In the week since Britney Spears’ devastating testimony in her conservatorship case in Los Angeles, there has been an outpouring of support for the singer and anger at those who brought her here—an affirmation that her words and wish for self-determination have finally been heard. There has also been something else. “The #FreeBritney Fans Were Right,” BuzzFeed News asserted in a headline. An Entertainment Weekly dispatch declared “the #FreeBritney movement finds vindication,” and the Cut suggested that “as Spears is about to speak publicly about her conservatorship, her fans are finally being taken seriously.” “People are jumping on the wagon like, ‘Oh my god. You guys were right,’ ” one #FreeBritney advocate told BuzzFeed News. That wagon seems to include much of the press.
It is no surprise that these self-described activists would center themselves in the wake of Spears’ most significant statement about her situation to date. But it’s a little depressing to see reporters and others continue to help them flatter their sense of their own importance to Spears’ story. The Framing Britney Spears documentary, for all its intermittent power in helping many reevaluate the singer’s treatment, also painted Spears’ fans as a kind of scrappy, ragtag force in helping expose the conservatorship. “Fans said they believed Spears’ decision to address the court was due in part to their efforts to raise awareness about the arrangement,” BuzzFeed News reported. In 24 agonizing, breathless minutes of testimony, Spears did not mention #FreeBritney or the fevered speculation it has engaged in. Instead, she pointed to an unwanted tour schedule, mandatory treatment, and control over her relationships and reproductive health as factors that pushed her to the edge in recent years. And the New York Times, in a major piece building on earlier work from 2016 and bylined partly by Framing Britney Spears’ creators, reported earlier in the week that actually, Spears herself had been pushing back on the conservatorship for many years—long before #FreeBritney emerged in force after Spears stopped performing in 2019.
Regardless, the fact remains that #FreeBritney fans have revealed nothing. They did not bring this alleged abuse to light—actual reporting and Spears herself did. Instead, the fan-tivists and podcasts like Britney’s Gram analyzed emoji on Spears’ Instagram account, as if they were a secret code only they could crack, and peddled still-unconfirmed “reporting” from anonymous voicemails that made claims that do not entirely track with what Spears revealed in court. Members of #FreeBritney scoured Spears’ beach photos for hidden text written in the sand; they claimed a look-alike was posting photos on her account and the real Britney was indisposed. Once, when Spears wore a yellow top in an Instagram photo, the fans believed it was a signal to them in a code that they had devised for her to reveal her true feelings to them. Dozens of comments quickly tagged another account to alert it to the result of their “investigation”: @FBI. (The FBI did not appear to get involved.)
That the horrors of Spears’ conservatorship have, in Spears’ telling, run deeper than anyone knew does not “vindicate” the baseless and irresponsible speculation of these fans, who at best are motivated by their genuine but misguided sense of connection to Spears—and at worst have parlayed their insinuations about her into a full-on grift themselves. But now that Spears has herself revealed the abuses of the conservatorship, a bit of #FreeBritney whitewashing has begun. Now this movement was always about the potential for structural abuse within conservatorships, never mind these fans’ total lack of expertise on a battle that actual disability rights activists have fought for years, and with a much wider scope. Now these fans were always the sober voices who just wanted to reveal Spears’ truth, never mind all the false information they pushed, and still do. The idea that these hucksters are unsung heroes, even peripherally, of Spears’ long struggle is infuriating revisionism. They have, repeatedly, shown themselves to be yet another set of people who are willing to insert themselves in the singer’s life, no matter what she says or does. When the current furor began more than two years ago, a video appeared on Spears’ Instagram with Spears asking for privacy; fans replied “THEY MADE YOU LIE.” Last week, after her testimony, she apologized on Instagram for not speaking out sooner. This time, the fans immediately believed it was her—and they took it as a vindication. The cycle continues apace.
Given everything else the #FreeBritney movement believes, it is understandable that it also thinks it was instrumental in turning attention and sympathy to Spears’ case. And frankly, it is probably fair to say that the movement has made a difference to Spears’ future, if only in helping prompt a public reexamination of her treatment. The hashtag itself, divorced from the fringe fans who popularized it, has proved durable and effective. But now, no one knows what is going to happen. No one even knows how Spears’ testimony will affect her case. The immediate aftermath has been that, in a haunting echo of where this all began, Spears has spent the past week cursing paparazzi who are harassing her on a Hawaiian vacation. Instead of venerating and aggrandizing these fans whose facts remain tenuous and whose relationship with their object of affection remains nebulous at best, we should do as another great fan—and as Britney herself—has requested in the past: Leave Britney alone.