Oh boy! I get to join in on this general popular culture conversation! I don’t think I have anything new to say, but I am excited to start out the discussion on DCIB because I think this topic is bang on our area of interest.
I grew up knowing almost nothing about modern pop culture, and even I knew about Britney Spears. She was in the People magazines my Mom would buy at the grocery store, and I vaguely remember seeing her in The New Mickey Mouse Club on the TV in the waiting room at my pediatrician’s office. You could say that she broke through to that degree because of the particular tabloid era, the particular obsession with young blonde women, etc. etc. etc. But that doesn’t explain why I remember seeing The New Mickey Mouse Club on TV when I was 8. I think the bottomline is, she broke through to that degree because she is phenomenally talented. Even I who never listened to her music or saw a music video, was drawn in by her pure star power in still photos.
Again, you could say that “star power” is something in born, not even talent really, just a freak of nature. But I think you need to have some real knowledge and intelligence behind it to mold your star power to the degree of the fame Britney achieved. Ultimately, the reason Britney Spears was so famous that even weird little girl Margaret who refused to watch movies or listen to music from after 1964 knew about her, is because of Britney Spears herself.
And now I shall tie this into discussions we have had about Indian film stars! Which isn’t that hard of a leap. Yes, many stars are just freaks of nature, total charisma, with very savvy management teams behind them. And they hit at just the right cultural point and blah blah blah. But, when you are talking top Top tier stars, ultimately the full credit goes to the person themselves. Resisting this logical conclusion reveals a prejudice on the part of the analyst, that’s all. Some reason that they do not want to acknowledge the power and ability of the celebrity as a person.
There can be lots of reasons for a prejudice. Class is a big one. Often entertainment celebrities are the richest people from their class background in the world. If I want to believe that I have some divine right to my position and wealth, based on my education and background and so on, then I have to say that this person could not possibly have achieved what they achieved on their own. They must have had help from some person of the “proper” class. Or, alternatively, they “cheated” somehow. Or just “got lucky”. Anything besides merit.
Gender is the most insidious prejudice, I would argue. It is very VERY rare for a female celebrity to be given credit for her own achievements. Alia Bhatt, Karan Johar is her Svengali. Kajol, she just does what comes naturally to her without thinking. Sridevi, a nice woman who worked hard. And so on and so forth. And of course, Rani Mukherjee, Demon Woman, who dares to be ambitious. Unlike all these other women who just float into fame without really wanting it (sarcasm).
Taylor Swift is another person who is SO famous that she filtered through to my little world. And she has given a lot of really interesting interviews lately about the particular challenge of being a Super Famous woman. One of which is, she got in the habit of NOT taking credit for things. The Label came up with this idea. Or, this other thing just “happened”. Instead of saying, she was sitting there in a marketing meeting and she was the one who said “let’s do this” and that’s what made her song a hit. This isn’t a problem for men. They don’t have to take credit, because they are given credit without needing to take it. But women have to be “unladylike” and fight and scream if they are going to be appreciated for anything besides their ability to follow directions of the men around them.
Okay, back to Britney Spears! As I said, I don’t have anything new to add. I knew the story vaguely as it was happening, and I just binged through the “Pieces of Britney” podcast that sort of summarized her life and her journey in popular culture and stuff. What I hadn’t known until I listened to it was how much Britney WAS in charge of her career. Consistently people who worked with her talk about how it was her idea to try this, or do that. Even something as iconic as the “Hit Me Baby One More Time” video being shot in school girl uniforms with tied up shirts, that was BRITNEY, not her manager or the director or anyone else. And we should find that easy to believe because Britney is the one who went on to massive success for decades later, not all those other people. Obviously she was the smartest person in the room in this particular field.
The narrative around Britney was always her being controlled by the media, by pop culture, by her parents, by her managers, by her label, etc. etc. etc. And that was easy because we have been trained to think of young pretty women as helpless, foolish, controlled. That’s a celebrity narrative that transcends all cultures, famous women aren’t running their own lives, they are “forced” into it somehow. Heck, that’s Madhuri in EVERY MOVIE, the woman who wants to be “virtuous” but somehow is forced into sexy dancing. And that’s Madhuri in real life, the average sweet girl next door who just sort of fell into stardom, not the serious ambitious actress controlling her own image and her own career.
Okay, that’s the gender bit. Moving on, fans!
I knew about “FreeBritney” from back in 2008 when it first started. Again, shocking that it filtered through to my world! But not quite shocking either. I am part of the Britney generation and Britney gender. People in my age group would have Free Britney as a good majority opinion, or at least awareness, unlike the rest of the world. When I was working minimum wage starter jobs, and joining the church youth group, and so on and so forth, the early 20s folks were all about Britney.
