Mega-pop star Britney Spears gave twenty-three minutes of testimony at a recent court hearing, and forcefully spoke against the conservatorship used to dramatically limit her rights and access to her earnings. Audience for the #FreeBritney movement — people who believe Spears’ father is holding the 39-year old woman hostage — recently gathered mainstream interest after a widely watched New York Times documentary, “Framing Britney Spears.” More importantly, attention on Britney Spears, an adult woman who has been legally controlled by her father for the past 13 years, indicates shifting social attitudes of intolerance toward oppression in all corners of society.
Conservatorships are court-appointed “guardianships” over someone who is deemed unable to make decisions in their own best interest. These arrangements can be temporary but some disability rights activists point out that once a conservatorship is in place, any changes or terminations can require meeting a high-threshold of evidence, and are ultimately up to a judge to decide.
In her testimony, Spears told the judge “I wish I could stay here on the phone with you forever because as soon as I get off the phone it’ll just be ‘no’s’…I feel so alone.” This sentiment is far from unfamiliar to the one in three women who will face domestic violence in their lifetimes, trapped by lack of resources. Women who face abuse recognize the carrot and stick manipulation and abuse of power used by the team holding Spears hostage. Spears is being forced into a “legally constructed childhood” as one commentator put it, where “her father is making the kinds of decisions we’d expect a parent to make for a teenager.” A judge recently denied Spears’ appeal to end the conservatorship. However, the financial institution serving as co-conservator, Bessemer Trust, backed away from its role, and days later, Spears’ long-time, court-appointed lawyer resigned, both under the pressure of continuing without Spears’ consent.
From America’s Sweetheart to Industry Cash Cow
Britney Spears funds the entire operation keeping her captive. She testified that the team legally forced her to tour and take on a grueling 5-year residency in Las Vegas. She compared the conservatorship to human trafficking: no privacy, no days off, no say in your schedule, paying the captors to keep her in servitude.
Spears’ story demonstrates a medieval degree of sexism. The people with the power to decide when the conservatorship should end are the doctors and lawyers who are paid to currently oversee it. Technically, her court appointed lawyer makes sure her conservators don’t loot her assets, but even his $495/hour rate is paid from her legally-forced Las Vegas residency. Her father is paid $130,000 a year to be conservator, but above that, he appealed to a judge to allow him to receive 1.5% of gross sales on the Vegas residency. The same people who’ve been profiting off her career for decades shouldn’t be trusted with her mental health and well-being. In her testimony, she said, “I’m not happy, I can’t sleep, I’m so angry it’s insane” and “they should be in jail…my precious body who has worked for my dad for the past fucking 13 years, trying to be so good and pretty, while he works me so hard…”
This has captured the attention of millions of people because sexism is alive and well under capitalism and the facts we face with Britney’s story are that no glass ceiling feminism, no amount of money, can truly liberate humanity from gender oppression. Society needs a fundamentally different basis on which to build healthy relationships between men, women, and all people currently oppressed under capitalism. Under this barbaric system, no one has any guarantee of bodily autonomy.
It’s also no coincidence that broad solidarity with Spears’ situation comes in the wake of #MeToo, Harvey Weinstein’s conviction for rape, and a generation of young people very concerned about mental health. After a year of lockdowns, mental health for ordinary people is extremely vulnerable, only made worse by the ruling class threatening to end stimulus measures and eviction moratoriums. One in four young people reported having suicidal thoughts over the last year.
It was Britney Spears’ mental breakdown under the pressures of the industry and its sexism that initiated the conservatorship in the first place. Britney Spears was only 16 years old when the music video for “Baby One More Time” dropped where she’s featured in the now iconic hyper sexualized school girl costume. The sexualization of young women and gender-based violence are woven into the fabric of life under capitalism, which can be the root cause of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and a whole variety of other mental health issues.
Most appalling is the conservatorship’s draconian approach to Spears’ reproductive rights, forcing her to keep an IUD against her will. Women across the U.S. have experienced a decade-plus of Republican attacks on abortion and reproductive rights. Anti-racist struggle and disability rights activists have highlighted a history of U.S. capitalism using forced sterilization as a tool to enforce racist colonialism and slavery. The New York Times reports it wasn’t until 2014 that California formally banned the sterilization of women inmates without consent.
