A legal arrangement called a conservatorship has isolated Britney Spears from the world and constricted her decisions for 13 years. But it hasn’t, apparently, shielded her from what people say about her. On her legendary Instagram feed, selfies and ice-cream pics have sometimes come with captions aimed at rude commenters. One time, she shared a rebuke—KISS MY ASS EAT SHIT AND STEP ON LEGOS—for anyone who thought it was weird how often she uploaded videos of herself dancing alone. Another post, about the glory of New York City doors, contained this note: “Some will say I’m crazy for sharing that but most say that anyways.”
Crazy was the word that chased Spears around, in TMZ headlines and talk-show chatter, for the first decade of her career. As the teen star grew up in public, she did impulsive things: got hitched in Las Vegas, shaved her head, umbrella-thwacked a paparazzo’s car. In retrospect, many of these actions seem intentionally defiant or harmlessly tacky. But at the time, observers tittered with concern and condemnation, creating a doom spiral: Spears’s thrashing against her critics only caused them to criticize her more. Then, in 2008, two psychiatric hospitalizations led to the establishment of the conservatorship that still rules her life and finances today.
Spears’s diagnoses weren’t made public, and the media narrative of “crazy” Britney Spears cooled off as she entered a decade of relatively drama-free album releases, concerts, and perfume ads. Her conservators (including her father, Jamie Spears) haven’t only policed her purchases and movements; they also appear to have forbidden her from improvising in public, whether giving unsanctioned interview answers or making phone calls. But the peaceful facade shattered in June when Spears spent more than 20 minutes in court lambasting the conservatorship as abusive. Her father initially pushed back by indicating that Spears was unwell, yet this month his lawyer filed a petition stating that if Spears “wants to terminate the conservatorship and believes that she can handle her own life … she should get that chance.”
So Spears and the fan-led “Free Britney” movement could soon get what they dream of: her freedom. Spears’s lawyer has moved to end Jamie’s control while preparations are made to fully terminate the conservatorship later this fall. Spears’s next hearing is scheduled for September 29. Already, she appears to be exercising more rights. After telling the court that her handlers had stopped her from getting married and having kids, this month, on Instagram, she announced her engagement to her boyfriend. Congratulations poured in—as did commentary questioning Spears’s judgment or advising that she get a prenup. Soon after, Spears announced a social-media hiatus and deleted her Instagram profile for a few days.
It will surely be a joyful day when Spears is able to do and say whatever she wants—and yet her doing or saying whatever she wanted, in the past, was a problem for a lot of people. Even if the courts agree to give Spears her freedom, what about the prying media and the hypercritical public? Have we changed that much—in how we talk about Spears, about women, about celebrities, and about people who may be experiencing mental illness? What’s ahead may test whether the sympathetic documentaries, podcasts, and articles that masses have consumed about Spears lately represent much more than voyeurism in a virtuous package.
In both obvious and subtle ways, the culture of the 2000s was primed for the torment of someone like Spears. When I reached out to Junior Olivas, a co-manager of the website FreeBritney.army, he sent back a hopeful email that made it sound like Spears was about to conclude a long prison sentence. “She will be emerging as a free human,” he said, “in a different world now than when she went in.”
One of the biggest differences: The gossip industry was at the height of its powers around the time of Spears’s early controversies. New outlets such as TMZ competed with the likes of People and US Weekly for celeb photos, which the paparazzi obtained by swarming their subjects like lice, and which became fodder for novel snark blogs such as Perez Hilton. Internet culture was mature enough to enable deep scrutiny of famous people but young enough to not have many norms about what sort of prying or commentary was out of bounds. Spears was tracked, dissected, and distorted like no one before her.
The paradigm has shifted since then. While dishy publications are still around, they no longer have quite the primacy they once had—because social media has given stars a platform to commodify their own image without an intermediary. Laws passed in California, where Spears lives, penalize photographers who endanger their subjects or harass their children. Fan armies—such as the one driving the Free Britney movement—can wield a sometimes-shocking amount of influence. “Even if tabloids try to spin some narrative,” Olivas said, “the people and celebrities have more control than they ever had in the past.”