The thing with fans is, they connect to the person without the media and handlers and so on interfering. I mean, not really, it’s an illusion. But it is perhaps a closer illusion to reality than the illusion crafted by the larger social conversation. I’ll put it in SRK terms. As fans, we know him as a shockingly intelligent man who loves his wife and kids. He’s a lot more than that, there’s all kinds of things we don’t know. But I think that little bit we see as fans from interacting directly and obsessively with his public self is more accurate than the version of him presented in the larger social conversation to casual observers. SRK as a shockingly intelligent man who loves his wife and kids is way WAY closer to reality than SRK as an egotistical idiot who obsessively cheats on his wife, as presented occasionally by the scummier press.
Britney Spears in the big narrative around her was about the over sexualization of little girls, about talentless hacks with songs written for them, about white trash southern girls who get married too young, etc. etc. But if you were of the age to be her fan, then what you got was a hardworking cheerful kind young woman who was making her own life, and having fun, and helping you to have fun too. There was a reason you listened to and enjoyed Britney songs versus other songs, she wasn’t just repeating what other people did. And she didn’t harm you in any significant way. I mean, by the time a young woman is in her mid-twenties, she should be pretty much able to judge for herself if learning Britney Spears dance moves doomed her to abusive relationships, early sexuality, and all those other scary things.
And so it was this group, this group that related to her directly through her content and didn’t care about the “larger narrative” which recognized the injustice that was happened way WAY sooner than a lot of the observers who pretended some kind of objectivity. I guess my bigger issue is that there is no such thing as objectivity!!!! To pretend objectivity on these kinds of personal issues (gender, mental health, sexuality) is far more dangerous than to acknowledge it and move on from there. “Yes, I am a Britney fan. And I think what is happening to her is wrong.” And on the other hand, I want reporters to say “Yes, I am a privilaged white man who has no concept of what it is to be a young woman under this kind of enormous strain, but I still say that she’s nuts.”
What is super exciting from a fan studies perspective on the Britney story is that the fans are getting 100% vindication in a way that almost never happens! For 13 years, her fans have been saying “this makes no sense, this is not what she would want”. And everyone else has been saying “you’re imagining things, you don’t really know this person, life is complicated etc. etc.” And then bang! Turns out the fans really did have a special connection to this woman, a special disinterested sympathy for her.
So, we shouldn’t dismiss fans so easily. This is the same thing that I see all the time as an SRK fan. The casually observer says “oh yeah, he had an affair with Priyanka, AbRam isn’t his real son, he never does challenging roles, blah blah blah”. The fans say “I have obsessively followed his career, his interviews, his photos, and I know that is not true”. And the response is “oh, you’re a fan, you are prejudiced.” NO! We are fans, which means we are INFORMED. We have data not available to the casual observer which leads to our conclusions.
Okay, time for mental health! Which I have to admit is the thing I am most excited about.
Since forever, the argument that a woman is “crazy” in one way or another has been used as a weapon against her. She is delusional and imagining that rape. She is naive and unable to handle her own money. She is literally mentally ill and therefore must be locked up. In the west, the “hysterical” woman phenomenon is well known and often discussed. And it was a real thing that really happened to a lot of women and was TERRIBLE. Husbands, fathers, brothers, uncles, anyone who wanted to could shove them into a mental asylum just by labeling them “hysterical”. And then they could take their money and power. In other places, it was that she is a witch, she is possessed, she is this, she is that. What it gets down to is a man’s ability to label a woman not to be trusted and immediately be believed. These women are then culled from society, sent to a place where they won’t cause any more trouble for the patriarchy.
These aren’t women who actually are powerful, if they were it would be harder to get rid of them. These are women who have the POTENTIAL to be powerful. Heiresses often, not necessarily of a lot of money. That’s part of what is so sad, for a very small amount of money they could be locked up for the rest of their lives, locked up and forgotten. Because they might dare to take their tiny little funds and set up their own small independent life.
This is the only way it makes sense to look at Britney Spear’s conservatorship. She was a teenage pop star who was given no credit for her own career and her own choices. And so of course, as soon as she hit a rough patch, everyone accepted that of course her father could take legal indefinite control of her life. And of course her father used the weapon of mental health legal prisons, because it is what men have always used and society has always ignored.
I should say that conservatorships/guardianships/whatever are vital tools. My mother was a mental health worker on the frontlines for years and dealt with these concerns on a routine basis. When a person has a serious mental issue, they need a guardian. For basic human needs, shelter, food, hygiene, etc. Here’s an example I know of from a friend, her daughter had a brain tumor as a young child which resulted in a drastic surgery to save her life, leaving her with extremely limited brain matter. Her brother is now her guardian, he helps her find safe independent living apartments, visits her every week, maintains the trust her parents set up, etc. etc. Someone truly HAS to do it, and thank goodness there is a legal function to assign a person, and a person goodhearted enough to do it.
