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…