Cultural attitudes regarding mental health have shifted too. In the 2000s, reporters breathlessly announced Spears’s “breakdowns,” and commentators called her “insane.” Such language may well have worsened Spears’s situation and fed into deep-seated stigmas. “Back then, I know people who wouldn’t go for mental-health care unless they could park their car far away, because they didn’t want anyone to see them going in,” Katrina Gay, the chief development officer for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said. “There was so much shame.”
Gay identifies a “post-Britney turning point” in public sentiment. Stories like Spears’s, combined with such shocks as the 2014 death of the actor Robin Williams, helped make it safer for celebrities to talk about mental health without being reflexively branded as dangerous or weak. Stars including Lady Gaga and Halsey sing and speak openly about trauma, diagnoses, and treatment. Studies show that the general public has become more okay with discussing mental health and seeking treatment too.
The media have adjusted, and in some cases have collaborated, during this shift. Dan Wakeford, the editor in chief of People, told me in an email that when it comes to covering mental health, these days his magazine seeks to give famous people “the opportunity and safe space to sit down with us and share their personal journey how, and if, they see fit.” Just this week, for example, the magazine hosted a discussion on mental health with the cast of Dear Evan Hansen. The publication’s recent write-ups about stars’ stories of postpartum depression and anxiety are certainly a tonal departure from old cover lines such as “Inside Britney’s Breakdown” and “Britney … Is She a Bad Mom?”
The #MeToo movement—which, among many other things, spotlit the media’s often-unfair treatment of women—helped bring about the conditions in which people could start seeing Spears with more understanding. This year, a receptive public gobbled up The New York Times’ documentary Framing Britney Spears, which portrayed her as a victim of various culprits, some of whom have now issued mea culpas. Spears’s ex Justin Timberlake has apologized for the role he played in her struggles. Celebrity-focused magazines have run think pieces about complicity. Perez Hilton has said that he regrets his cruelty toward Spears and other stars—whom, as he told The Times of London recently, he once treated as characters in an “online soap opera” rather than as flesh-and-blood people.
Yet it would be naive to assume that our culture has evolved so much that it is ready to fully embrace everything Spears’s liberation might mean. After all, some of today’s hottest performers, such as Billie Eilish and Lizzo, certainly aren’t short on complaints about being judged and scrutinized. Although the athletes Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles have taken dramatic steps to preserve their own psychological well-being while in the public eye, they’ve hardly done so without ridicule. Invasive reporting and harsh commentary toward Demi Lovato and Meghan Markle have, by those celebrities’ accounts, made their own mental-health struggles worse than they otherwise might have been.
The impulse to dissect a celebrity’s life, of course, is an irrepressible one. When strangers and acquaintances learn that I write about pop culture, many of them tell me that they’re disturbed by the peculiar things Spears posts on Instagram. Publications such as Newsweek and The Independent regularly turn such sentiments into content by rounding up “concerned” fan comments. If this kind of unease has been bubbling as Spears remains under the tight control of the conservatorship, it’s easy to imagine post-conservatorship scenarios in which “concern” flames up to mockery, condemnation, and assertions that she doesn’t deserve freedom after all.
While many commentators are now gentler than they used to be, “I don’t see any sign of change from the most extreme, tabloid-type media,” Kelly McBride, the chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at the Poynter Institute, told me. “There’s always going to be a huge appetite for gawking at somebody who’s rich and beautiful and spiraling into a disaster.” For a hint of that appetite, look to, say, TMZ’s play-by-play reporting on a recent altercation between Spears and a housekeeper that, ultimately, prosecutors declined to file charges over. (My requests to interview staffers at TMZ, The Daily Mail, Perez Hilton, Hollywood Life, and Us Weekly about how they might cover Spears going forward all went unanswered.)
