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Mental Health Takeaways From the Britney Spears Documentary

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The New York Times Presents documentary “Framing Britney Spears,” which is now streaming on Hulu, spins a tale of the entangled and tragic life of the legendary pop star from her roots as a humble southern child from rural Louisiana to a troubled adult who has been under the conservatorship of her father since 2008.

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While the documentary primarily explores the validity of this conservatorship and concerns about how her father, Jamie Spears, has been holding his daughter essentially hostage against her will for over 12 years, the secondary underlying story is perhaps even more tragic. It depicts the ways in which celebrity itself and its trappings can completely destroy a human being mentally and emotionally and how inherently misogynistic it is.

What is evident from the beginning of the documentary is that her relationship with her father has been fraught since childhood. He was not particularly involved, had trouble maintaining a job and ended up filing for bankruptcy. According to several accounts, all he appeared interested in was Britney’s success finally bringing in some money. Her wholesome girl next door image, talent and work ethic quickly garnered her attention. By 15 she had a recording contract and her career exploded with multiple platinum records and tons of media exposure.

That success came under scrutiny as she straddled the double standard of being sexy but not slutty. She was immediately objectified, becoming the target of hateful and disrespectful rhetoric ranging from questions about her virginity to the wife of the governor of Maryland stating, “If I had an opportunity to shoot Britney Spears, I think I would.”

Her failed relationship with Justin Timberlake provoked even more vile attacks on her and an increasingly toxic relationship with the paparazzi. She is seen on numerous occasions trying to flee the constant intrusions, at one point even saying “I’m scared” to throngs of photographers who prey on her like vultures to capture her every move.

The devolution of her mental health can be directly traced to the constant harassment and abuse she endured from the media. This only worsens once she has her first child and there is a deliberate smear campaign to try to frame her as a bad mother. It’s clear that the constant attention, lack of privacy and pressure to balance stardom with wanting to have a life takes a severe toll on her. 

Her behavior becomes increasingly erratic until at one point she actually attacks a photographers car with an umbrella when he refuses to leave her alone. At this point the media is a feeding frenzy of sharks, gloating about how much she has lost and how great her destruction is for ratings. One can only imagine how trapped she felt, caught in a nightmare of having gotten her wish of becoming famous and then realizing that her dream has become a living nightmare. It’s soul shattering to watch and highlights how fickle our society is. We love a success story, but we love to watch someone self implode even more.

This sets the stage for the ultimate tragedy of her story: Her father filing for conservatorship of her in 2008. Conservatorship is usually reserved for elderly people who are mentally incapacitated. It involves the conservatee relinquishing all of their rights to the conservator, including management of all assets and their estate. Jamie Spear was successful in convincing the court that Britney was sufficiently mentally ill that she was no longer fit to make sound decisions about her life or her finances.

The rest of the documentary follows the purported abuse of conservatorship that Jamie Spears appears to have committed. Under his control, Britney’s career is revitalized and Jamie adopts the role of business manager, committing her to numerous lucrative appearances, performances and sponsorships which earn him huge profits. There is concern on the part of many based upon insider information that Britney is being held against her will and is being forced to work on her father’s terms. 

Fans begin to scrutinize her Instagram account, insisting that she is sending out cryptic messages seeking help. In January of 2019, she cancels her upcoming residency in Las Vegas, her Instagram page disappears and she disappears. There are rumors that she had been voluntarily admitted into a mental health rehab. An anonymous call from a paralegal who had worked for her co-conservator says she was forced into rehab which prompts the #FREEBRITNEY movement to go viral. 

As of today Britney is still under conservatorship, muzzled and unable to speak although she has indicated that she wishes to be freed from her fathers control and has been dubbed as “a high functioning conservatee.” She has allegedly refused to perform until he is out of the picture and she remains missing in action.

Her story raises incredibly important questions and concerns about the ability for someone’s rights as a human being to be so easily revoked. Conservatorship may appear to be a system designed to protect a vulnerable individual, but it places the conservatee in the position of being potentially exploited. And the ability of the conservatee to get out of the conservatorship even if they can prove they are now of sound mind is virtually impossible. There needs to be a serious debate as to what constitutes incapacity based upon mental illness, and systems need to be put into place that enable these individuals to advocate for themselves when abuses arise. 

And finally, Britney’s story isn’t unique in its illustration of how our society fosters a culture of celebrity destruction. So many talented individuals have fallen into the trappings of idolatry and the media hyperfixation on documenting their rise and fall. It’s hardly surprising that addiction to drugs and alcohol become common coping strategies for celebrities who in their desire to gain stardom give up every morsel of independence. We have to ask ourselves why we feel as though celebrities owe us their very humanity? They are not our property, they don’t deserve to be under a microscope 24/7 and they are not on this planet solely for our use and abuse.

Lead image via World of Trailers YouTube page

Originally published: February 10, 2021
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