“I will be honest with you: I haven’t been back to court in a long time because I don’t think I was heard on any level when I came to court the last time,” Britney Spears said in a surprisingly low voice that echoed through leaked recordings spread by fans across the internet Wednesday.
But she is being heard now. Dozens of fans in #FreeBritney T-shirts gathered outside the courthouse in Los Angeles, listening to her testimony on a loudspeaker as Spears contested the conservatorship that has given her father and management team full control over her life for the past 13 years.
Fans repeatedly reposted the leaked audio online and live-tweeted quotes. The full transcript of her statement is available to read on many major news outlets.
And I can’t stop thinking about it. I can’t stop thinking about her voice — how low it was compared to the chipmunkesque one she uses in Instagram videos she posts on her personal account, which her fans study for clues about her well-being. I can’t stop thinking about how fast she was talking, how she was trying to say as much as possible in the time she had, how she had prepared a written statement but kept interrupting herself with additions, extra things she may have forgotten to write down that she nevertheless wanted the judge to know.
I can’t stop thinking about her saying to the judge, “I wish I could stay with you on the phone forever, because when I get off the phone with you, all of a sudden … I feel ganged up on and I feel bullied and I feel left out and alone.” Part of it, of course, is that Britney Spears has been one of the biggest stars in the world for more than two decades. When her first single, “...Baby One More Time” charted, I was 7 years old. I probably only knew the names of a few dozen people and she was one of them. I fell asleep looking at her face on the posters on my walls. I consumed her image in magazines and asked my mom to buy me blue-tinted sunglasses and low-rise cargo pants that looked like the ones she wore. She was marketed as the platonic ideal of white femininity, and I — along with millions of other young people in my generation — consumed and internalized that. On Wednesday, Spears proved that this ideal was not only a myth but a perilous trap.
Even in an age when celebrities regularly livestream their random thoughts from their homes or even their beds, it is surprising to hear something this unrehearsed and unedited.
And the way she delivered this information was so completely raw. Even in an age when celebrities regularly livestream their random thoughts from their homes or even their beds, it is surprising to hear something this unrehearsed and unedited. The level of intimacy and overt desperation would be unnerving even coming from a stranger in a bar. But the fact that it is coming from one of the most famous, most closely guarded people in the world makes it impossible to ignore.
But the main reason Spears’ speech is so haunting and absorbing is its horrifying content.
She confirmed, for the first time, some of the conspiracy theories about her, like the fact that she was not allowed to leave her house without her conservators’ permission, and that she had a horrible relationship with her father and had wanted out of the conservatorship for years. And this is a shockingly rare thing. Social media traffics in endless conspiracy theories, but it’s rare to have a theory corroborated right from the source, let alone in a legal setting.
Spears also told the judge that she has no access to her money, and that, at different times, she hasn’t been able to visit her friends or even drive around with her boyfriend without the permission of her conservators. She claimed the treatment she received from her former therapist, who died in 2019, was “very abusive” and that it has given her a “phobia” of being in small rooms. She said she was forced to be on the drug lithium, and that it made her feel “drunk” and unable to have a conversation. She said that for years she had been made to perform nonstop and hadn’t been allowed to take breaks without being threatened with legal action by her management team. She said she hadn’t known she was allowed to petition to end the conservatorship until recently, but she’s wanted to do so for years.
At one point, she said, she was forced into a facility where a live-in team made her work 10 hours a day, seven days a week. She said she was not allowed to see her boyfriend or her children and that staff watched her change “naked, morning, noon, and night,” and made her give “eight vials of blood” a week. She said she has been prevented from getting her hair and nails done for the past year, told by her management that the services were unavailable due to the pandemic even though she could see that the people working for her had gotten salon-level manicures. (The term gaslighting has largely lost meaning with overuse, but it more than applies here.)
And, perhaps most damning, Spears said she wants to get married and have children but that her conservators won’t give her permission to have her IUD removed.
“My precious body, who has worked for my dad for the past fucking 13 years, trying to be so good and pretty, so perfect, when he works me so hard, when I do everything I’m told,” Spears said, anger audible in her voice. “And the state of California allowed my father — ignorant father ... to do that to me.” (In response to Spears’ nearly 30-minute-long testimony, an attorney for her father, Jamie Spears, read this statement in court: "He is sorry to hear his daughter in so much pain. Mr. Spears loves his daughter and misses her very much.")
I can’t stop thinking about the way she talked about her own body — “my precious body who” — as if it is not a part of her, as if it is a commodity being used by others. And, if everything Spears says is true, then that’s exactly what it seems to be.
Spears’ body has always been a battleground. The New York Times documentary Framing Britney Spears, which brought the #FreeBritney movement even further into the public consciousness, does a thorough job of discussing her portrayal in the press throughout the ’90s. When she was first becoming famous, television hosts and journalists debated whether she was dressing “too sexy” for someone so young (she was 15 when she signed with Jive Records) and whether she was a bad influence on her younger fans.
When she and Justin Timberlake broke up and he revealed that they had had sex despite her — and her team — portraying her as an avowed virgin until marriage, the press and other celebrities shamed and insulted her. Other stars who had vowed chastity until marriage called her a bad Christian. When, in the midst of a mental health crisis in late 2007, she tried to take control of her body and her image by shaving her head, she instead lost control of them completely. This was part of a series of events that caused a judge to grant her father conservatorship in the first place.