Britney Spears’ experience shows that, while poor and oppressed women bear the overwhelming burden of attacks on bodily autonomy and lack access to mental healthcare, the threats to reproductive freedom and an inadequate approach to mental health impact society as a whole. We must build a movement strong enough to wrest the private, for-profit healthcare industry from U.S. capitalism, and build the public, Medicare for All healthcare system that can guarantee inclusive, reproductive and mental healthcare. This is especially true after the Supreme Court agreed to take up a case from Mississippi that could dismantle Roe v. Wade. Their ruling could make abortion more dangerous, not less likely.
Just as we could not trust the courts that allowed Weinstein to avoid conviction for rape for over a decade, we can’t trust them now to defend women’s rights or reproductive freedom. This is only made clearer in the context of Bill Cosby’s recent, shameful release which is a slap in the face to the dozens of women who bravely came forward to end his decades-long trail of predatory sexual assault.
We need a bottom-up, socialist feminist struggle based in organizing to win far-reaching reforms. Although the #MeToo moment inspired celebrity women to call-out sexism in the entertainment industry, it’s workers in women-dominated industries like healthcare and education who are still fighting attacks from the political establishment on their wages, benefits, and safety, even as frontline workers during the pandemic. It was the widespread phenomenon of walkouts at places like Google and McDonalds that created the pressure for people like Weinstein to be convicted, and won concrete workplace changes. We need to get organized to take mass action like this again, and go even further.
Capitalism Is A Threat to Creativity
Britney Spears’ experience is uniquely terrifying, and we’re aware of it because of her celebrity, but it touches on the notes of sexism inherent to a massive, homogenizing, for-profit entertainment industry. It’s an industry marked by powerful men exploiting, controlling, and gate-keeping women’s access to career advancement.
Would young people today tolerate the level of paparazzi abuse and sexist media hot takes that Britney Spears faced early in her career? Diane Sawyer’s 2003 interview in which she blames Spears for her breakup with Justin Timberlake, with whom she was part of the Disney World entertainment machine at the time, and asked her to justify intimate details of her sex life on national television has come under scrutiny recently. Millennial social media has given a painfully dark-humored focus to the early 2000s era of media-driven sexism, focused on the careers of overly-sexualized teens like Spears, Christina Aguilera, the Kardashians, and Paris Hilton. Today, paparazzi stalk Spears when she attends therapy.
The conservatorship is an extreme expression of how the entertainment industry can enslave entertainers, particularly women, contractually working them under threat of legal retaliation to fund bloated executive salaries, big ticket venues, advertisers, and record companies — until the entertainers are no longer profitable, or youthful.
In an industry where a gender-pay gap and big money co-optation are a menace to further artistic developments, individual entertainers are financially bullied into the exploitation of their ideas. For example, Michaela Coel turned down a $1 million deal with Netflix to keep creative control of her series “I May Destroy You,” about sexual assault and its complicated aftermath. Tik Tok, Instagram and Snapchat are all powerful fields for creative youth to share art, but they’re not immune from being co-opted by the larger industry. Content houses like Hype House and Collab Crib are targeted by venture firms and big money to invest in “the creative economy.”
As the new frontier for creatives, these artists should get organized with a focus on workers rights, raising concrete demands to address the industry’s sexism and racism and its influence on these platforms. The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and IATSE could be used as tools, representing how a wide-ranging group of workers with similar interests can negotiate working conditions with a union. Given their overlap and power of expertise, tech and other contract workers could be an ally in this struggle. Big cultural shifts against gender violence and oppression are rooted in the working class’ fight back, but how do you end systemic discrimination in an industry that derives profits from the social and cultural divisions amplfied by capitalism? Examples of artists fighting for artistic control are really important, but also demonstrate how it’s an uphill battle that requires mass organizing against the industry’s exploitation as a whole.
We can win victories against the racism and sexism inherent to capitalism, but this system that created and profits off Britney Spears’ predicament will never end the social divisions that keep the ruling class in power. The solidarity with Spears’ plight that we see today is a sign of the increasing anger at women being denied any semblance of bodily autonomy. This exposé should serve as a reminder that working-class people can fight and win material changes, including an end to gender pay discrimination, for social services to end gender-based violence, to defeat attacks on abortion, and to win healthcare and housing for all. Mass grassroots organizing can turn the tide against systemic oppression, and build a world based in democratically organized social and economic equality.