What a difference two years make.
Back in spring 2019, the tabloids were training their gaze on the mental health of pop star Britney Spears—who’d recently reemerged from rehab after canceling her latest Vegas show — and the rise of a #FreeBritney fan movement rallying for her release from a decade-long California “probate conservatorship.” Called a guardianship in other states, the arrangement gives a court-approved third-party control over the affairs of an incapacitated, typically elderly, person. In Britney’s case, the conservator is her father, Jamie, and he’s controlled almost every detail of her finances, healthcare, and personal life since her “breakdown” in 2008.
The unusual spectacle of constraining a highly functioning young adult stirred the press to weigh in on the issue, with many articles commenting on whether there was reason for Spears to remain under the conservatorship. As Mad in America found in its examination of media coverage of her mental health published since the conservatorship’s inception, these articles reflected conventional attitudes about “mental illness” that are stigmatizing and encourage legislation that promotes forced treatment. They also reflected the opinions of everyone but Britney herself (save the postings on her often-cryptic Instagram account).
According to this narrative, Britney — despite over a decade of apparent stability and success — needed to be in the conservatorship for her own good, allegedly because she is too “crazy” and too vulnerable to exploitation to manage her own life. Any arguments to the contrary were viewed as conspiracy theories from well-meaning but ignorant fans.
But now things are changing in both Spears’ world and media coverage of her case. These shifts have brought overdue attention to the larger issue of the rights of people labeled mentally ill or disabled — and led to calls for reform.
Back in the Spotlight
Since last fall, Spears, now 39, seems to be pursuing a path toward autonomy. Via her court-appointed attorney, Sam Ingham, she has requested that court documents related to her case be unsealed (to make them more accessible to the public) and told a judge that she is “afraid of her father” and “will not perform again if [he] is in charge of her career.” US Weekly, which had earlier portrayed her as unstable and in need of TLC, titled an article on her legal motion “Britney Spears Is Tired of Being Treated Like a Child” and described her as “fighting for her freedom.”
A few months later, Spears requested that her father step down from managing her finances and be replaced by a professional fiduciary, Bessemer Trust. It didn’t happen; Bessemer and Jamie Spears now share that task, but the shift prompted NBC News’s online THINK column to run an opinion piece that addressed the larger issue of guardianship abuse. In the piece, titled “Britney Spears’ Conservatorship Can Be Both Totally Legal and Quite Bad for Her. Many Are,” journalist Chandra Bozelko argued that “there are emotional costs of a long-term conservatorship, especially to an otherwise capable person, and that damage rarely appears in court evaluations or public records.” Bozelko, who was under guardianship for a decade, wrote that “to strip a person of her agency can’t help but be abusive, even when fiduciaries are doing their jobs.”
But that was the last we heard on the subject until the first week of February 2021, coinciding with the 13th anniversary of Spears’ conservatorship. That week, the documentary Framing Britney Spears was released on the FX channel. Produced by a team from The New York Times (which had previously reported fairly uncritically about her situation), the film opens with footage of #FreeBritney activists. A few minutes in, New York Times Senior Editor Liz Day asks the film’s million-dollar question: “Is this in her best interest, what she wants?”
The film blends archival photos and footage with new interviews with longtime associates, including her close friend and former assistant, Felicia Culotta. It also features #FreeBritney activists, reporters and press photographers who have covered her, and legal experts close to the case. It tells of Britney’s rapid rise as a teenaged pop star, the emotional and practical impact of the news media’s relentless pursuit, and the often hostile and salacious treatment of her before her famous breakdown.
In so doing, Framing Britney places behaviors often cited as evidence of Spears’ mental illness in context. Shaving her head and whacking a photographer’s car with an umbrella are shown as the very human reactions of an overwhelmed, post-partum woman under relentless public scrutiny and beset by private struggles including a custody battle. As Jude Ellison S. Doyle writes in the politics and culture magazine GEN, “How could anyone not experience trauma after this sort of treatment?” Doyle adds, “Britney Spears isn’t a formerly happy pop star who ‘lost control,’ she’s a woman who never had control in the first place.” Indeed, except for reporting on Britney’s stints in psych facilities, the film doesn’t dwell on the claim that she suffers from a chronic, debilitating condition, as has so often been stated in the press.