There are guardianships like the one above, that is going to be lifelong. Even longer than that, there is a good chance this woman’s nephew is going to inherit her. But there are also vitally important temporary guardianships. People who have mental breaks and need to be put under holds, who are at risk of forgetting to eat, of sleeping on the street, of refusing medical treatment because they think the doctors are aliens, and so on. They need a temporary guardian to make medical decisions, to pay for vital services, etc. etc. And then once the crisis is over, the guardianship is dissolved.
It’s that last bit, the guardianship being dissolved, that’s the tricky part. Because it is SO ripe for abuse. After all, the point of the guardianship is that the person can’t decide for themselves about anything. So why should we believe them if they say they don’t need a guardian any more? Why should they even bother saying it?
So here is Britney Spears. Her aunt died, her children are taken away from her, the paparazzi are stalking her, and she’s only 26. Just going through a divorce is enough for most average non-famous people to be excused partying, add on being post-partum and everything else, and locking herself in the bathroom when her ex comes to take the kids at the end of a scheduled visit, shaving her head, and crying on the sidewalk seems kind of situational, less than illness. And then her estranged father petitions to be her conservator of her body and her finances. NOT a temporary conservator, an indefinite permanent forever one. An announcement that this woman is forever and ever under the control of her father.
What I find amazing is the cognitive dissonance that all of us, except the fan contingent, have somehow been living within. Yes, we know she continues to have a very successful career, continues to work all the time, continues to give interviews and be a public figure. And yet we accept that she is under extreme legal control, the kind of control that is intended for folks so ill they cannot be trusted to find shelter for themselves. We ignore her success as somehow separate from her. We ignore her fans as prejudiced and foolish. And we ignore her as a person, because she is a woman, and therefore her father has the right to control her at all times.
One final bonus thought, parenting and young stars!
Normal parents are the ones best able to make choices for their children. Because they know them the best, because the only want what is best for them and, MOST IMPORTANTLY, because they are fearless in defending them. So if I am a normal parent, or the child of a normal parent, I will look at these stories of celebrities and go “oh thank goodness, her Dad/Mom is there! So it is all okay.” But sometimes, it isn’t. And the kids are damaged because of that.
The podcast I listened to used a lot of excerpts from Britney’s mother’s memoir. This is her own version of events, this is the version she thinks is sympathetic and kind. And she talks about being lost in fame, confused by media, Britney being managed by bad people, etc. etc. etc. Sure, okay, no one really had experience with this kind of thing before. But her “oh poor confused little me” pose is INFURIATING to me. You are her MOTHER. Especially now when she is supporting Britney in getting out of her conservatorship, indicating that she knew it was damaging. Have some BACKBONE. Get your daughter a lawyer before this! Get yourself a lawyer! You may not have been able to fix things, you may not have known just what to do, but I want some evidence of a fight, any kind of a fight, for her own child. Or at the very least, some sense of shame and guilt for NOT fighting.
The story that is coming out now is Britney as a smart savvy levelheaded hardworking talented young singer. With a silly weak mother, and an angry abusive father. She grew up and got out on her own, picked a kind man to be her husband and rushed into creating a “perfect” family, fell apart when that perfect family fell apart, and then instead of being allowed to grow up, to remarry, to have more children, to do whatever she wanted, she was trapped in this terrible guardianship with a man who didn’t earn the name of “father”. But because we want to believe parents know best and care the most, we resisted this story.
Okay, I don’t think that is all I have, but I can’t keep going forever! Now y’all talk.
UPDATE: Just realized, I should probably quickly summarize the situation I am discussing in case you somehow missed it. Back in 2008, super famous pop star Britney Spears was clearly having a mental health crisis. She was exhibiting all kinds of dangerous behavior and twice put under a 48 hour mental health hold. After the second hold, her father rushed to petition for “Conservatorship” over her. For the past 13 years, Britney has had no financial or physical independence. Her father gave himself a $16,000 a month salary for being her conservator, and gave her a $8,000 a month allowance. In 2008, as soon as she was released from the hospital, she went to a well known lawyer who specialized in these cases (showing she had judgement to pick the right representation) saying she could accept a temporary conservatorship but wanted to be sure that it was NOT her father who was appointed. The lawyer went to court on her behalf and was told that Britney was not judged mentally able to hire her own lawyer, the court was firing him. And then the court appointed a lawyer who quickly agreed to Britney’s father as her guardian. With that kind of a start, obviously Britney was going to give up on ever fighting any of this. Until just this past year or so when a series of events (including her father physically attacking her son leading to her ex-husband filing a restraining order, HOW DID THAT ALONE NOT DISQUALIFY HIM AS A GUARDIAN?!?!?) finally lead to her petitioning the court with a public statement describing the conservatorship as “abusive”, complete with the detail that she was forced to continue taking birth control because her father didn’t want her to have any more children.