Leave Britney Alone
Britney’s ‘Toxic’ legal arrangement
Rehab trips. Shaven head. Umbrella to a car windshield. Celebrity meltdowns were once the lifeline of the entertainment industry. And nobody put on a show quite like 2008 Britney.
A lot has changed in the 12 years since the pop sensation captivated us with her highly documented drug-fueled spiral. Today, Britney Spears is 38, a loving mother to her sons and widely celebrated for her quirky Instagram and TikTok posts. Our culture has changed, too. We’re more sympathetic to the mental health struggles of celebrities and less amused by jokes on the matter.
Despite these positive changes, one thing still remains intact: the terms of Britney’s conservatorship. In 2008, with her life hanging in the balance, concerned family members took to the courts of California and requested Britney be placed under conservatorship, a legal arrangement where a guardian is appointed to manage the financial affairs and daily life of another due to mental or physical limitations. Most commonly, conservatorship is for incapacitated elderly citizens. In Britney’s case, temporary conservatorship was granted and her father, Jamie Spears, was appointed to manage her health and financial decisions. By 2009, the arrangement became permanent.
As conservator, Jamie can sign his daughter’s tax returns, revoke all powers of attorney, and dictate her professional pursuits. For a celebrity with a net worth of, $59 million this is a huge responsibility with a substantial financial payout. Britney typically spends $400,000 annually, a figure that does not include the additional $1.1 million paid in legal and conservatorship fees. And the people with the power to end the arrangement are the same individuals who it financially benefits.
In the 2008 MTV documentary “Britney: For the Record,” Spears compared her legal situation to being in prison: “Even when you go to jail, y’know, there’s the time when you’re gonna get out,” Spears said. “But in this situation, it’s never-ending.” Britney’s once highly publicized life soon became safeguarded from the public eye and discussion of her conservatorship promptly ended. But that all changed in January of 2019, following the abrupt cancellation of her Vegas show.
The birth of #FreeBritney
After sharing a post to Instagram citing her father’s health struggles as the reason for her show’s cancellation, Brit disappeared from social media altogether. Concerned fans began to speculate, and eventually news broke that she’d been checked into a mental health facility. Then in May of 2019, the Britney stan podcast “Britney’s Gram” shared an anonymous tip claiming Jamie Spears put Britney in the mental health facility against her will after she stopped taking her ineffective medications. From there, #FreeBritney began to spread like wildfire.
The hashtag was originally coined in 2009 by Britney blogger Jordan Miller, a fan deeply concerned by his idol’s legal arrangement. #FreeBritney transformed into a rallying cry for fans who felt the conservatorship should be ended. By the end of May, Britney appeared in court seeking to end the conservatorship for the first time since its conception.
That September, Britney’s legal situation changed more than it had in 12 years. Kevin Federline, Britney’s ex and the father to her sons Sean and Jayden, successfully petitioned the courts for a restraining order barring Jamie Spears from seeing his grandsons after a physical altercation between Sean and Jamie. Federline also increased his custody over the boys from 50 to 70 percent. With tensions running high, Jamie Spears stepped away from the conservatorship role, leaving the responsibility of Britney’s care to manager Jodi Montgomery.
Brit’s 2020 legal battle and an explosion of fan support
This past August, Britney’s lawyers filed documents expressing the star’s strong opposition to having her father return as conservator. The documents also expressed that Britney wants to make the details of her conservatorship more public and “welcomes and appreciates the informed support of her many fans.” Meanwhile, Jamie Spears maintains the #FreeBritney movement is all one giant hoax.
The drawn-out legal battle surrounding the conservatorship is further complicated by wild conspiracy theories spreading on social media. Many Britney stans have analyzed videos shared on Instagram and TikTok as coded messages. One such example is a video where Brit walks back and forth in front of the camera in a yellow shirt after a fan commented “wear a yellow shirt in your next video if you need help.”
“[On one hand], you have Jamie Spears saying it’s a conspiracy theory,” Jordan Miller noted in a recent interview with Paper Magazine. “And then you have the conspiracy theorists who are like, ‘She’s posing in a yoga pose and it spells out the word help.’ And it’s like, that’s not helping. These extremes are ultimately what gets people so conflicted. The general public, it gets them so confused.”
Wider implications of conservatorship status
Britney’s struggle reflects a larger legal flaw that has trapped thousands of everyday citizens in similarly oppressive conservatorship situations. While Britney has the resources necessary to fight against her legal situation, most do not. In California, there’s been lots of recent debate over court-appointed lawyers and whether they do enough to advocate for individuals under conservatorship.
Over the summer, the ACLU expressed support for Britney in a widely circulated tweet. One of the organization’s disability lawyers Zoe Brennan-Krohn feels that the power of the legal arrangement is abused time and time again: “conservatorships should be viewed with skepticism and used as a last resort… in most cases, it’s done routinely and without substantive engagement.”
For now, only time will tell for Britney and her freedom from conservatorship. As legal action continues to drag out, her loyal fans stand with their idol, both on social media and at the steps of the courthouse.
Chloe Gibson is a second year Documentary Studies & Production major who blasted “Toxic” while researching conservatorship law. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Art by Adam Dee.