the judiciary, the media and the public, is responsible for how Britney and countless other women are held at a disadvantage for their mental health challenges. And while one can make the argument that nobody knew better in 2008, we know better now. We know enough to give women like Britney their lives back.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated Demi Lovato’s preferred pronouns. Re:Set regrets the error.