Wide Angle

The End of Free Britney

There’s only one way to help the pop star now.

Britney Spears in a red dress.
Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images

Over the past several weeks, Britney Spears’ escalating family drama has played out in the public eye. Much of the press has covered the bitter back-and-forth, reporting on every voice memo posted to Instagram and every interview with her teenage sons and ex-husband Kevin Federline. After Spears posted a now-deleted voice memo earlier this month, outlets were quick to distill the highlights into headlines. CBS News told us the pop-star doesn’t “believe in God anymore” because of the mistreatment she faced during her conservatorship. BuzzFeed News wanted us to know that when her teenage sons turn 18, they “won’t get anything” from Spears. Insider let us know she called out her youngest son for being “hateful.”

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In many ways, this breathless media coverage is the inevitable aftermath of the #FreeBritney movement. For the first time in years, the pop star is able to speak publicly and candidly about her life. At the same time, now that she is no longer under their control, Spears’ family is waging a media campaign to paint her as an unstable bad mother, ostensibly to “help” her. In the process, a private matter has turned into a public spectacle—with unknowable consequences.

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Spears just can’t escape the spotlight. Last year, the documentary Framing Britney Spears explored both the media frenzy that led up to her very public breakdown in the early 2000s and the corresponding movement to release her from her conservatorship. One of the most upsetting aspects of the documentary, produced by the New York Times and Hulu, was the replaying of the destructive feedback loop created by the nonstop paparazzi coverage of the teenage Spears. The more erratic her behavior became, the more the paparazzi swarmed. The more the paparazzi swarmed, the more erratic her behavior became. Capturing Spears melting down was profitable not only for the (older, male) photographers who mobbed her, it also drove revenue for the websites that publicized her breakdown.

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Against this backdrop, the Spears fans who rallied to release her from her conservatorship were framed as her noble saviors. They claimed their only goal was to free the damsel who’d been unfairly locked away by her father and a high-powered team of lawyers. But they had a habit of making themselves the story, asserting an imagined connection to Spears through hidden codes and generating a flurry of press coverage. This pressure campaign undoubtedly helped unravel the conservatorship in court, and Spears herself has said she believes her fans “saved” her. But now a new press assault is underway—and the fans still can’t bring themselves to look away.

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Indeed, as Spears and her family come to terms with her freedom, the patterns from years ago are once again playing out. Who else is the current coverage for, if not the fans who championed Spears’ liberation? This media dilemma can’t be uncoupled from Spears’ mental well-being. As the pop star succumbed to apparent mental illness all those years ago, her erratic behavior was a goldmine for the paparazzi. Today, the media is also profiting off of the heart-wrenching breakdown in her relationship with her sons. Both moments in the star’s life are rife with desperation: Spears seems desperate to push the outermost boundaries of her newly acquired autonomy, spilling her guts on social media in an attempt to finally tell her side of the story. Her family, whatever their true motivation, seems desperate to rein her in.

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Likewise, the decision to let her teenage sons speak publicly about this ongoing spectacle was either incredibly desperate or incredibly vindictive. During a TV interview with 60 Minutes Australia, Spears’ youngest son offered a plea, specifically addressing her frequent posts on Instagram: “This has gone on for years and years and years, and there’s a high chance that this will never stop,” he said. “But I’m hoping, for me, that she will stop.” To some degree it was understandable: No one wants the messy contents of their private lives made public for all to consume. Yet just as a well-meaning documentary paved the way for the current media frenzy, his public comments have only made things worse, prompting Spears to respond on social media in an attempt to defend herself. It should be painfully obvious by now that you cannot, in fact, use the media to compel someone into silence. You cannot publicly ask someone to keep their issues private. It will always be read as a provocation. The spotlight holds too much power. And so the cycle continues.

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Spears’ fans, of course, have weighed in social media, often summing up the family feud in simple terms: Federline and her sons are attacking the singer because the generous financial support she has provided for years will soon come to an end. Once again, the fans rushed to her side, arguably flattening a complex story about a deeply dysfunctional family system into a story about greed and self-interest. It might feel good for Spears to know that her fans are in her corner. But feeling good isn’t always an indication that you are getting what you need.

I wish everyone participating in this new churn would ask themselves some questions: Is any of this attention actually helping Spears get better? Is this what fans hoped for when they set out to free her from her conservatorship in the first place? The #FreeBritney movement had one goal: to help the pop star recover her autonomy. But the movement was not prepared to deal with what happened next. By narrowly focusing on her mistreatment at the hands of the media and her family, the movement missed a chance to deal with a thornier issue: What do struggling people actually need to get better?

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We don’t know the apparent mental illness that contributed to Spears’ public decline years ago, and we don’t know what’s really happening with her now. (Spears has said she was forced to take excessive drugs in her conservatorship, and says she is now on the “right medication.”) But it’s possible to recognize both that her conservatorship was unjust and that finally emerging from it did not solve all the underlying problems in her life and in her health. Spears appears to be caught in a catch-22: In her family’s charge, she shrank under the monotony of work and doctor’s orders. Once freed, she is publicly spiraling, using the media to air her grievances, framing herself as a victim fighting against a repressive family that does not have her best interests at heart. Her reality likely lies somewhere in between the story she’s telling and the concerns of people in her life. For her sake, we should all hope the star finds the peace she needs. Perhaps her fans could assist her in helping to find a stable frame for her life by not consuming her tragedy as another narrative in which they are participants. The last act of the #FreeBritney movement should be to turn the media spotlight off for good.

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