The Eck’s Factor: FREE BRITNEY: When Misogyny Meets Abnormality

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Let’s adventure to one of the most daring facets of pop culture, which this column has yet to traverse. It’s the realm of an era-defining legend, LGBTQ+ icon and groundbreaking musician whose works rival those of Beethoven, the Beatles and Michael Jackson.

That’s right: I’m talking about Britney Spears.   

Rising to stardom at the age of 16 with the release of “…Baby One More Time,” Spears consequently became one of the best-selling music artists of all time. However, with fame comes scrutiny by the media.

In 2007, she experienced a highly publicized and vilified mental health breakdown following sexist paparazzi criticisms of her “sloppy” partying behavior, multiple check-ins to psychiatric institutions and a resultant conservatorship put in place by her father in 2008.  

As the subject of tabloids and editorials for the years to come, Spears’ breakdown stunned the country; how could the dainty Princess of Pop suffer such an immensely drastic fallout after reaching the pinnacle of her career? 

Especially among child stars, society exploits mental health abnormalities by chewing them up and spitting them out for desperate consumption. Through a feminist analysis, we can examine the double-standards upheld by a toxic intersectionality of ableism and sexism. This intersection ultimately highlights how we still approach mental illness; we consistently want to destigmatize it, but once the illness becomes debilitating and beyond the scope of normal, we treat it as taboo instead of humanizing it. 

Hulu’s documentary “Framing Britney Spears,” a behind-the-scenes rundown of Spears’ mental health breakdown and the conservatorship that sparked the “Free Britney movement” on social media, explores Spears’ motives to remove her father from the conservatorship, saying that she is “afraid of him” and would “not perform as long as her father is in charge of her career.” 

A conservatorship is a court ordainment that places an individual or organization in charge of someone else’s assets. This is usually due to an individual’s inability to properly maintain their finances because of a disability, such as dementia or mental illness. Because of this abusive conservatorship, Spears has not been able to make her own decisions about her career, estate or other finances without the jurisdiction of her father since 2008. 

Not uncommon by any means, Spears’ legal case speaks to how difficult it is to release oneself from a conservatorship once implemented. These legal cases are particularly complicated because of the strenuous process for the conservatee to prove that they are able to manage their own life again. Since Spears’ efforts to terminate the conservatorship, her father’s lawyer has made public statements about how fans of Spears “have it so wrong” and how he “saved Britney’s life.” 

From here, we can expand the conversation to the rights of the disabled community and their humanity. Spears has proven through the past decade that she is competent enough to control her own career and life. Why is the legal system and society failing her by defining her life through a human and valid response to the endless misogyny and exploitation she endures? 

Her humanity can be seen in the careers of other childhood stars who Hollywood similarly built up to destroy — for example, Miley Cyrus and Lindsay Lohan and their “radical shifts” from childhood sweetheart to “off the rails” Disney disasters. In a recent op-ed published by the New York Times, Mara Wilson, star of “Matilda,” opened up about Hollywood’s mistreatment of girls and drew comparisons between the media’s sexualization and harassment of herself and Britney Spears. 

Sexualization of childhood stars such as Mara Wilson and Spears parallels harassment by the media. Once these stars become women, paparazzi nitpick and scrutinize every aspect of their life in a twisted double-standard. Justin Timberlake, Spears’ ex-boyfriend, recently apologized for confiding to media outlets that they had slept together and accusing her of cheating on him. Naturally, these comments had not affected Timberlake but only magnified the media’s obsession with Spears. 

The behavior of the media and their obsession with stars going ‘off the rails’ demonstrates how these stigmas plague our society. They manifest in the form of microaggressions particularly targeting women; for instance, the “crazy woman trope,” where women are repeatedly stereotyped as insane in film. This pervades into a culture where we have normalized saying “I’m insane” or “I’m toxic and manipulative” as quirky and glorified attributes. Despite the offense in these comments, we still affirm each other that mental health should be an open dialect. 

But as soon as mental illness becomes “uncomfortable” by society’s standards, we back away from our vows to combat the stigma. As soon as major depression is no longer just “being sad” but a debilitation so severe that one cannot even hold a job, we throw our compassion out the window and isolate the person with the disability. As soon as “bipolar” is more than just mood swings and a convenient label to attach to oneself when they are experiencing the usual highs and lows of life, we take a step back, initiate 5150 and allow a corrupt justice system to handle and objectify those who are most vulnerable to its injustice. 

The Free Britney movement should ultimately serve as a wake-up call to the systemic ableism that affects the millions of Americans impacted by a debilitating mental illness annually. It is not supposed to be a glamorous topic for people’s enjoyment and appropriation. After all, freeing Britney will not free everyone else afflicted with mental illness in abusive conservatorships.

Matthew Eck is a junior writing about hot-button social issues. His column, “The Eck’s Factor,” runs every other Wednesday.