The documentary also explores the uncomfortable realities of living under a conservatorship, including a clip from an MTV documentary in which Britney complains about how stifling it is to be constantly restrained and monitored. “When I tell them how I feel, they’re really not listening,” she says. “They’re hearing what they want to hear. It’s bad, and I’m sad.” The film also points out irregularities in how she was placed under the conservatorship in the first place and wonders if she’ll ever get out.
In one scene, Adam Streisand, a lawyer she wanted to hire to fight the conservatorship in 2008, explains that the judge ruled Britney incompetent to do so, citing a medical report that the judge refused to let him see. “I felt that based on my interactions that she was capable of retaining and directing me and the judge should have allowed that,” Streisand says.
In another scene, attorney Vivian Lee Thoreen admits, “It’s the conservatee who has the burden to say, ‘I don’t need this conservatorship anymore, and here’s why,’” later adding, “I have not seen a conservatee who has successfully terminated a conservatorship.”
The film also outlines the financial incentives and possible conflicts of interest Britney’s conservators might have for keeping her in the arrangement. It notes that her father got a percentage of her high-grossing Las Vegas acts and that her estate is required to pay for her own and her conservators’ attorneys — concerns once portrayed as fan-generated conspiracy theories.
Despite that Spears did not participate in the film (producers claimed they labored unsuccessfully to reach her), Framing Britney is notable for its empathic perspective. It encourages viewers to put themselves in Spears’ shoes as they watch her rise, fall, and comeback, as well as her ongoing containment. This is a departure from what we saw in earlier coverage, which tended to favor her father’s and handlers’ positions. Britney’s family, attorney, and inner circle declined to be interviewed for the film, though some of them appeared in archival footage.
A Strong Reaction
Perhaps because her pain is so relatable, the film quickly ignited widespread alarm. Social media were aflame with renewed calls to #FreeBritney, supportive commentary from lawyers, tweets sharing excerpts from court documents, and demands that media figures apologize to Spears. The American Civil Liberties Union, which had offered to represent her last summer, reiterated its support in a Tweet:
In tandem, mainstream news and cultural commentators discussed the misogyny portrayed in the film: how Hollywood has exploited and perpetuated dangerous narratives about young stars, how our culture has failed to listen to and center women in their own stories, and how we punish those deemed unruly.
And the press continued to focus on the star’s struggles under her unique conservatorship. In late February, Spears’ father delivered an official retort to Framing Britney on Good Morning America via his now-attorney, Vivian Lee Thoreen. He reiterated that the conservatorship is to “protect” his daughter and inaccurately stated that Britney has never sought to remove him; Thoreen later wrongly claimed that Britney can end it whenever she wants. Then, at a hearing in March, Britney’s lawyer presented her request that her father resign as conservator of her personal affairs and be replaced by Jodi Montgomery, a professional fiduciary who has been temporarily filling that role. Those court papers state, underlined and in bold, that Britney still “reserves the right to petition for the termination of this conservatorship.”
Soon, the press coverage generated by the film and the “Jamie vs. Britney” battle moved beyond Britney to another important discussion: the broader issue of guardianship abuse. Op-eds, explanatory pieces, and think pieces called out its overly restrictive nature and documented its potential for abuse. These reports continued for two months in respected magazines on politics and economics as well as in the entertainment press.
For example, journalist Sara Luterman, who covers disability rights, was one of the first to address “the darker story just outside the lens.” In The New Republic, she wrote that “There is a broader, systemic issue at play. Spears isn’t an anomaly, and in actuality, conservatorship has few safeguards and checks. Legal personhood is regularly stripped from disabled people…and nobody blinks an eye. The biggest difference is that Spears is famous. The unusual part of the story is that people are paying attention.”
Luterman notes that many people as young or younger than Spears are under the control of guardians, citing a report on a “school-to-guardianship pipeline in which conservatorship over students with intellectual and developmental disabilities leaving school is treated as a matter of course.” As Zoe Brennan-Krohn, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Disability Rights Project told her, “There’s this double standard where, if you’re perceived as having a disability, your preferences are subsumed by what’s in your, quote, best interest.”
