A new documentary from The New York Times entitled Framing Britney Spears has reignited interest in the plight of the Princess of Pop. The documentary focuses on the media scrutiny encountered by Spears and how matters of mental health were reported on.  For the past 13 years, Spears, one of the most commercially successful entertainers of all time, has been under a conservatorship. This is a legal arrangement granted by the courts whereby a guardian is appointed (in this case Spears’ father Jamie) to control the daily life and financial affairs of the conservatee. It is implemented when a person is not capable of caring for themselves or making informed decisions, for example, due to severe mental illness. Spears’ conservatorship came into effect after her highly publicised break-down in 2007 and is still in place to this day.

Britney Spears burst onto the music scene in 1999 at the age of 17 with the mega-smash hit …Baby One More Time. Spears was already a veteran entertainer by this point, having cut her teeth on The Mickey Mouse Club along with fellow performers Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake. Spears’ career sky-rocketed, and she became the best selling teenage artist of all time. Her captivating star quality made her a figure of obsession, not only for her die-hard fans but also the unrelenting paparazzi. Their constant scrutiny of Spears would culminate in a major break-down in 2007.

Framing Britney Spears highlights the misogyny and disrespect shown towards women by the media. While still a teenager, interviewers questioned Spears about her virginity. Numerous interviews show Spears in distressed floods of tears at the line of questioning directed at her. Following her breakup with long-time boyfriend Justin Timberlake, he gave interviews mocking her and detailing their sex life. In the coming years, Spears’ public image took a beating.  She was caught driving with her child on her lap and there were rumours of hard-partying. Following the break down of her marriage to Kevin Federline, Spears spent time in psychiatric and rehab facilities. In 2007, while being followed by paparazzi, Spears went into a hair salon and shaved off all her hair. Pictures of this incident were splashed across the media. Headlines mocked and made fun of a person in mental distress. If the most famous woman in the world is laughed at and ridiculed, how did this make average people feel about opening up about their mental health issues? How the media covered Britney’s plight only served to reinforce the stigma around mental health.

In 2008, Britney’s conservatorship was put in place. Since then, she has recorded numerous albums and toured the world several times. There is a marked decline in the quality of her performances post-2008. This would suggest that either Spears’ mental state is serious enough to warrant a conservatorship and she is being taken advantage of by being forced to work to excess, or she is capable of managing her life efficiently and deserves to be free. Fans have been campaigning for justice for Britney Spears for several years, resulting in the emergence of the #FreeBritney movement in 2019. The goal of this movement is to liberate Britney from her conservatorship. Fans believe this is being used as a means for her father to unduly control Britney.

Britney, for her part, has remained quiet on this issue. Since her conservatorship began, she has given very few interviews. She has never spoken publicly about her conservatorship or her struggles with mental health.  In the wake of the documentary, Justin Timberlake has issued a public apology to Britney for the way he treated her after their break-up. Spears’ father has also had his bid for increased power over her conservatorship denied by the courts. One can only hope that these are steps towards Spears becoming a woman who is no longer bound in chains as a ‘Slave 4 U.’ Society must strive to ensure no-one is stigmatised because of their mental health.