As Jo Livingstone pointed out for the New Republic in 2019, the millennial-saturated media industry has, over the past few years, “been engaged in a project of rewiring our memories of the 1990s,” examining the wrongs committed by our media predecessors and how they shaped our ideas of famous women like Courtney Love and Janet Jackson. Podcasts like You’re Wrong About and Slow Burn have dissected the media portrayals of famous women during that time period, showing how record companies, Hollywood, and tabloids utilized women’s sexuality to boost their public images and fame but ridiculed and slut-shamed those same women if they tried to take control of their own narratives.
In the past couple of years, the #FreeBritney movement has become a huge part of that rewiring. Reassessing unfair media coverage and how it negatively impacted Spears at the time makes up the majority of the New York Times documentary. After its release, Timberlake was pressured by fans into finally publicly apologizing for the way he had talked about his relationship with Spears after their breakup. Media figures like Diane Sawyer and Matt Lauer, whom the documentary showed treating Spears unfairly in interviews and news segments, were also pressured to apologize (but so far have not). The heads of Us Weekly and Glamour magazine as well as a former producer at TMZ expressed regret about their outlets’ coverage of Spears in the ’90s and early aughts.
But throughout the media’s entire period of self-reflection, Spears has remained largely silent. She (or her team) posted an Instagram caption in response to the Framing Britney Spears, saying, “I didn't watch the documentary but from what I did see I was embarrassed by the light they put me in. I cried for two weeks. I still cry sometimes.” In the same post, she said, “I've always been so judged... insulted... and embarrassed by the media... and I still am till this day 👎🏼👎🏼👎🏼” Fans’ immediate response was confusion over what part she could have seen that hadn’t made it clear that the documentary was an apology for the very judgment she was referencing. Because of her isolation and silence, it has been hard to know if Spears is even aware of the reckoning that’s going on over the media’s past treatment of her. And most importantly, we haven’t known if she’s OK. It’s a question fans have asked over and over again in her Instagram comments for years.
On Wednesday, Spears showed fans that, emboldened by her ability to speak publicly for the first time in years, she is ready for a reckoning as well. That she wants to “free Britney” too. And, she finally told fans, in no uncertain terms, that she is not OK. And what she said the conservatorship has done to her is so much worse than we may have imagined.
“I’ve lied and told the whole world ‘I’m OK and I’m happy.’ It’s a lie,” Spears said. “I thought I just maybe if I said that enough maybe I might become happy, because I’ve been in denial. I’ve been in shock. I am traumatized. You know, fake it till you make it. But now I’m telling you the truth, OK? I’m not happy. I can’t sleep. I’m so angry it’s insane. And I’m depressed. I cry every day.”
(On Thursday night, Spears posted on Instagram with a caption apologizing to fans for pretending she had been OK and saying that Instagram had been an outlet for her. “I did it because of my pride and I was embarrassed to share what happened to me … but honestly who doesn’t want to capture their Instagram in a fun light.”)
But the main reason Spears’ voice has been ringing in my head, the reason it quite literally invaded my dreams, is that I feel culpable.
In 2007, I laughed at photos of Spears, bald and enraged, attacking a member of the paparazzi (who she claimed had been harassing her) with an umbrella. I made her a punchline in jokes, and considered buying a product with the phrase “If Britney can get through 2007, I can make it through today.” Even after I reexamined my idea of Spears and mental health in general, I was still guilty of giggling about how weird her Instagram posts are, of laughing with friends about her burning down her gym with a candle, of showing the video of her painting colorful daisies to friends and saying some version of, “Oh Britney, so silly.” Honestly, those videos were even kind of funny to me on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Spears showed fans that, emboldened by her ability to speak publicly for the first time in years, she is ready for a reckoning as well.
But I can’t help but look differently now at the Instagram videos of Spears prancing around in various outfits, her eye makeup smudged. Especially the ones where she told fans, “For those of you who don’t think I post my own videos, I did this video yesterday, so you’re wrong,” or when she said she was “fine” and “the happiest I’ve ever been in my life.” Or more recently: “Am I gonna take the stage again? I have no idea. Right now I'm having fun right now, I'm in transition in my life, and I’m enjoying myself.” Did she actually want to make those videos? Or did she just, as she said repeatedly in her speech, want a break?
But more than anything else, I can’t stop thinking about what happened when Spears stopped talking and ended the call with the judge. Did she, as she predicted, immediately face a wall of “nos,” of bullying and wrath from her management team? Was she able to see the reaction and the outpouring of support from fans, or did her team immediately take her phone away and banish her to one of those small rooms she’s so afraid of? Does she even know that people care? Or does she think the world, including the media, is the same as it was 13 years ago when she started this conservatorship: ruthless and reveling in her personal hell?
All I can hope is that her finally being able to speak freely has given her some power, even if, for now, it is only internal. The next court date, or when her petition against the conservatorship will be decided, hasn’t been publicly announced yet. Spears couldn’t see the throngs of fans outside of the courthouse there to support her because she was calling in virtually from home. But I hope she’s been able to see some of the support online and know that now, finally, we are all listening. ●