Several outlets published articles on how conservatorships work and why they can be problematic for anyone. As an op-ed by law professors Rebekah Diller and Leslie Salzman put it in Business Insider:
“After exposés revealed critical problems, many states reformed their laws in the 1990s. Today, in most states, courts are supposed to consider less restrictive alternatives and narrowly tailor any guardianship order to preserve maximum autonomy. Yet these reforms, which are often ignored in practice, have not gone far enough….”
They sum up: “Because guardianship has traditionally been justified as a protective mechanism, the guardianship system is tainted by a culture of paternalism. As a result, many courts still err on the side of granting guardianship petitions even when less restrictive alternatives would suffice.”
Similarly, The Economist published a piece titled “Why Are Conservatorships Controversial?” It answers that question this way:
“An alleged mental illness seems to be the reason for Ms. Spears’s situation, but little is publicly known about her diagnosis or condition. A conservatorship strips someone of almost all their rights — much as imprisonment or commitment to an asylum does — and only a court can restore them. That is rare [italics added].”
The article also points out that:
“Legal gaps at the state level, where the matter is regulated, make exploitation easier. For example, some states let courts appoint ‘emergency conservators’ without notifying the person in question or others who may come to their aid. The conservator can often sell assets, such as a house, without extra court approval. Patchy monitoring makes it hard to catch self-dealing.”
What didn’t we see in these pieces? The idea that Britney’s — or anyone’s — mental health struggles justify their conservatorship in the first place. Perhaps because having a diagnosis is beside the point. As Doyle opined in GEN, “Spears likely does have a mental illness — she’s undergone psychiatric hospitalizations — but a woman who can raise two young boys while holding down a demanding full-time job as a pop star is not incapacitated to the point that she requires an adult guardian.”
From Talk to Action
The momentum generated by Framing Britney and press reports on the impact of guardianships has led to a discussion of alternatives. It has even prompted bipartisan calls for political action to reform the conservatorship system in California and beyond, which have received widespread news coverage. In an era when Democrats and Republicans can’t seem to agree on anything, guardianship reform seems to be an exception.
Former Arkansas Governor and Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee launched this trend with his February 27 op-ed at FoxNews online. He wrote: “The enormous scope of the conservatorship abuse epidemic goes far beyond Spears, but often gets ignored by mainstream news outlets.”
Huckabee cited dozens of guardianship abuse cases across America, such as that of former court-appointed guardian Rebecca Fierle, “charged with aggravated elder abuse and neglect following the death of a ward in her care. Investigations into Fierle have also allegedly uncovered staggering conflicts of interest and double-billing among hundreds of cases that she handled in the state.” He concluded that the topic “deserves national bipartisan reform and a grassroots campaign to protect the most vulnerable members of our society entrapped by it.”
Less than two weeks later, Congressmen and House Judiciary Committee members Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and Jim Jordan (R-OH) took up Huckabee’s call. Gaetz issued a press release announcing that they had sent a letter to Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, “requesting that the House Judiciary Committee convene a hearing to review and examine the plight of Americans trapped unjustly in conservatorships.” Gaetz stated, “If the conservatorship process can rip the agency from a woman who was in the prime of her life and one of the most powerful pop stars in the world, imagine what it can do to people who are less powerful and have less of a voice.” The letter also cited reports by the federal Government Accountability Office and the Justice Department along with commentary from an ACLU attorney on conservatorship as a disability-rights issue.
The move generated headlines in major media including Vanity Fair and the network news as well as the entertainment press. But while the letter spotlighted the star’s situation to focus on the larger issue of guardianship reform, the headlines tended to overemphasize the celebrity angle. For example: “Republicans Matt Gaetz and Jim Jordan Try to Free Britney Spears” (CBS); “Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz Joins the Fight to Free Britney Spears” (ABC affiliate WPAC); “Gaetz Joins ‘#FreeBritney’ Movement, Calls for Hearing on Conservatorships” (Fox News). Fox News’ piece did include a video segment in which two attorneys debated whether to end Britney’s conservatorship — but passed on the opportunity to discuss the broader pros and cons of the system itself.
Similarly, some media focused mainly on the “Britney vs. Jamie” angle of this story, and her father’s reaction to the Gaetz/Jordan proposal. Such pieces, including NBC’s, leaned pro-conservatorship and mentioned the larger issue only in passing.
