19 Nov 2021
Womanhood, Agency, and Autonomy: A Feminist Recounting Of The Conservatorship Of Britney Spears
On Friday 12th November 2021, after 13 years, Britney Spears was freed from the restrictions placed upon her through a conservatorship. This blog post is an exploration of this conservatorship, and its relation to the wider issues of societal prejudice towards women that it illuminates.
In early 2008 following a postpartum mental health crisis and psychiatric evaluation, Britney Spears was placed under legal conservatorships of both her estate and her person. This means decisions regarding both herself as a business entity, and also key decisions concerning her medical and legal wellbeing were entrusted to a court-appointed conservator. After the resignation of his initial co-conservator, this duty fell solely to her father James Spears.
Broad and all-encompassing conservatorships that mandate the removal of a person’s bodily autonomy and structural agency are generally reserved for those who are completely incapable of making decisions themselves, for instance, those suffering from the late stages of degenerative neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's. Until recently refusing to continue due to her father’s unfettered remit over her life, Britney Spears performed on stage at a residency in Las Vegas 7 times a week, singing live for crowds of thousands whilst executing complex choreography, and earning millions of dollars annually.
This has led to several questions from fans as to why someone who is seemingly so capable is having their rights stripped away, and the rise of the #FreeBritney activist movement.
The pathologisation of womanhood and the denial of bodily autonomy for women has a long and storied history in the interrelation of medicine and law. In early medicine, hysteria was conceived of as an illness of womanhood, used as a justification to strip the rights of women in distress and perform invasive and unnecessary medical procedures upon them. Later in history, the purported father of modern gynecology experimented on enslaved black women without the use of anesthesia as he theorised these subjects did not feel pain strongly, essentially making abuse of black women a clinical standard for those who followed. When women won the right to vote, medical professionals argued that this would be clinically undesirable, and place undue strain on their fragile minds and bodies, leading to greater harm.
We can see a clear and recurrent thread in history where the denial of agency and bodily autonomy for women in society is a product of the convergence of medicine and law being used to justify their subjugation. Its insidious nature makes it appear necessary for the greater good from an objectivised perspective. Furthermore, the ramifications of this foundation in structural understanding are still felt today.
As much as objectivity and fairness are espoused as tenants of medical and legal procedures, the social/cultural and the legislative/medical modus operandi of society can not be separated from each other. At present, women are routinely denied control over their reproductive rights by those with legislative power due to conservative cultural values. These rights are withheld despite evidence suggesting increased reproductive agency would be a key factor in diminishing global poverty. Women also have heart attacks misdiagnosed 50% more often than men due to medical professionals perceiving their symptoms as a product of emotions or psychology, rather than a serious bodily malady. I myself recall taking my mother, a woman of colour, to an emergency department for chest pains and having the doctor on call consistently spend their time making eye contact with me and addressing me directly, even though my mum was the patient in need of care and I was merely her assigned male at birth child.
The Case of Britney Spears
Britney’s conservatorship is an interesting illustratory topic to explore this social phenomenon. Something that strikes me about her conservatorship is the inconsistency of consequences that she has faced after an episode of mental ill-health, and how similar instances are treated differently in others, notably in men. When male celebrities experience public mental health crises, there is no precedent for conservatorship to be enacted. From Charlie Sheen’s mania leading to a string of seemingly egotistical and nonsensical ramblings, spurred on by the trauma of a recent HIV diagnosis, to Kanye West’s recurrent acts of public disruption and instances of violence towards paparazzi explained as a consequence of his bipolar disorder. Both of these men and many more have been given the freedom to suffer without being stripped of their rights. One can only assume given the social and historical context explored above that the disparity of Britney not being afforded the same understanding is because she is a woman.
The wider systemic issue of the legalised removal of agency in women is not only evidenced through the conservatorship itself but also in the misreporting of it through various media sources. Britney gave extensive testimony in court on July 14th, 2021 that states her father is abusive and coerces her with threats of punishment in order to continue to benefit from controlling her assets, and that she wants nothing more than to be freed from his subjugation. After this, James said that he was willing to transition from his position as a conservator at a time when he felt it was right. In mainstream journalism, he was often touted as some form of a self-effacing father who loves his daughter for considering stepping down on his own terms with no given timeframe for implementation, a direct contradiction to Britney’s wishes.
Not only does this plainly ignore Britney’s own testimony, but it’s also counter to the law of California which states that everything done by a conservatorship should be done for the best interests and well-being of the conservatee, Britney. In fact, James’ own legal team argued that Britney’s testimony couldn’t be considered valid by the court due to her mental health in order to retain control. The use of gaslighting is significant here, it builds upon the societal trope that women cannot be trusted to make their own decisions in structural contexts. Alongside this, there is a litany of concerning occurrences orchestrated to keep Britney under the control of her father; Britney was denied the right to choose her own legal counsel from the conservatorship's advent despite this being a right in US law because James protested. Credible sources from a prominent security company leaked emails exchanged between them which revealed James sought to place Britney under constant surveillance in her own home, James using vast sums of money from Britney’s estate to fund public image rehabilitation for himself in the media after the rise of the #FreeBritney movement, James continuing on in his position as a conservator after Britney’s sons placed a restraining order on him for violent behavior against them. Even James ever being given the right to make business decisions for Britney after declaring himself bankrupt years prior is questionable. None of these things seem to ensure the best interests or the wellbeing of Britney, the purpose of her conservatorship. I would argue that there has been a confluence of events heavily influenced by patriarchal cultural values that have allowed Britney to be enslaved and exploited by her father for 13 years, and in my mind, her freedom is a cause for celebration.
The case of Britney Spears whilst undoubtedly troubling has also contained a silver lining of sorts. She has shed a dazzling light upon a law that has the heavy potential to replicate prejudicial social attitudes towards women, placing the institution of conservatorships and the opportunities for conservatee abuse under much more scrutiny.