Given Spears’s history of being tormented by the spotlight, it’s tempting to argue that the best way to cover her would be to not cover her at all. “I hope ‘Free Britney’ gets replaced by ‘Leave Britney Alone’ once she is out,” the podcaster Babs Gray told me, referencing a fan’s slogan that became a viral punch line in 2007. But the media still have a legitimate interest in Spears’s life: She’s an influential celebrity, and politicians are now drafting conservatorship-reform legislation in response to her case. “Leave Britney Alone” in the 2020s just might mean giving her a little more space than she once had. Not every trip to Starbucks needs to be a photo op. Not every quirky statement needs to fuel guessing games about her sanity.
Even so, stars’ mental states do sometimes unavoidably become a topic of conversation. One example: After Kanye West made some jarring public appearances related to his 2020 presidential campaign, his wife, Kim Kardashian, posted about “the pressure and isolation that is heightened by his bi-polar disorder.” I asked McBride how publications should cover celebrities who may be experiencing a psychiatric emergency, and she said that though there’s no easy answer to that question, “I don’t believe that you should look away.” Wakeford, of People, said that his magazine’s job is simply “to follow the facts and report them fairly”—but added that “there have been many times when we decided not to report on a celebrity who may have been struggling with mental-health issues.”
Carefulness can bring its own pitfalls. Some media outlets have moved so far away from acting adversarial that their coverage of Spears can resemble mere cheerleading—which has the possibility of unhelpfully distorting reality as well. After Spears testified in June, McBride said she wished she’d seen a “little more critical analysis” of what Spears had said. Tess Barker, a comedian and journalist whose podcast with Gray helped bring the Free Britney movement to mainstream attention, says she feels that even some of the sympathetic coverage Spears has received lately is patronizing: kid-glove treatment that doesn’t regard her as “a human being.”
What, then, would be the correct way to talk about a free, 39-year-old Britney Spears? If mental health is in play with a story, NAMI’s Gay directs journalists to the many guides that exist on how to responsibly write about the subject: with careful terminology; without speculating or diagnosing from afar; with full context about any conditions or treatments being referred to. McBride pointed out that “there are ways to take what is in the public domain and to help people make sense of it,” and added that she “would be really interested in a column from somebody who had dealt with somebody in a similar situation, comparing their family’s situation to Britney’s situation.” Some recent articles (such as “I Know What It’s Like to Have Your Sanity Questioned,” by Erica Schwiegershausen, at The Cut) and podcasts (such as Barker and Gray’s Toxic) have done just that, and they’ve stood out as exemplary Spears-related journalism.
But “media” these days include more than just professionalized publications—it includes Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other forums for often-anonymous speculation and discussion. Gay said these outlets, where cruelty is “almost a sport,” give her the most concern, and that journalists should take care not to amplify the ugliest social-media messages.
McBride’s advice to the media was simply to “identify the journalistic purpose of every photo we take and every story we do.” She added that observers should be asking questions such as “Why are we chasing her around? … Is this a person who’s in a mental-health crisis or impaired state? And are they willingly participating in this or are they not able to make their own choices? I don’t know that we can answer” these questions, McBride said, “but we should be cognizant” of them.
Keeping such ethical considerations in mind would be a big improvement from what happened in the 2000s, and from what happens in the nastiest corners of the internet today. It would also ideally mean that Spears enjoys whatever freedom she’s able to secure. “I hope she does whatever she wants to do—even if that is going to the gas station without shoes on,” Barker, of the Toxic podcast, said. “This is someone who wasn’t fully allowed to develop as an adult in the way she should have been able to, and I hope that if there is any misstep on her end, she’s given that compassion she deserves.” Such compassion, of course, isn’t deserved just because she’s Britney Spears. It’s deserved because she’s a human being—a fact that has somehow proved easy to forget.