Perhaps it is understandable that the press didn’t take the congressmen’s policy proposal too seriously. Gaetz and Jordan are not known for their social-justice credentials. And guardianship laws are made at the state, rather than the federal, level (a point no news outlet bothered to make).
And when allegations emerged linking Gaetz to sex trafficking, the matter dropped from the headlines.
However, legislators in Spears’ home state of California were already in the process of working on bills that, if passed, may lead to actual conservatorship reforms — all inspired by Framing Britney Spears. While headlines about the bills, which appeared in late March, also tended to overemphasize the #FreeBritney angle, the stories themselves explained how the proposed new laws could protect the civil rights of wards and prevent system abuse.
Assembly Bill 1194, introduced by Assemblyman Evan Low (D-28th District), proposes special oversight and training for conservators, imposes penalties for those who don’t act in their ward’s best interest, and guards against conflicts of interest.
Senate Bill 602, by State Sen. John Laird (D-17th District) would increase the frequency of reviews over conservatorships. And Democratic State Sen. Ben Allen’s Senate Bill 724 — passed by the state Judiciary Committee in April and headed for a full hearing — would allow a person subject to conservatorship to choose their own attorney, even when their mental capacity is in question.
The Los Angeles Times’ article even pointed out that some lawyers think the bills don’t go far enough, with one seeing a need for court reform as well and another saying they are too focused on people like Spears and need to look at conservatorship more “holistically.”
MSNBC’s coverage, which spanned both Gaetz’s proposed hearings and the new state laws, featured an interview with Kathy Flaherty, Executive Director of the Connecticut Legal Rights Project, which advocates for low-income individuals in the mental health system. Flaherty noted that people who struggle with mental health conditions can regain the ability to run their lives. She explained that conservatorships are “not necessarily to deprive someone of their rights for their entire life” and enumerated less-encumbering alternatives for assisted decision-making.
Clearly, Framing Britney has led to a change in the public’s view of Spears as somehow incapacitated. And it provided news hooks for many important and overdue conversations. It even prompted political action on guardianship and, by extension, the rights of people with mental illness labels. But these issues are not new. Multiple government reports and investigative article series on problems with guardianship have been published for years — the Associated Press did an exposé as far back as 1987 — only to be forgotten. Why only now are we starting to take both Spears’ case and guardianship abuse seriously?
Part of the change may be cultural. Greater awareness and concern about social justice is now part of the zeitgeist — encapsulated by the social media hashtags #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, and #CriptheVote — and may be lending more credence to the principles animating the #FreeBritney movement and the larger questions it raises.
Also, as P. David Marshall, a professor and research chair in New Media, Communication, and Cultural Studies at Deakin University in Australia, wrote in The Conversation, “A new sense of connection and responsibility to famed individuals is emerging: where once we gawked at the public struggles of Britney, Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, now there is a more concerned response. Audiences have become vocal supporters of the vulnerable, exploring cultural issues in new ways….New norms are developing.”
Jessica Ford, a lecturer in Film, Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Newcastle, echoed this line of thinking in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald: “It’s no longer culturally acceptable to openly ridicule someone for mental health struggles.” Or, one might argue, to assume she needs someone else to run her life.
In the film’s aftermath, there also seems to be a realization that when it comes to guardianship, the stories and voices of those subjected to it matter. This side was often omitted in past coverage of Spears’ struggles, rationalized by the fact that she rarely spoke publicly about her conservatorship — as if silence implies acquiescence. Now that she has voiced a desire, through her lawyer, to remove her father’s power over her life, her perspective is finally being acknowledged and even supported. And a different picture is emerging than when the media focused mainly on the perspective of those who sought to control her.
Last week, the BBC released its own documentary about Britney Spears’ conservatorship. According to a recent Instagram post, the singer feels re-traumatized by such films and wonders why the media focus on her past rather than her future. But if the last few months are any indication, the future of her conservatorship, and the wider topic of guardianship and the civil rights of those deemed mentally ill, will stay in the spotlight — and that offers the possibility of real change.
*Note: Per her request, Britney Spears is scheduled to address the court directly about her conservatorship at a status hearing on June 23.