It’s so much worse than we thought.

By Sam Reed
Jun 24, 2021 @ 1:49 pm
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When Britney Spears said that she didn't think she would be believed if she spoke out about the cruel conditions of her conservatorship, she was probably right. 

"I didn't want to say it openly, because I honestly don't think anyone would believe me," the 39-year-old singer said Wednesday afternoon during a hearing to end her conservatorship, the court-dictated legal arrangement wherein her father, Jamie Spears, has near complete control over her life. She told the Los Angeles probate judge about the last 13 years under his thumb  - 13 years without one drop of personal autonomy because of a breakdown she had when she was 26 years old and one of the most-talked about, most-ridiculed people on planet Earth. 

In her plea, which she gave over the phone, Spears spoke breathlessly of her torment: She said she was worked tirelessly against her will; she was drugged - given lithium, which she said made her feel like she was drunk; she was held against her will in various "rehab" arrangements, which sound more like house arrest than the kind of mental health facility where you might expect to find a celebrity of her caliber; she was paraded in front of the paparazzi after grueling therapy treatments that left her in tears - her vulnerability on full display for the consumption of the public. The most gut-wrenching revelation, though, came when she spoke of wanting to marry her longtime boyfriend, Sam Asghari, and have another child. "This so-called team won't let me go to the doctor to take [my IUD] out because they don't want me to have children - any more children," she said. "I deserve to have a life." 

Framing Britney Spears, the New York Times' exposé on the subject of Spears' treatment by the public - from the media, to ex-boyfriends, to her own family - shocked many fans when it was released earlier this year. Though, not even the 74-minute primer could have prepared me for just how bad the conditions of her conservatorship truly are, and how much pain she's endured at the hands of her own family members, whose motives seem less driven by her well-being than her ability to make them rich. More disturbing still is just how greatly we all underestimated the severity of the situation. Why is it that, after giving us 20 years of her life, the only time we really listened to Britney was when she told us ?

Spears says she was in denial. She tried to will herself to happiness. "I thought maybe if I said that enough, maybe I might become happy, because I've been in denial. I've been in shock," she said, adding that this was informed by the "professionals" gaslighting her from within her own bubble, telling her that the decisions being made about her life without her input were for her own good. Additionally, a failure to comply would result in court appearances and the accompanying legal fees. But the denial was also likely a form of protection for her own ego. What her family did to her was, she says, humiliating. "It's embarrassing and demoralizing what I've been through," she said. "And that's the main reason I've never said it openly."

During her call with the judge, Spears invoked Paris Hilton, another "notorious" blonde whose fame peaked in tandem with her own, who recently revealed years of abuse at various boarding schools for troubled children she was forced to attend in her teenage years. Even Britney, whose life has been puppeteered since childhood, couldn't believe that such cruelty could have been afflicted upon the heiress. "To be honest with you, the Paris Hilton story on what they did to her at that school, I didn't believe any of it," she confessed. "I'm sorry. I'm an outsider, and I'll just be honest. I didn't believe it." It makes sense, then, that she assumed her own story would be similarly disbelieved. Given her history with the media, she had every reason to have her doubts.

That it doesn't come naturally to empathize with the wealthy is a tale as old as Robinhood, but there were other systems at play in our inability to recognize Britney (or even Paris) as anything other than a vain woman-child drunk with fame and fortune. In the mid 2000s, when Britney pleaded for privacy, we called her ungrateful; when she spoke of mistreatment, we called her a lying attention seeker; when she cracked under the weight of the paradoxical expectations of her womanhood - that she be the sex symbol and chaste role model - we called her crazy, weak. But these assumptions have less to do with wealth and privilege than a patriarchal structure which forces women into the binary "good" or "bad" archetypes, which we've seen play out for Britney, Paris, Lindsay Lohan, and so many others whose stories are being reevaluated now, way too late. 

When you learn of something that fundamentally changes the point of view you've held for years, you begin to look back on your past and wonder, 'What else have I gotten wrong? Who did I hurt?' The reflection on Britneys' past, with the understanding that things were so much worse than we could have imagined, leads us to another door, behind which lies the fear of what is happening to people without a platform. If we brushed off what happened to Britney - the most famous popstar of the 2000s - what else could we be failing to see? What else do we take only at surface level, ignoring your gut that says "something isn't right" in favor of the blissful ignorance of "it can't be that bad"?

With Britney, we should've known better. Now, maybe, we can.

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