Is The World Finally Listening To Britney Spears?

Pandora Sykes has been delving deep into Britney Spears' story for a new radio documentary. But as the world follows every legal twist of her Conservatorship battle, will Britney ever reclaim her own narrative?

Pieces of Britney

by Pandora Sykes |
Updated on

This week Britney Spears won a legal victory when a judge ruled that she was allowed to be represented by a lawyer of her choice in her battle to end her father's conservatorship of her affairs - a legal arrangement that has been in place since 2008. Speaking in court via her lawyer's phone, she also called for her father to be charged with conservatorship abuse.

'I'm here to press charges. I'm angry and I will go there. You're allowing my dad to ruin my life. I have to get rid of my dad and charge him with conservatorship abuse,' she said.

As the world follows every legal wrangling of this case, Pandora Sykes what she found out about the singer during the making of her new BBC Sounds podcast, Pieces of Britney...

Writing a documentary about Britney Spears is a bit like trying to condense the internet into a sandwich. As the most Googled woman in the world for seven years, controversy swirled around Britney from the moment she swung that school locker door shut, in the music video for Baby One More Time, aged 17.

Britney was a paradox: a ‘virgin who dressed like a whore’; who said she wanted to ‘save it’ until she got married, and then writhed around the stage with snakes. To say she riled up puritanical America is an under-statement.

Britney’s virginity became a source of global fascination but there was a deep-seated misogyny in how young women in the public eye were treated at that time. A picture of Britney, Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton - three young women who had all earned millions - was headlined THE BIMBO SUMMIT by The New York Post. When Justin Timberlake revealed on the radio that he and Britney had in fact slept together, it bolstered his career but hit hers like a freight train. And then when a heartbroken Britney sought solace in partying, the omnipresent paparazzi stepped up a gear.

In the new found paparazzi Gold Rush, Britney was the golden goose. Soon, there were up to 100 men tailing her, perhaps unsurprising as they could earn $10-15,000 for one picture set. I spoke to one photographer on ‘the Britney Beat’ who lasted just one week, as he was so troubled by how dangerous it was.

The way that Britney was stalked during an intensely vulnerable time in her life, is not dissimilar to the way in which Amy Winehouse was treated, in the UK. The only difference, Jude S. Ellison Doyle, the author of Trainwreck, told me, is that Britney didn’t die. But, chillingly, I discovered she was the only celebrity under the age of 30, for whom The Associated Press had an obituary pre-prepared.

As the mother of two young children myself, I found the ‘young mother in meltdown’ label slapped on Britney painful to explore. Social psychologist Dr Karen Dill-Shackleford told me she thought Britney’s response to the paparazzi, who refused to leave her alone - whacking a car with an umbrella - was in fact a mild reaction to an intensely stressful scenario. But it was treated like an irredeemable crime. (It’s also important to remember that there are many male celebrities who have done infinitely worse things, now forgotten.)

We cannot map contemporary mores onto past events. That doesn’t mean that it was okay - but that it’s more complicated than simply blaming the media. We are all complicit. I bought the magazines; I scrolled down the gossip blogs. That said, I don’t buy the ‘supply and demand’ argument that many power-brokers from that time make. “You wanted it, so we provided it.” (Incidentally, that was an epithet thrown at Britney and other famous young women, too: “You wanted this. Deal with it.”) Responsibility does not - and cannot - lie with the individual alone. I think that curiosity to know the mundane aspects of celebrity lives existed, but that habits were shaped and amplified by these publications popping up like whack-a-moles.

The timing of our series has been fortuitous - it meant we got to include her seismic hearing, last week. One of the things that confounded me the whole way through making this series, is why Britney didn’t petition to leave her conservatorship, given that it was ‘voluntary’. In the hearing last week, she claimed that she did not know that she could. This raises questions over her legal representation - she has had a court-appointed lawyer for 13 years. Did he not tell her? And if not, why? We don’t know. He’s yet to release a statement on this.

As I write, the internet is ablaze with the news that Britney’s petition to remove her father as conservator, has been rejected by the judge. But that was a petition from 2020 - it’s not from her hearing last week, where she has stated her desire to be released from the conservatorship, but has not yet filed the petition to dissolve it. The legal stuff is sticky. And we have to remember that the hearing last week is the only part of the entire process which hasn’t been sealed. Either way, Britney might not have a verdict until 2023.

Still, I hope Britney’s case will encourage more scrutiny into conservatorships (which, unlike the British equivalent in the UK, often involve a conservator drawing a salary). The National Guardianships Association does not hold data on how many people are in conservatorships, in America - and critics have pointed out that therein lies the problem. Because what happens to Britney, has a ripple effect.

As for the impact of all this on pop culture? I’m wary of saying, “we’ve changed”. What’s different - and what galvanized both the Free Britney movement and ultimately, Britney herself - is that famous women can cut through the rumours, via social media. And yet, a large part of the vileness scrawled across early 00s gossip blogs, has migrated into the anonymous comment sections on social media. The abuse of young, famous women is very much still present and correct there.

Britney deserves to reclaim her narrative. In her 2008 documentary, Britney: For The Record, Britney says, “They’re hearing what I’m saying, but they’re really not listening.” Perhaps now though finally - finally - the world is listening.

Pieces of Britney is available as a boxset on BBC Sounds now.

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